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Jack Dorsey’s Block sued by H&R Block in a challenge to Big Tech’s seizure of everyday words

From Alphabet to Meta, tech giants love generic words, but what happens when someone else is using them?

Jack Dorsey’s Block sued by H&R Block in a challenge to Big Tech’s seizure of everyday words
[Source Images: Paper Boat Creative/Getty; Joe Raedle/Getty]

H&R Block, the tax-preparation company, has filed a lawsuit against Block, the e-payment company formerly known as Square, for alleged trademark infringement. In a press release Thursday, it argued that the rebranding by Jack Dorsey’s fintech giant is a “shortcut to capitalize on the well-known Block moniker” as well as a “clear violation” of the tax company’s trademark rights.

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“Today’s filing,” CEO Jeff Jones explained in the release, “is an important effort to prevent consumer confusion and ensure a competitor cannot leverage the reputation and trust we have built over more than six decades.”

H&R Block says the whole Square-is-now-Block rebrand could confuse its customers, and this argument might be truer than you’d think: Dorsey’s Block has been expanding into fintech for some time beyond Square’s original product, mobile credit-card readers. It bought Afterpay this summer, but also nabbed Credit Karma’s tax-preparation unit, which it folded into Cash App and renamed Cash App Taxes. At this juncture, Block and H&R Block became direct competitors, the tax company argues. In its complaint, which it shared with Fast Company, the company also claims that Cash App’s logo (a green square with a white dollar sign) is too similar to the one it’s known for (a green square with the words “H&R Block” in white).

H&R Block argues that there have already been “numerous indications” that people are confusing the two companies. The company shared several tweets as examples, which include people reacting to the Square-is-now-Block news with statements like “Are you talking about H&R Block?” and “Isn’t that name already taken by HRBlock, which is already in the financial and banking sectors?” as well as a Block production designer who wrote, “I’m pretty sure folks are now going to think I work at H&R Block.”

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On the one hand, its claim might spark some eye-rolling. The press release and lawsuit insist on calling the company simply “Block,” as if it’s normal to say, “I’m stopping by my local Block to get my taxes done today.” That could be a legal strategy, because a quick glance at H&R Block’s past few months of press releases doesn’t reveal any instance where the company refers to itself as just “Block.”

However, the company does make a strong case that it’s spent years—and hundreds of millions of dollars—on branding that relies on that shorthand. It has a mobile app called MyBlock, tax-preparation software called Blockworks, and its small-business-adviser unit Block Advisors uses the tagline “Block Has Your Back,” among other examples.

Square’s Block didn’t immediately reply to Fast Company‘s request for comment about the lawsuit.

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As a brand, of course, the new Block is much fuzzier, in the same way that Facebook’s recently announced Meta and Google’s Alphabet have practically no branding beyond being the parents of their more famous children. In that context, Block’s name change could be seen as another indication of what critics see as Big Tech’s habit of applying its winners-take-all mentality to not just trademarked names, but just plain generic, everyday words.

When Facebook became Meta earlier this year, an Arizona-based startup called Meta filed a lawsuit. When Google became Alphabet back in 2015, BMW said wait a minute because it already owned that trademark. The name was also being used by California’s Alphabet Energy, New York’s Alphabet hedge fund, and Alphabet Photography, whose owner at the time just shrugged and said, “Who sues Google?” None of it stopped Google from using the Alphabet name, of course.

But Big Tech’s usual position is that these are common words, so anyone is welcome to use them—unless the party doing the name-grabbing is somebody grabbing theirs: For example, five days after Facebook changed its name to Meta, an Australian artist named Thea-Mai Baumann, who was unlucky enough to be posting her professional work under the Instagram handle “Metaverse,” had her account suddenly disabled. Though she’s since made a public fuss and Meta appears to have reactivated the account, she says someone initially warned her, “FB isn’t gonna buy it, they’re gonna take it.”

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This story has been updated with additional information from H&R Block.

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