Silicon Insider: Why Google Can't Do Gmail in Europe

To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, economic war is also politics by other means -- especially in the European Union.

As you may have read this week, the Trademark Agency of the European Union, located in Luxembourg, denied Google's bid for the right to use within the EU the name of its popular e-mail program, Gmail.

It seems that there is a company in Germany called P1 Private that offers a service that lets users send files and messages through a central e-mail system -- it's called G-Mail, for its founder Daniel Giersch. G-Mail was created in 2000; Gmail in 2004.

Despite Google's argument that the two services have little to do with one another, that the two logos look very different and that P1 Private's G-Mail logo also includes a tag line that translates as "… and the mail really takes off," the Trademark Agency ruled for P1, saying that there was too great a "likelihood of confusion."

In doing so, the agency upheld a similar decision by a lower board in January.

Google will, of course, appeal (I assume that throwing money at Herr Giersch has failed), but at this point the odds are getting very long. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Google, just by being Google, never had a chance.

You or I, looking at this case from the perspective of the entrepreneurial United States might find all of this a little confusing.

G-Mail, with likely a few thousand users, and Gmail, with millions, don't seem to directly compete, so what's the problem? On top of that, why Herr Giersch doesn't just take the big bucks/marks from Google -- heaven knows it has them -- change the name and laugh all of the way to the bank? Or, at least, drop the suit and enjoy the millions it will make in publicity and wayward customers that confuse the two names?

Ah, but that's thinking like an American.

When we see a pie and conclude that our slice is too small, we typically come up with one of two strategies: make the pie bigger (sector expansion, usually through innovation), or bake a whole new pie (entrepreneurship).

Europeans by comparison, and with a few exceptions, almost always settle upon two very different strategies: either wheel and deal to make your slice a little bit bigger (mergers and partnerships) or limit the number of people allowed to eat pie (protectionism). And when it comes to the latter, one of the most common ways to do that is to keep out the bloody Americans.

This always seems to surprise U.S. companies when they do business in Europe. They assume that the competitive situation is just like here, except perhaps with better food and worse dentistry … and then they get blindsided by virulent attacks in the European media, bizarro world lawsuits and new regulations aimed directly at them, and, in the case of McDonald's, even getting their stores set ablaze. Mickey D's as the symbol of American hegemony … wait, what?

All of this leaves us Americans scratching our heads. Take the case of Microsoft. Most of us in the tech world were pretty terrified of Gates and his Evil Empire in the 1990s, mainly because nobody seemed to be figuring out a way to effectively compete with that business juggernaut.

But most of us also got over that fear somewhere around 1998, when we realized that personal computer operating systems, even Web browsers, were being eclipsed in importance by Web content, e-commerce and Internet applications.

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