Yes, I completely understand. Facebook did not change its trademark because Facebook was a lousy trademark, despite what I may have thought.
But Facebook engaged in what might be an almost unprecedented un-branding effort. The hope is not to turn away from all the significance, notoriety and goodwill of the “Facebook” trademark which has accumulated ever since the company’s founding. The usual idea with a trademark is to build goodwill and to exploit that and expand; Facebook has done that over time.
The business and political winds – the business of the political situation – have pointed Facebook right into almost impossible headwinds. Anyway, we all know about the negative associations which have saddled Facebook in a number of quarters.
Much ink has been spilled (zillions of pixels have been powered) discussing whether “Meta” is a good choice. Purely from the perspective of a trademark lawyer, as un-great as “Facebook” may have been, the new name, after letting it sink in for a couple weeks, still shows the new name to be meta-weak. There are over 800 other trademarks which use “Meta” in the U.S.A. alone. Since just the beginning of this year, there have been almost 100 U.S. trademark applications filed for marks including the word “Meta” or using “Meta” as a prefix. Much of the industry discussion has focused on a prior trademark owner and their $20 Million demand, generally dubbed a giant misstep by Facebook.
But I am pretty confident that Facebook has not rushed into this. A company in this position would dig deep, and they would tend to look far and wide to see what names are available to them around the world. No one wants to choose a mark that someone else owns, or sends a nicely engraved invitation to be held up for big-time ransom money. In most cases, the triple-headed monster of legal uncertainty, potentially huge litigation costs, and terrible publicity can come from trying to steamroll someone else’s rights.
This is not most cases. In this unusual situation, a company like Facebook can painlessly afford whatever challenges it faces, and whatever damages it could be condemned to pay, in one or any number of lawsuits. If this is the name they want, it is the name they would adopt. What I would presume Meta seems to be trying to accomplish is to distance itself from Facebook baggage related to bad publicity and to a business model which is far more restrictive than their current work and ambitions. In that type of calculus, for a wealthy international giant, the discussion of conventional risks such as the costs of trademark litigation and entanglements are probably immaterial. The risk of bad publicity will always take a seat at the table, but the question will be whether the damage could be irreparable, or whether it is just a storm to be waited out.
Such a wide-ranging, decision-making discussion is almost never an option for a startup. In the normal course of business, it is rarely even the case for multibillion-dollar global corporations, which in most circumstances do not want to be distracted with the time and expense of trademark litigation, and which do not want to invite reputational harm. Almost every single time, companies large and small, old and new, will do their homework to narrow and avoid the risks.
Is “Meta” easy to understand and easy to pronounce globally? That is a factor. If this were a brand-new trademark – say, if “Facebook” had never existed and they were trying to decide between these two marks to name their company – choosing “Meta” over “Facebook,” global adaptability will be an important consideration favoring a word which can be easily pronounced on a global basis. But one of the major factors in adopting a trademark is not just how it sounds, but how well you can protect that mark when it has similarities to a lot of other trademarks. The risk of a claim against you is always going to increase dramatically if a mark is going to be used worldwide. Think of the possible risk factors in over 150 countries nationwide where you would typically look to protect the trademark.
This is not to say that I have researched the mark “Meta” on a global basis. But experience teaches that they may well be facing risks all over the place. This is usually the situation with a very simple four-letter trademark with a popular connotation (which they admit is designed to invoke the metaverse).
Ultimately, in the unique situation which governs selecting a new name like this, the only question is whether there is a real showstopper, like a direct competitor which will not back down and cannot be bought off. Companies with the global resources of Facebook, coupled with a strong motivation which you have to assume comes directly from the CEO and largest shareholder, can do things that defy convention and ignore budgets.
“Meta” may be a perfectly fine trademark, and perhaps it is even the best trademark that they could have found from a legal protectability and risk-management standpoint. But most of the time, once the research starts and the analysis begins, it is often not an especially attractive alternative.
So, as I have cautioned before – “don’t try this at home.” Companies should take no guidance from the fact a savvy company like Facebook has come up with the name “Meta.”