A university student recently surfed the Internet on behalf of Hercules Inc., a chemical company in Wilmington, Del., to check if Polysurf or any of the company's other trademarked products were being incorporated into Internet addresses, or URLs, of competing firms.
After typing in "polysurf.com," the student found a Web site for a California surf shop. Company executives were no doubt surprised that someone on the opposite coast had already grabbed a potentially valuable URL.
Although Hercules can't use that address, even if it owns the trademark for Polysurf, the company is still fortunate, mainly because there's little chance of a market collision between the two businesses.
But others aren't so lucky.
Companies that don't monitor the Internet for intellectual property, brand or trademark offenders may be playing online roulette- or missing out on huge marketing opportunities.
Either way, they need to keep their ears and eyes open on the Web.
"There's a community of customers talking out there, and if you don't know about it, or let the abuse go on, you may find yourself in a less defensible position," said Ralph Oliva, executive director at the Institute for the Study of Business Markets at Penn State University's Smeal College of Business Administration. He explains that companies with a history of not protecting their trademarks often risk losing them.
Yet many employers are lukewarm about performing online searches, sometimes blaming a lack of in-house resources. Oliva said a gold mine of talent usually sits right in their own backyard: college students, such as the one who helped Hercules Inc. as part of an intern program with the ISBM. The student checked Web sites of competitors up and down the supply chain, as well as ancillary Web sites owned by potential rivals.
"They really bring a fresh perspective and are quite good at discovering," Oliva said. "It's an affordable way to add bandwidth to a task like this."
Many companies begin their online searches by adding various extensions to their brand names, including those used for common graphic formats such as .tif, .gif, .jpg, .bmp or .wmf. Any content mentioning their product names will be flagged, along with sites bearing their company logo, said David Blumstein, national sales director at CyberAlert Inc., an Internet monitoring and Web clipping service in Stratford, Conn.
"Use search engines that permit Boolean search terms such as 'or,' 'and' or 'not' to help maximize the number of relevant hits," he said, explaining that a search for "computers and fish" will yield an entirely different result than "computers or fish."
Still, he said, manual Internet searches are very difficult to perform and can't compare to automated search programs like those used by CyberAlert, which scan 2,700 daily publications, three public search engines and 63,000 Usenet groups. Blumstein added that public search engines typically don't scan business sites or daily newspapers. Moreover, sites such as Yahoo! only index the Internet, on average, every eight to 10 weeks. That means if a Web site is developed today, a public search engine may not pick it up for several months, he said.
Almost every search produces surprising results, Blumstein said. He cited the story of a printer manufacturer who recently learned through a search that one of its dealers was selling the maufacturer's refurbished printers as new and wasn't honoring warranties or offering refunds.
If you can't beat 'em
Not every situation involving an abused brand or stolen intellectual property ends up being tarnished. Some turn into gold.
Rather than using a legal defense, marketing departments are now turning brand abuses into revenue opportunities, said Richard Moore, VP-sales and marketing for Cyveillance Inc., an e-business intelligence company in Arlington, Va.
He said online abuses can present tremendous partnering opportunities for companies and generate big bucks if revenue leakage is properly managed. To be successful at it, however, companies must understand how to leverage themselves and prioritize companies to target, he said.
"Many look at the Internet in a very defensive way, but it's one large focus group that can help you make a lot of money," Moore said. "Just think big. Think marketing. Think profit."