Are you an entrepreneur, investor or employee working in a company that does business ethically?
If that’s a ‘yes’, then what I’m about to reveal, will make you pick up your sword and join our battle.
All your hard work, sweat and blood to establish your business gets rewarded by your customers…
People take notice of your product…
People talk about you…
But then one fine day… a mean green Fortune 500 company steps forward, takes the unethical route, and steals all your hard-earned audience!
This is either already happening to your company, or is likely to in the near future.
So stick with me, and you’ll see how nasty this game turns…
Imagine an instance where you come across a product (in this case, let’s assume it’s Flintobox) through a newspaper article/Facebook post/casual mention from a friend, etc., and want to either know more about the product or purchase it. You quickly take your phone out of your pocket, head to the planet’s favourite search engine ‘Google’, type ‘Flintobox’ and hit enter.
The results pop up.
The first ad you read shows ‘Flintobox at Amazon’.
Something like this:
You click it.
You land on an Amazon list page.
You scroll down, puzzled.
Because there’s absolutely no sign of anything related to ‘Flintobox’.
Get the picture?
Amazon, the biggest online retailer on planet Earth, used Google to steal a prospective buyer of Flintobox, and instead introduced them to some of their (rather irrelevant) products.
How unethical is that?!
Well, this is exactly what happened with us!
And this is just part of our story…
When we approached these two Biggies (Amazon & Google) to sort the issue, the responses we received were pretty outrageous!
It appears that these sharks are so hungry that they will go to any murky extent to eat that extra piece of cake — from the aspiring Nemos who have something to prove.
Over the last three years, as a young Indian startup, Flintobox has been on a mission to engage children meaningfully at home — and away from addictive gadgets and TVs. You can take a look at what we do @ www.flintobox.com.
Our attempts in solving these parenting challenges were well received and were catching the attention of parents from across the country… when this happened.
In any industry there will be competition; and at Flintobox, we love to take our competitors head-on with the work we do and the products we produce.
I’m sure you’d agree that both these US based companies are undoubtedly making a huge impact on the Indian economy — with the employment entrepreneurial opportunities that they have been generating.
And though we highly respect these companies for the work they do, it appears that they may have skipped one or two moral science lessons in school.
For starters, Amazon ate up our traffic
Over the past 2 years, ‘Flintobox’ has been our trademarked keyword.
Which means… no other company can actually use this keyword in their ad.
But Amazon did exactly this to unethically mislead our customers.
And since the word ‘Flintobox’ holds no other meaning than the ‘brand’ itself, this pretty much screams out that Amazon has been blatantly violating the trademark policy!
This really puzzled us…
Why would a company as big as Amazon want to steal traffic from us?!
Or was some merchant listed on Amazon trying a shady tactic to grab our customers’ attention?
The ad copy, which read “Brands: Barbie, Creative Aids, Fisher-Price, Funskool, etc.”, however, led us to think otherwise.
Even if you search for ‘Flintobox’ on the Amazon site, it just lists a bunch of unrelated products!
So we went ahead and raised a complaint with Amazon and this is the reply we received…
A standard denial that these ads are not run by Amazon and that the issue would be forwarded for further investigation.
No deadlines, no reassurances, nothing.
Sadly, we received no further correspondence whatsoever from Amazon.
When Google joined in for Main Course
We parallely submitted our trademark documents to Google, and finally the misleading ad by Amazon was removed. Furthermore, Google even confirmed that going ahead, no competitor would run ads for the ‘Flintobox’ keyword.
Ta-da! We patted our backs for getting a solution from the Big G thinking they played fair.
But little did we know that the smarty-pants at Amazon were staring hungrily with a magnifying glass and burning the midnight oil to find loopholes in Google’s trademark policies.
How do we know this?
Because one month later, we saw the following ad pop up for our trademarked ‘Flintobox’ keyword.
We shot an email to Google and here’s what they replied…
So, this is the loophole in Google’s ad policy.
A trademarked keyword can be split and used in an ad for that trademarked keyword.
Amazon smartly used Flinto (space) box to exploit Google’s ad policy.
Google was already one step ahead by constructing an easily-violatable policy that would help them make money from both parties.
As if that’s not enough…
We soon realized that Google allows advertisers to bid for any keyword they want — even if the keyword has been trademarked.
So, any competitor who wants to steal Flintobox’s traffic can approach Google, pay an extra load of cash, and buy that traffic.
No ethics, no morals, only business.
We understand if other ads pop up when the search term is, say, ‘Flintobox competition’. But in this case, a trademarked brand term, which has no meaning other than the brand itself, has been used to misdirect users to a completely different page to make money out of that.
Isn’t that hitting an all new level of low?!
We once again wrote to Amazon highlighting the issue, as we believed that stealing Flintobox’s traffic was probably not Jeff Bezos‘ top priority! It could have been an enthusiastic chap in Amazon’s marketing department who was trying to get extra sales for the eCommerce category he was responsible for.
But the reply we got from Amazon was… funny.
We got the same templated email that we received a month ago, with not a word changed except for the sender’s name.
And here’s what we shot back…
This simply proved that the emails we sent to Amazon had not been read, and that a convenient autoresponder shoots the same response every single time.
We even sent a follow-up email pointing this out, and requested a reply from a human being — but once again, we were left disappointed.
