Facebook is shaping up to be the disruptive mobile player du jour — and it looks like Google (NSDQ: GOOG) might be taking some steps with its Gingerbread OS to curtail just how deeply Facebook can spread its influence on Android devices — but here’s a story related to the “Facebook phone” that, for once, doesn’t involve the social network directly. HTC is getting sued by the mobile Q&A company ChaCha for trademark infringement over the HTC ChaCha — its new smartphone that features a dedicated Facebook button.
In a case filed with the U.S. Southern District Court of Indiana against HTC America, Inc. and HTC Corp., ChaCha Search, Inc., ChaCha Search alleges that HTC’s use of the term ChaCha for its new device could confuse customers.
The company is asking the court to order a preliminary injunction against HTC, and it is also requesting an order for unspecified damages.
(That description of the case comes from Wireless Week; we’re still trying to source the actual filing to verify this and see what other details are there. We have also contacted ChaCha for more detail, but a company spokesperson says that he cannot comment on a legal case.)
ChaCha has held a registered trademark in the U.S. since 2007. The description seems to imply that the trademark relates to both the words themselves as well as the logo of the company (pictured).
The company has up to now mainly made a business out of offering a Q&A service to users, using a crowdsourced army of paid “guides” to provide answers. The company mainly uses the SMS channel for its free Q&A service, and it also sells advertising and sponsorships alongside the responses. In its last reported usage statistics, the day after the Super Bowl weekend, the company noted that questions on chacha.com jumped to over 1.6 million on Saturday and Sunday each, compared to the average of 1 million per day. On the Sunday, ChaCha also noted that nearly 2 million questions came in via mobile SMS, “beating out the previous record of 1,948,370 set last Thanksgiving.”
The HTC ChaCha, meanwhile, is an Android-based smartphone that is due to ship later this spring. The device was hyped up during the Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona, and it’s just one of the current crop of mobile initiatives that are taking Facebook deeper into the mobile world through use of the social network’s APIs.
HTC’s banking on targeting the more die-hard of Facebook fans, who use the service as their main hub for communications, and would potentially use it even more if it were easy to do so. This device might be the answer to that: it features a special “f” key that users can press to automatically share content via Facebook, as well as use it to directly access other parts of the social network, rather than navigate to a Facebook app to do so.
How likely is it that ChaCha will get anywhere with this suit? Let’s compare it to yesterday’s other trademark suit, between Xoom Corporation and Motorola Mobility:
Xoom’s lawsuit seems to have been somewhat ill-timed if their main hope was for an injunction on the device — the suit was filed the day before the device actually went on sale with Verizon, after weeks of buildup (and that debut went ahead without any legal halt). In contrast, ChaCha is getting its complaint in early, and that might give it some time to get its ducks in line. The HTC ChaCha has yet to ship, although AT&T (NYSE: T) has already been revealed as the exclusive launch partner in the U.S. sometime this spring.
As Florian Mueller pointed with the Xoom case, what will matter to the court is whether ChaCha can prove that consumers might mistake one ChaCha for the other.
Given that ChaCha is first and foremost a mobile service, and is built on something of a social-networking premise — “ChaCha is like having a smart friend you can call or text for answers on your cell phone anytime for free” writes the company on its website — the searching ChaCha might just have a case here.
In the meantime, I thought it was worth asking ChaCha itself whether it had a shot:
Looks like I might need to register before a “smart friend” can help.