Teachbook.com has two employees and fewer than 20 users signed up for its free Web community. The site has yet to officially launch.
But the Northbrook, Ill., company, which provides tools for teachers to manage their classrooms and share lesson plans and other resources, has been thrust into the spotlight by social networking giant Facebook, which sued the start-up for using "book" in its name.
"We've been sitting here scratching our heads for the last couple of days," Teachbook's managing director, Greg Shrader, said Wednesday. "We're trying to understand how Facebook, a multibillion-dollar company, feels this small enterprise in Chicago is any type of threat."
Palo Alto-based Facebook, which was founded in 2004 and has more than 500 million users, filed its trademark infringement lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Jose last week, asserting that the "book" part of its name is "highly distinctive in the context of online communities and networking websites."
"If others could freely use 'generic plus BOOK' marks for online networking services targeted to that particular generic category of individuals, the suffix BOOK could become a generic term for 'online community/networking services' or 'social networking services,'" Facebook argued in the lawsuit. "That would dilute the distinctiveness of the Facebook Marks."
Suing similarly named companies for trademark infringement is well-worn territory for technology companies. EBay Inc., for example, locked horns with an e-commerce site called PerfumeBay for years before the other company changed its name to Beauty Encounter.
"As companies mature, it becomes common that they start bringing trademark enforcement actions against people with names that bug them," said Eric Goldman, associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the school's High Tech Law Institute.
Shrader said the term "book" is a natural fit for his website, since it relates to teachers and education.
But Facebook believes that Teachbook is unfairly riding on its coattails by using the suffix "book" to reference the larger site's established reputation.
"It's not that they are using 'book' — we have no complaint against Kelley Blue Book or others," Facebook said in a statement. "However, there is already a well-known online network of people with 'book' in the brand name."
Teachbook filed a trademark application in March 2009, and Facebook opposed the registration last year. There were "ongoing discussions" over use of the name, Shrader said, and he believed that "we were working constructively" with Facebook. He is now expecting to file a response to the technology company's lawsuit in court.
"Effectively they're bombing a mosquito here, and we're not sure why they want to do that," Shrader said.