David and Goliath on Paper: FiftyThree, Facebook, and Fighting for App Names

Last week, Facebook announced it was introducing a new iPhone app called Paper. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because you've already heard of Paper by FiftyThree -- a popular drawing app for the iPad. FiftyThree is asking Facebook to change the name of its app, but it doesn't look like the social networking service is interested, and that could make for a big headache for the drawing app company.

App Store confusion: Facebook and FiftyThree both have apps called PaperApp Store confusion: Facebook and FiftyThree both have apps called Paper

Facebook's Paper app was unveiled last week and hit Apple's App Store on Monday. FiftyThree didn't know anything about the new app, or its name, until the public announcement despite the fact the two companies do have a good working relationship.

FiftyThree CEO Georg Petschnigg said in an open letter, "We reached out to Facebook about the confusion their app was creating, and they apologized for not contacting us sooner. But an earnest apology should come with a remedy."

Facebook's new app uses a Flipboard-like interface for viewing content in your timeline along with articles from well known publications. It's available now for free at Apple's App Store, as is FiftyThree's Paper.

The team at FiftyThree is hoping Facebook will rename its app to avoid confusion with the iPad drawing app, but that doesn't seem likely considering the response so far has been "sorry we didn't tell you sooner."

Assuming the situation escalates into something that lands in court, FiftyThree does have a trademark on the name "Paper by FiftyThree." Facebook's app is simply called "Paper," and serves a different purpose, but could still be seen as infringing because "Paper" is also the common use name for FiftyThree's app.

Where FiftyThree could have a problem is in the fact that so many other apps are available through the App Store with similar -- or even the same -- names. Facebook could argue that FiftyThree hasn't defended its trademark with other companies, so why should this case be any different?

Mr. Petschnigg told The Mac Observer that's not the case and that FiftyThree has been doing what it can to stop developers who copy Paper in a blatant way. In Facebook's case, however, he sees different consequences for his company because the social networking company is so big it changes how end users perceive FiftyThree and its app.

"That's a different problem," he said. "People believe we're associated with Facebook."

The confusion over the app names has already led to questions about FiftyThree's status as well as the future of their Paper app. Mr. Petschnigg added, "People are asking if we have a licensing deal with Facebook, or if they bought us."

TMO has reached out to Facebook for their take on the Paper name, but have not yet received a response.

Paper by FiftyThree has been a popular iPad title and even won an Apple Design Award in 2012. It's listed as a must have app in the New to the App Store section, and was named App of the Year, too. There's a lot of brand recognition tied to the Paper name for FiftyThree, but Facebook is well known, too, and using the same name for its app has already led to some App Store confusion.

Mr. Petschnigg has a solution he thinks makes sense. He said,

There's a simple fix here. We think Facebook can apply the same degree of thought they put into the app into building a brand name of their own. An app about stories shouldn't start with someone else's story. Facebook should stop using our brand name.

Facebook wants users to see its Paper app as a kind of dynamic magazine, or paper, that shows what their friends are up to, along with curated content from other sources. With that in mind, "Paper" makes sense for the app's name. FiftyThree, on the other hand, designed an app that acts like an analog to drawing and painting on actual paper, so they have a legitimate claim to the name, too.

Whether or not FiftyThree can successfully defend the "Paper" name in court isn't the issue -- at least not yet. Right now the question is will Facebook keep the same name for its new app, and that's very likely a big "yes."