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    Philip Morris Challenged

    Venture capital firm opposes the cigarette maker's name change to Altria.


    Dirk McDermott, managing partner of The Altira Group, is challenging Philip Morris Companies Inc., on the tobacco company's choice of the similar-sounding name Altria.

    In a letter to New York-based Philip Morris Companies Inc., McDermott demanded that the tobacco giant go no further with plans to rebrand itself with a moniker that sounds similar to Altira, a venture capital firm, the Denver Post reported.

    Philip Morris filed an application on Nov. 7 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to use the name Altria, a word that is so similar to Altira that McDermott believes potential customers will confuse the two.

    "We worked extremely hard on first coming up with the name Altira and then making sure that we maintained the integrity of the name We are not going to sit back and let a company like Philip Morris steal our name," the letter said.

    In a letter responding to Altira's demand that the company desist from using Altria, Robert J. Eck, a Philip Morris associate general counsel, said his firm is willing to discuss ways to avoid potential conflicts. But he defended the Altria name. "We have no intention of interfering with your business as we understand it," he said.

    Philip Morris plans to change the name of Philip Morris Companies Inc., the holding company for all its enterprises, to Altria Group Inc. Philip Morris Capital Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary would be renamed Altria Capital Corp.

    Trademark regulations don't bar sound-alike names. A financial services company called Altira would have nothing to complain about if a yogurt maker produced a new product called Altria, said Natalie Hanlon-Leh, a lawyer with Faegre & Benson in Denver. It's unlikely that anyone would mistake one for the other.

    But trademarks that cause confusion between companies aren't allowed, Hanlon-Leh said, whose specialty is trademark law but who isn't working for Altira, the report said. And that is where the problem lies, said McDermott.

    Philip Morris Capital Corp. is an investment firm. So is McDermott's Altira. Philip Morris buys airplanes, real estate and other costly assets and leases them to other companies. Altira is a venture capital fund that invests in startup energy operations. Those distinctions won't prevent confusion between the two, McDermott said.

    But Mark Berlind, associate general counsel for Philip Morris, said there is little chance customers won't know the difference. Altria and Altira will raise money in completely different markets and invest in completely different niches, he said.

    Trademark disputes are usually settled by the parties involved and rarely go to court, the report said.

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