Cognate's Trademark Blog

Is The Alibaba Trademark Worth A $25B IPO?


Not only is this the biggest IPO ever to come down the road, it’s a company with one of the most enigmatic names on the market. Do you love the mark “Alibaba” or hate it?

The published stories say that Alibaba’s famous founder, Jack Ma, chose the name because of the story of “Alibaba and the Forty Thieves” and the phrase “Open Sesame,” which implied the key to a trove of treasures. He touted the mark’s universal notoriety and easy pronunciation.

I’m not sure that the image of Alibaba is so clearly “open sesame” and not “Arabian trading market.” Are there stereotyped overtones in the mark, and does that cause irritation? That is always tricky. Personally, I never understood the connection between such a clearly Middle Eastern name and a Chinese company until I started looking for the answer.

TIANJINCHINA 28SEPT08 - Jack Ma Yun Chairma

Jack Ma Yun, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Alibaba Group. Copyright World Economic Forum ( by Natalie Behring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, as is often the lesson we learn in trademarks, like in all facets of business, money and success solve a lot of problems. Looking at the mark today, we have a catchy pronunciation and a fun name to say. The trademark seems to lend itself to variations like “AliPay,” “AliSource” and “AliProtect,” among many others for which the company owns registration in the USA (and doubtless worldwide as well). But they also own a host of other marks important to their business, like “Tmall” and “Ant.”  There is a trademark application pending for “Sesame,” which seems to track their other goods and services, which was filed this past January.

Alibaba is a mark never likely to have spring from any American corporate or independent naming lab. It may have done OK with the trademark lawyers if there were no others already using something similar, but trademark lawyers are more enamored with names that are obtuse than names which describe, because the more obtuse the better, and the more descriptive, generally, the weaker the trademark. For instance, one of the last giant online IPO’s was Facebook; at that time, I had called it a “lousy” trademark. This one could be more nuanced. But in the real world of trademark selection and protection, shades, syllables and subtleties become the grist of litigation. Just as in the capital markets, there are hard-working, every-day companies that plan and sweat over each detail; every nuance is an important part of the IPO package. When something comes along of the scope of Alibaba, it is so gargantuan that it knocks everything off its usual gravitational center and creates its own rules. So does it matter if Alibaba is a good trademark? It no longer matters. They are who they are. I have not read of any potential investors who are saying, “Yeah, but you know, I don’t know if they can keep growing with that name…”​

This post originally appeared on Forbes

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