Research In Motion is suing hand-held device maker Samsung, claiming the company is causing confusion and diminishing the brand power of RIM’s BlackBerry by selling a smartphone known as the BlackJack.
In a suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Waterlook, Ontario-based RIM asked a judge to issue an injunction ordering Samsung to stop selling its BlackJack and Black Carbon lines of phones.
The suit also claims that the rival is guilty of “false designation of origin,” or of misleading consumers by suggesting the devices are somehow related to the BlackBerry.
“Samsung is misleading the public into falsely believing that Samsung’s goods and services are connected with RIM’s business,” the suit states.
Neither RIM nor the U.S. headquarters of Korea-based Samsung returned calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The BlackJack phones have similar functionality to the BlackBerry hand-held, which is used by some 6 million people in the U.S. to retrieve and send e-mail when they are away from their computers. The BlackJack device uses Microsoft Mobile 5.0 operating software to enable users to retrieve e-mail and do other work while on the road.
The BlackBerry remains atop the mobile push e-mail hierarchy, in part by virtue of being an early arriver in the market, and because of the functionality of the device — its addictive nature has earned it the nickname of crackberry.
Samsung’s phone is aimed more at consumer users, with a more modest price tag than top-end BlackBerry hand-helds and more entertainment functionality, such as a built-in MP3 music player.
Still, RIM has begun to show an increased interest in targeting the consumer market, rolling out the BlackBerry Pearl and other less expensive devices during 2006.
Regardless, RIM apparently feels its device’s brand name is in danger of becoming watered down by generic use, with consumers referring to any of a number of hand-held devices that have e-mail functionality as BlackBerries.
Other brands have suffered similar fates. Xerox, for instance, became a synonym for a photocopy, and Kleenex, the brand name, is often used to refer to any type of tissue.
Others have seen fit to attempt to borrow some of the BlackBerry name recognition. In China, state-run telecom concern Unicom recently launched the RedBerry device, even as RIM is seeking permission to launch its own service into that booming economy. To date, RIM has not taken any action against the RedBerry.
RIM is certainly seeing the BlackBerry’s list of competitors grow almost by the day. Motorola unveiled its Q device in time for the holidays, while Palm has rolled out new versions of its Treo hand-held with more e-mail functionality.
Meanwhile, other technologies to enable more affordable mobile e-mail services are being brought to market, such as Berggi, a company that promises to turn traditional cell phones into e-mail reading smartphones with its software plug-in.
“BlackBerry has seen its virtual lock on the mobile e-mail device under siege,” said telecom analyst Jeff Kagan. “Now, they are concerned that their brand will be watered down and people will stop distinguishing between true BlackBerries and other devices that do the same things but aren’t RIM software or hardware.”
Although the BlackBerry has had strong early adoption, the sheer size of the consumer and business markets for mobile e-mail connectivity will ensure that many players can find their niche, Kagan added. “People clearly associate the BlackBerry with mobile e-mail,” he concluded.
Still, such trademark cases are difficult, though not impossible, to win. Over the years, Microsoft has managed to successfully keep companies away from using variations on the Windows brand name — it won a settlement to force the makers of Linux-based operating system Lindows to change its product name to Linspire, for instance.
More recently, Universal Tube sued YouTube.com and Google, seeking to recoup costs caused when traffic seeking the video-sharing site crashed the UTube.com domain name, where Universal Tube sold industrial piping supplies.