META, a 12-year-old startup that creates immersive experiences filed suit in federal court on Wednesday against the company formerly known as Facebook for changing its name to Meta. META is claiming trademark infringement, unfair competition, and damage to its brand. Not only did Facebook/Meta willfully infringe META’s two legal trademarks, the lawsuit claims, once armed with its new name, the former Facebook engaged in unfair competition. It recruited artists META previously worked with to create immersive experiences, luring away some of its biggest customers.
In an interview with Inc., META founder Justin Bolognino describes a startup founder’s worst nightmare. He had spent years building the META brand and the concept of the metaverse, which was unknown in 2009. By September 2021, it looked like that work was finally paying off.
“You’re talking about one of the most valuable words and ideas in the entire world,” he says. “Goldman Sachs says it’s an $8 billion-plus industry over the next decade. That industry is based on this idea of meta, of the metaverse–this other realm that we will inhabit–that we spent 12 years building.” Though META has only five full-time employees, it uses a huge cohort of contractors and independent creators to produce its immersive exhibits which have been experienced by more than 100,000 people, he says.
By late September 2021, coming off highly successful projects with Rolling Stone, Microsoft, and Red Bull, among many others, and having produced high-profile experiences at Coachella, SXSW and other major conferences, Bolognino believed that META’s time had come. He sent an email blast to the company’s customers, employees, and contractors crowing that the world had become “discernably more…META.” He added, “With the sudden explosion of the Metaverse, we finally see creators getting the praise and earnings they deserve thanks to NFTs.”
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One month later, everything changed. Bolognino was in Las Vegas doing his first walkthrough of Arcadia Earth, an immersive exhibition about sustainability that META had created. “I was alone, eating a stale, boring breakfast. My phone was on the table and it’s just bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing.” Bolognino picked up the phone and had what he describes as a surreal, almost out-of-body experience. “It was like someone else was watching a movie of me looking at Mark Zuckerberg with this big grin on his face.”
META’s lawyers wrote to the former Facebook’s lawyers, alerting them to the infringement and demanding relief. The larger company’s lawyers responded that there could be no confusion between the two companies because they operated in different spheres. META “offers multi-sensory live experiences to engage audiences and consumers” the lawyers wrote. The former Facebook would use the Meta brand to bring together its many offerings as a social technology company, while also working to bring the metaverse to life. Besides, the former Facebook had bought up the existing trademarks of several other entities named Meta, thus effectively back-dating its own trademark to before META was founded, they claimed. (Inc. has reached out to former-Facebook Meta for comment and will update this piece if they respond.)
META found itself competing with the Meta that was once Facebook at the same conferences and for the same customers, the suit claims. Meantime, complaints to the larger company’s legal team went nowhere. Finally, eight months after Facebook became Meta, META filed suit. Bolognino says it was the last thing he wanted to do. “We wanted to just create the coolest immersive experiences in the world.”
If META wins the suit, it’s asking for both damages and an injunction to prevent the former Facebook from using the name Meta in the spheres where META operates. But if it loses, what then?
Faced with this question, Bolognino stays silent for several seconds. “I don’t want to give a non-answer but this is the problem,” he says. “This is 12 years of a brand that was going to be on my tombstone. This is my identity. Everything that we are is META. I don’t know what else there is or what to do. I don’t know.”
For now, he’s hanging in there. His legal team anticipates that the former Facebook will respond to the suit within 21 days, as legally required. But as to what that response will be? “No idea what they’ll do. It’s impossible to tell,” says Nicholas Saady, an attorney for META. “I’ve learned that you never predict the outcome of litigation or the progress of litigation. Because it’s always crazy.”