Raj Abhyanker remembers one of his first encounters in the world of trademarks. His dad owned a retail store specializing in Apple  products, Computers Plus, in Phoenix, meaning Abyanker grew up around technology. When the Internet emerged in the early '90s, about the time Abhyanker was graduating high school, Abhyanker counted himself among the people who favored the open World Wide Web over the proprietary walled garden of AOL and other subscription services. AOL had a bulletin board through its service; Abhyanker, meanwhile, registered the domain name AOLClassifieds.com, which mimicked the AOL site. AOL sent the high-schooler a cease-and-desist letter, and offered to buy it off Abhyanker.
"Five thousand bucks," he says. "It was nothing. This was before the Internet really took off. I should have just renamed it eBay," he laughs.
Years later, after journeys through several Internet startups, publishing (he founded MacInsider), and law school, Abhyanker finds himself on the other side of the trademark equation. As the CEO of Trademarkia.com , he's now in the business of sending cease-and-desist letters. And his interesting website, which makes logos and trademarks easily searchable to common folk, is growing. It has 3 million pageviews a month, and it's working on new features, including a visual-recognition service you can use to upload a logo and automatically check to see if it infringes on someone else's trademark.
For the uninitiated, here's a brief tour of what Trademarkia can do (some features date back to its September 2009 launch; others are more recent). First and foremost, the central innovation of Trademarkia was to take information that the U.S. government had and to make it easily searchable to the lay person. I asked Abhyanker how, prior to 2009, someone would search to see if their logo infringed on someone else's.
"You couldn't," he said. You were pretty much boxed into hiring a lawyer, someone with expertise to navigate the byzantine system, which involves numerical codes that describe the features of certain logos.
Now, say you have an idea for a logo for your brand, something involving a red triangle. You go to Trademarkia's logo search bar (new within the last four months), enter "triangle, red," and press search. Trademarkia pulls up an array of trademarked logos that somehow involve triangularity and redness (it might not always be a red triangle, specifically.) It also mentions whether the trademarks are live or not, and when they were filed.
A drop-down menu allows you to get extremely specific about the kinds of triangles you're interested in. Maybe you really meant to search for "pennants," or for "flags with forked sides" Maybe you're a gestaltist, and had in mind "incomplete triangles" or "triangles made of broken or dotted lines." Click on "triangles touching or intersecting," say, and you'll be whisked to a page featuring only logos with that structure. This is all information that has been catalogued by the U.S. government, stretching back over a century--it just was never readily, easily available, before Trademarkia.
Trademarkia is fun to tool around with, and obviously, it can help you avoid infringing on someone else's rights. You can also use it, though, to get ideas. Trademarkia also lets you zero in on "dead marks," logos for which the trademark has expired or been abandoned. These are fair game for you to use or build on. To that end, Trademarkia has a tab called "brand creator"; type in a keyword, and it will give you suggestions of logos and names you can rescue from oblivion and breathe new life into.
Isn't it courting disaster to christen your new ship after one that's already sunk? Not so, says Abhyanker. "It may seem inauspicious," he says, but he is able to refute the idea pretty swiftly by pointing to a few examples of names that didn't work the first time around, only to succeed later. Consider, for instance, "Googles ," which offered "sports goggles for use in swimming and snow skiing, and straps for said goggles." Or, for that matter, "Twitter ," the Christmas-tree ornament company from the '70s. Or how about "Yahoo ," a bootmaking operation, circa 1990. There's no such thing as a cursed name--and the same might go for logos. "A lot of times names can come back to life," says Abhyanker.
There are a variety of other uses for the site. Amateur historians cite it in Wikipedia articles, when tracing the design history of a given company. Journalists sign up for alerts for when Apple  or Facebook  or any number of other companies file logos and trademarks, since the information surfacing from the government can often predate a product announcement.
And for Abhyanker, of course, the site is a money-making proposition. The site actually grew out of his Mountain View, Calif., law practice ; he focuses on, predictably, trademark, copyright, and domain law. In some ways, Abyhanker's Internet startup is just a really elaborate and innovative form of marketing for his firm, which, he says, has become "the largest trademark-filing law firm in the world." Though many of the site's features, like the logo search, are free, taking actual action based on what you find there will cost you money. Abhyanker charges $159 to claim a dead trademark for yourself, for instance.
His main mission, says Abhyanker, is "to organize legal information so that it's useful to average people." The dry rolls of the trademark office have "lots of hidden treasures," he says. "We take otherwise boring legal information," he says, "and find gems."