So what now?
Well, here’s some food for thought…
Although the Government’s policies promoting startups are promising, they should also look into the issue of foreign companies in India overpowering the smaller Indian companies with their dominance.
Even if some Indian companies take the legal route, foreign companies are well aware that, given the scheme of things with the Indian Judicial System, justice will take time to be delivered.
Sort of reminds you of the time when The East India Company set foot in India, let the Indian princely states fight amongst each other, and ultimately benefitted from the battle.
Or to put it in Julius Caesar’s words… They came, they saw… and they ate up all our food!
But this is not just our fight.
If you’re an entrepreneur, investor or employee working in a company that does business ethically, this is your fight too.
What we want from you is your support. We need you to step up and ensure these foreign companies don’t step out of line.
Spread the word and tell the world that this needs to end before all the Nemos go missing.
Update on 20/12/2016
A huge shout-out to each of you out there — your support, tweets, re-tweets, shares and comments helped our post go viral on social media. And thanks to that, after 5 months of disregarding all our emails, chats and phone calls, Amazon finally woke up from its deep slumber… but only to come up with a response that raised more questions than answers.
Take a look at their 4-part response…
To begin with, let’s take a deep look at Amazon’s callous approach towards trademark violations and the law of the land.
@flintobox Our automated systems pick keywords based on what users search and buy. Amazon follows all copyright and ¼ ^RR
— Amazon Help (@AmazonHelp) December 20, 2016
In their words, “Automated systems pick keywords based on what users search and buy.”
If we were to believe that this was purely the job of an automated system, then explain this…
In Sept 2016, when we submitted our trademark documents to Google, the Amazon ads with the keyword ‘Flintobox’ was removed by Google. But right after that, we started seeing ads with ‘Flinto (space) box’.
So was this the algorithm getting smarter or the people behind the algorithm getting manipulative?!
And if what they say about automated systems is true… then that means, companies like us, that put in a whole lot of effort and money to build a brand, and eventually get people to search online for it, have these automated systems at Amazon comfortably pick our branded keywords (not caring a damn whether they are trademarked or not!), create ads on Google, and steal potential traffic!
Please note — we have no problem at all if the automated systems were pulling out general keywords, but this is about ‘trademarked’ ones.
And as much as they may love their automated systems, they need to ensure that they put an end to the glaring infringement of trademarks!
This basically goes to show that Amazon has zero respect for trademark keywords of a brand, zero respect for the laws governing trademarks in India and zero respect for the Indian startup ecosystem.
And clearly all Indian companies, however small or big, and their trademarks, are mere keywords for Amazon!
Because, unfortunately, as long as Amazon has a fat sum of money, they will continue to bid for these keywords in Google!
Coming to the second part of their response…
@flintobox trademark policies. We have paused all our ads mentioning the Flintobox brand and variations of the same in our ad 2/4 ^RR
— Amazon Help (@AmazonHelp) December 20, 2016
Here Amazon clearly admits that they have “paused all their ads mentioning Flintobox brand and variations of the same in their Google ad copies”.
Well, Amazon, then what do you have to say about this?!
In July, Amazon denied that these ads were run by them, email after email.
But now they admit and state that they have paused all the ads.
A blatant LIE!
So it basically took 5 months, several emails, phone calls, chats, and finally a blog post with tweets to get the actual truth out in the open.
Well, if they feel that pausing the ads will solve the case, they’re sadly mistaken. What about the infringement of our trademark rights on their website?!
Take a look at how Amazon’s website claims that there are 10 results for Flintobox when there are none.
If they took this seriously, this page would have instead read, ‘zero results for Flintobox’.
Amazon, you may not be aware, but since you are doing business in India, trademark laws apply on your website as well.
So is this the seriousness with which this issue is being handled?
Amazon, why do you want to make money out of someone else’s blood and sweat?
All the above questions need to be answered by Amazon.
Because this is a clear cut case of misusing and corrupting our Indian Startup Ecosystem.
This is a fight for all the startups in India. Every time a trademark is violated, we can’t wait for 5 months and a social media outburst to get an answer.
There’s a basic flaw in Amazon’s attitude towards Indian companies and Indian laws that needs to be addressed.
This is not just a mere case of trademark infringement…
This is a fight for every Indian company’s survival against deep-pocketed unethical foreign companies who do business in India.
Economic Times – Flintobox files legal notice against Amazon for brand name violation
The Hindu BusinessLine – Start-up accuses Amazon of using its brand name to drive traffic
Business Insider – Flintobox sues Amazon for using its brand’s name to drive traffic
ET Now – Flintobox takes on Amazon
The News Minute – This Chennai startup is taking on Amazon for brand name violation
Tagalys – Our take on why Amazon.in bid for the Flintobox keyword in Google adwords
Medianama – Flintobox takes legal action against Amazon over using its trademark in ads: report
Inc42 – Ecommerce based Edtech startup Flintobox files legal notice against Amazon
Techstory – Chennai-based Flintobox files complaint against Amazon over trademark usage
rediff- Flintobox- a child development startup has filed a legal notice against the e-commerce giant Amazon.
SpicyIP – The Flintobox Story of Amazon’s ‘Automated Keywords’ and Google’s Adword policy
CIOL – What’s going on between Amazon and Flintobox?