Business & Economics

When Microsoft threatened to sue us over the letter ‘E’

Steve Blank

By 1997 E.piphany was a fast-growing startup with customers, revenue and something approaching a repeatable business model. Somewhere that year we decided to professionalize our logo (you should have seen the first one.) With a massive leap of creativity we decided that it should it should have our company name and the letter “E” with a swoop over it.

E.piphany logo1997 was also that year that Microsoft was in the middle of the browser wars with Netscape. Microsoft had just released Internet Explorer 3 which for the first time was a credible contender.  With the browser came a Microsoft logo.  And with that same massive leap of creativity Microsoft decided that their logo would have their product name and the letter “E’ with a swoop over it.

One of E.piphany’s product innovations was that we used this new-fangled invention called the browser and we ran on both Netscape and Microsoft’s. We didn’t think twice about.

That is until the day we got a letter from Microsoft’s legal department claiming similarity and potential confusion between our two logos.

Internet Explorer logoThey demanded we change ours.

I wish I still had their letter. I’m sure it was both impressive and amusing.

I had forgotten all about incident this until this week when Doug Camplejohn, E.piphany’s then VP of Marketing somehow had saved what he claims was my response to Microsoft’s legal threat and sent it me.  It read:

Response letter to Bill Gates

Dear Bill,

We are in receipt of your lawyer’s letter claiming Microsoft’s ownership of the look and feel of the letter “e”. While I understand Microsoft’s proprietary interest in protecting its software, I did not realize (until the receipt of your ominous legal missive) that one of the 26 letters in the English language was now the trademarked property of Microsoft.

Given the name of your company, claiming the letter “e” is an unusual place to start. I can understand Microsoft wanting exclusive rights to the letter “M” or “W”, but “e”?  I can even imagine a close family member starting your alphabet collection by buying you the letters “B” or “G” as a birthday present. Even the letters “F” “T” or “C” must be more appealing right now then starting with “e”.

In fact, considering Microsoft’s financial health and legal prowess you may want to consider buying a symbol rather than a letter. Imagine the value of charging royalties on the use of the dollar “$” sign.

I understand the legal complaint refers to the similarities of our use of “e” in the Epiphany corporate logo to the “e” in the Internet Explorer logo.  Given that the name of my company and the name of your product both start with the same letter, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why we both used the letter in our logos, but I guess it has escaped your lawyers.

As to confusion between the two products, it is hard for me to understand why someone would confuse a $250,000 enterprise software package (with which we require a customer to buy $50,000 of Microsoft software; NT, SQL Server and IIS), with the free and ever present Internet Explorer.

Given that Microsoft sets the standard for most things in the computer industry, I hope we don’t open the mail next week and find Netscape suing us for using the letter “N”, quickly followed by Sun’s claim on
J”.  Perhaps we can submit all 26 letters to some sort of standards committee for arbitration.

Come to think of it, starting with “e” is another brilliant Microsoft strategy.  It is the most common letter in the English language.

Steve Blank

Epilogue

Given that later that year Microsoft ended up being a large multi-million dollar E.piphany customer, all I can assume is that cooler heads prevailed (more than likely our new CEO,) and this letter was never sent and the threatened lawsuit never materialized.

Ironically, since the turn of the century Microsoft has done great things for entrepreneurs. Their BizSpark and DreamSpark programs have become the best corporate model of how a large company can successfully partner with startups and students worldwide.

But I am glad we helped keep the letter E in the public domain.

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