The maverick computer security entrepreneur John McAfee has recently filed suit against Intel Corp. over his right to use his own name. Intel Corp. maintain that they do not oppose McAfee’s right to use his own name in connection with his business ventures, but that their ownership of various McAfee rights and the associated goodwill must be respected.
John McAfee this year became CEO of MGT Capital Investments, a US corporation which is reorienting from the video games market to cybersecurity. As part of this transition, MGT is in the process of acquiring D-Vasive and Demonsaw, two start-ups in cloud computing security. Interest in MGT from investors dramatically increased in May, when John McAfee’s hiring was reported, and the company now intends to rebrand itself as John McAfee Global Technologies Inc.
However, there are trademark rights associated with McAfee’s name which may make this move problematic. McAfee left the company originally bearing his name, McAfee Associates, in 1994. It has since been purchased by Intel in 2010, where it exists as Intel Security. Intel have argued in their preliminary deposition that any use of McAfee’s name in the context of cyber security would dilute the McAfee trademark, by reducing its unique association with Intel. John McAfee meanwhile claims that he retains all rights to use his personal name with respect to any business venture as he has never formally assigned any such rights to a third party. In support of this, he argues that the trademark rights associated with the McAfee brand were filed after he sold his interest in the corporation.
Intel has signed an agreement with TPG Capital, one of the world’s largest private equity groups, to spin off Intel Security as an independent cybersecurity company, which is to be called McAfee. Given that the two corporations will be operating in broadly similar markets, although not necessarily providing similar products, there would seem to be a genuine risk of confusion between the two proposed entities.
Intel will likely have the stronger hand in the upcoming legal battle, principally because of its control of the registered rights. Although it may appear counter-intuitive to some, in the US individuals do not retain the right to use their legal name in the branding of products by default – if an individual’s use of their legal name is liable to cause confusion with a trademark, it is likely not allowable.
However, it is arguable that in McAfee’s case, including the personal name “John McAfee” in a company owned or managed by him is primarily descriptive. Restriction in this case may be understandable in the case where the coincidence with the trademark is fortuitous; for example, someone called McDonald running a fast food restaurant. But the goodwill and recognition associated with John McAfee’s name and reputation is not clearly delineated from that enjoyed by the now separate, Intel owned brand, and it is unusual for an individual to be barred from using their full legal name descriptively.
John McAfee & other famous own names’ disputes
It is not unprecedented for individuals to lose the right to do business under their own names; several fashion designers are restricted from using their own name in business. One such recent case is Karen Millen, who recently lost a court case against the eponymous business she founded. However, on its sale to the Icelandic consortium Baugar Group in 2004, Millen accepted terms which explicitly restricted her ability to do business under her own name. This differentiates it significantly from McAfee’s case
Intel has now filed countersuit, alleging trademark dilution by McAfee and MGT, and it will be interesting to observe the result of the case. The dispute so far illustrates the potential pitfalls for individuals in constructing a brand around a personal name.
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