When your tech conference is best known for paying $40 million to buy its own mountain, it's hard to stand on moral high ground. But Summit Series, the "hipper Davos" is suing Paddy Cosgrave, the creator of another vanity tech confab called F.ounders, aka "Davos for geeks," for damages of at least $2 million.
The complaint (embedded below) is suing Cosgrave and his company for a new conference—or at least a newly named conference—now called Web Summit, alleging cybersquatting, trademark infringement, unfair competition, and more.
It's almost impossible to overemphasize how useless these events are beyond the dangled promise of partying with Bono and Elon Musk (F.ounders/Web Summit) or Peter Thiel and Richard Branson (Summit Series). Both conferences only allow press that deliver fawning coverage, hence headlines about " the Rolls Royce of Technology Events" or "Club TED."
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Nevada, devotes pages to the puffy profiles as evidence that Summit Series is a world-renowned brand, and synonymous with the word summit. In reality, Summit Series CEO Elliott Bisnow built his empire by paying techies under the age of 35 (like Tumblr's David Karp, Dave Morin, Zappos' Tony Hsieh, Facebook's Dustin Moskovitz and Sam Lessin, and more to frolic in Cancun, until techies and sponsors like Goldman Sachs and GQ started to pay to be near them.
Summit Series quietly filed the suit back in May, but surfaced by The Irish Times this weekend (F.ounders is a European conference and Paddy Cosgrave is Irish and has his headquarters in Dublin). According to the complaint, Bisnow's idea for an invitation-only event with powerful people qualifies as an "epiphany" and Cosgrave has infringed on its name:
The dispute traces back to January 2010, when Cosgrave hung out with the Summit Series cofounders in Montana " where they were living for a month," to develop the next Summit Series in Washington, D.C.
Cosgrave discussed a partnership, but ultimately decided to focus on his own conference in Ireland without using the Summit or Summit Series marks. But the lawsuit alleges that Cosgrave broke that understanding:
Defendants systematically, in bad faith, encroach on Plaintiff's trademark rights by changing their name from DUBLIN WEB SUMMIT to WEB SUMMIT to, very recently, THE SUMMIT.
Although the complaint does not mention it, up through 2012, Cosgrave was associated with the conference F.ounders. His old email address was even firstname.lastname@example.org. That website is now a static page that only mentions "previous attendees," like Musk whereas websummit.net, which is linked to off of Cosgrave's Twitter bio and LinkedIn profile shows a video of Bono, Musk, Gary Vaynerchuk, laughing and smiling people, the floor of the NASDAQ, drinking, more Bono, etc.
This alleged cybersquatting led to "at least 50 emails from confused customers" in just two months. The suit says "nearly every day Plaintiff receives more communications from confused consumers."
"You cannot copyright the word 'summit' just as a coffee chain cannot copyright the word 'coffee'," he said.
Mr Cosgrave also said that the product offered by the plaintiff's company, Summit Series, is "completely different" to the Dublin event, which expects to attract 20,000 people this November.
Mr Bisnow claims that Dublin Web Summit founder Mr Cosgrave developed a 'Summit' conferencing theme after talks between the two in Montana in 2010. However, Mr Cosgrave has dismissed the charge.
"We registered the Dublin Web Summit domain long before I ever met any of these people," he said.
"We had our first event in 2009. As for Elliott Bisnow, I spent two days with him, not a month as has been reported. It's pretty standard practice to meet people in your industry and, over the years, I would have spent time with and met people including the organisers of the G8 Summit and various other summits."
I have reached out to both Web Summit and Summit Series. But another odd thing about the lawsuit is that, as far as I could tell, it does not offer a specific trademark, or as Cosgrave calls it, a copyright. The document says to refer back to the complaint, which appears to be trying to get common law trademark rights enforced.
A search for Bisnow's name turned up a live newsletter trademark for Bisnow and a dead one for something called Schmoozarama.
See, now, that sounds like a much easier word to own than "Summit."
Update: In response to questions about the difference between F.ounders and Web Summit, Daire Hickey, a representative for Web Summit said:
"This case is about the Web Summit and not about F.ounders. Web Summit was founded in 2009."
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[Image of Elliott Bisnow, left, and Summit Series cofounder Jeff Rosenthal, right, via Getty]