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Microsoft’s SkyDrive hits trademark trouble in Europe

Microsoft might have seen this one coming.

You’d think Microsoft would have learned its lesson about trademarks and the European Union, but apparently not.

A court in the U.K. says the name of Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service violates BSkyB’s trademark on the word sky because it could confuse consumers into thinking SkyDrive is a service of BSkyB, which provides cable TV, including shows sent via the Internet, and acts as an ISP. It also offers TV channels called Sky Moves and Sky Sports, and sells platforms called Sky+, Sky Digital and Sky Broadband.

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The ruling endangers Microsoft’s right to use the name SkyDrive throughout the European Union, and the company has appealed.

Last year, Microsoft ran afoul of Metro AG, a German retail operation that, among other things, runs consumer electronics stores. It has Metro trademarked, and bristled when Microsoft called its Windows 8 user interface Metro. Microsoft backed off and now calls it the Modern interface.

In the case of SkyDrive, Microsoft contends in a lawsuit that the BSkyB claim to certain aspects of its trademark shouldn’t have been granted in the first place and therefore the name SkyDrive isn’t in violation.

Microsoft says BSkyB revised its trademark claims with the stated purpose of giving up some of what the trademark covered. But what the revisions actually did was expand the specifics of what types of business the trademark covers so it overlaps with what SkyDrive does, Microsoft says.

Microsoft also contends that the word sky is commonly recognized as relating to cloud storage and therefore is a descriptive term that cannot be trademarked. But the judge disagreed," says Justice Sarah Asplin. “They did not necessarily relate to online storage.”

So far the judge sides with BSkyB.

When Microsoft started selling cloud storage services in the U.K. under the name SkyDrive the service had some glitches. Some customers contacted BSkyB for help because they thought SkyDrive was a BSkyB service, Asplin wrote in her decision. That demonstrated that the name SkyDrive clearly confused consumers and bolstered the argument that SkyDrive violates BSkyB’s trademark on the word sky.

BSkyB launched its lawsuit in June 2011. BSkyB had 4.1 million broadband customers in the U.K. in 2010.

If Microsoft wins its appeal, then SkyDrive and the associated expense of establishing it as a brand will be justified. If not, Microsoft could have to change the name yet again (it used to be Windows Live SkyDrive) and perhaps pay fines. The biggest penalty there will be loss of a name that people are coming to associate with part of the Windows 8 package.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

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