's Brand Bust

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - has worked hard to make a name for itself as an online resource for independent contractors. Now it hopes to turn that brand into IPO gold. The problem is, the name may not be the company's own.

A document recently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission reveals that the San Jose Mercury News is challenging FreeAgent's right to use the name. If the paper wins, FreeAgent investors could end up paying big.

"We have expended, and will continue to spend, substantial amounts in order to promote the brand name, the benefits of which would be lost if we could no longer use that mark," warned FreeAgent in the SEC document. "In addition, we would need to incur substantial new expenses to promote a new brand name." The firm filed to go public in late December.

According to the filing, the Mercury News sent a letter to FreeAgent in July demanding that it stop using the name, citing a federally registered trademark belonging to the newspaper. Representatives from the Mercury News did not return phone calls, and FreeAgent officials declined to comment.

In a world awash with dot-coms vying for attention, brand names are more important than ever. Nonetheless, trademark disputes are growing more common, according to Sally Abel, a Silicon Valley attorney. One of the Internet's best-known names,, recently settled with a bookstore in Minnesota after its trademark was challenged.

Tod Francis, a partner at venture capital firm Trinity Ventures and a former marketer, says startups frequently fail to give enough thought to choosing a name. "This is somewhat new territory" for many, he says. "Many people are entering into this [brand-intensive] space for the first time."

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