Having seen off the might of Sir Richard Branson’s multi-billion rand Virgin group, a feisty Cape Town entrepreneur says he can now go back to concentrating on his dream to build a worldwide business empire.
Cape Town entrepreneur Dimitri Philippou’s, 43, story is a David and Goliath tale in which the big guy lost after picking on the little fellow.
The legal fight began when Branson’s Virgin Enterprise group of companies objected to him using the word “virgin” in a trademark he registered on behalf of his company, Bodtrade 54, with the United Kingdom’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO).
But the IPO’s Allan James ruled in Philippou’s favour – and added insult to injury by ordering Virgin to cough up R18 000 (£1500) towards Philippou’s Bodtrade 54′s legal costs.
“You can’t be a virgin all your life…” was the slogan that made the giant Virgin empire – which includes music, an airline and a telecommunications interests – reach for their lawyers.
Philippou’s Bodtrade 54, a small but rapidly growing concern is involved in telecommunication and the internet, and also services the hotel, restaurant and café trade with fast moving consumer goods.
And, says Philppou, it won’t stop there – and his famous victory also means that anyone can use a word “that is part of the English language”.
“Virgin does not, and should not, have exclusive uses of the word ‘virgin’, and in any event ‘virgin’ was only one word in a phrase using 10 words,” he says.
Philippou believe that there is considerable power in the phrase for marketing purposes
“We didn’t think it fair that a single word, which is also part of the generally used English language, should be the exclusive preserve of a single organisation.”
And when he first made it clear that he would not be bullied and intended taking on the might of Virgin, Philippou says that his family and friends “thought I was crazy…and I didn’t stand a chance.
“While friends and family thought I was mad and that the ruling wouldn’t go my way, now I’ve won my phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people phoning to congratulate me,” he says.
The ruling also allows for other companies to register trademarks that include the word ‘virgin’ for products or services which Virgin provides.
And last month, Philippou rubbed salt in Virgin’s wounds when his company filed for further trademarks in UK covering education, entertainment, medical and beverages.
Philippou said his application last July had gone without a hitch and was approved by the IPO when, out of the blue, attorneys acting for Virgin “objected with five lever arch files explaining why we should be denied”.
But, despite facing down a multi-billion rand company, Philippou says he was “silently confident that we would win, because virgin is only one word in a 10 word slogan trademark.”
And even though he had nightmares about taking on the might of Virgin, Philippou says he never considered giving up, despite the fact that he was racking up legal costs in pounds sterling.
“Virgin Enterprise felt threatened because it had a huge reputation in its trade mark for a wide range of goods and services including telecommunications and catering services and therefore believed it would be an unfair advantage of or would be detrimental to the ‘Virgin’ trademark.
“Virgin Enterprises also suggested that the public would be confused into thinking Bodtrade 54 was in some way associated with Virgin as ‘the public has an expectation that [Virgin]…will introduce new and different products and services on a regular basis’, and accordingly suggested that the public would assume a connection to Virgin.”
This week Virgin SA head of brand Fiona Ross put a brave face on the matter,
“We would like to clarify that this was always going to be a marginal case,” adding that because the word virgin was used “in a long sentence and therefore will have minimal impact on our ability to protect the brand, she said.