Peeple Is a Yelp for People—And the Other Peeple Isn’t Happy
CHRIS CHUTER IS very proud. His company just won a huge competition in the UK and $150,000 for its invention. The product is a smart, Internet-enabled peephole that lets you peer at your phone to see who’s at your door. “It’s like virtual caller ID for your home,” he says, happily grabbing a miniature door frame (“my doorframe for ants”) and dragging it into view of our video chat. A bright orange circular gadget on the door shows you who’s on the other side, even when you aren’t home. Beyond the recent accolades, the company took second place at TechCrunch Disrupt in January.
But Chuter’s had but a moment to enjoy it all, because his product is calledPeeple, and its brand is being hijacked. Quickly.
The name may sound familiar because an app called Peeple is getting a wee bit of attention this week. The app is in beta and hasn’t launched, but its controversial purpose has landed it squarely in the center of an old-fashioned Internet ragefest. Peeple, the app, is the Yelp for, well, people. You use it to rate your fellow human beings based on things like their personalities, their professionalism, and how good they are at dating. There’s no opt-out, either. If you are drawing breath, someone—anyone—with the app can rate you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
You can understand why the last 24 hours have been difficult for Chuter and his team in Austin, Texas. “We want to be something that people wanted. Not something people … hated.” He walks across the room and grabs his phone to show me how completely out of control his notifications are—there are thousands upon thousands of emails sitting, waiting to be read. “The emails are pretty nice at this point,” he explains. Some are coming from people trying to understand the difference between Peeple the thing and Peeple the app. The same cannot be said of his Twitter notifications.
“You know how Twitter is,” he says. Even Chrissy Teigen, unofficial dictator of viral Twitter, unknowingly lambasted the company.
“This was supposed to be our moment in the sun,” says Chuter. “We just won a major competition … then this happened yesterday and completely swallowed up our press. Our branding is in tatters.”
While changing the course of public misconception is an exceedingly difficult battle to wage, Peeple (the thing) does have recourse to challenge Peeple (the app). After discussing it with his lawyer, Chuter described the situation: The smart home Peeple has a registered trademark in the US with intent to use (you can see it here). Peeple the app registered at around the same time last year, but its trademark registration is in Canada (where one of its founders is from) and is currently in a suspended status (which could mean someone in Canada is challenging their trademark). Which makes sense, of course, since the app hasn’t even launched—all it has to show, at the moment, are screenshots.
I’ll note here that I tried without success to reach the folks at Peeple, the app, by phone and through Facebook, and their site’s been down all day.
To be clear, it’s perfectly legal for two companies to have the same name if the two companies are registered in different countries. It’s also important to note that a suspended trademark registration doesn’t mean the registration has been canceled. “Usually it means ‘We’re not using it right this second, but we’ve got something coming,” says Mackenzie Hanks, a lawyer who once interned at the USPTO. “Suspension can lead to cancellation… [for instance,] a US company could challenge them and say ‘Hey you’re not using this, we are,’ and then Canada would decide what to do about it.”
But Peeple the thing can’t go to the US courts to get Peeple the app to stop using the name based purely on that—the company would have to prove the the app is damaging its brand. “They’d have to say ‘This is going to make us look bad and we have a trademark and therefore they can’t use that here,'” should the app try to make a US launch, Hanks explains. And given the preemptively negative feelings Peeple (again, sigh, the app) has wrought, it at least seems like Peeple (the thing—you see why this is a problem, right?) would have an argument.
“Obviously, we’d like not to be called what they’re called,” Chuter says as diplomatically as possible. “I know we’re not as ‘sexy’ as the other thing, but you know, I like to think we have a legitimate purpose.” The team has been working on Peeple for a few years now. As fate would have it, it originally named the product Peep, but a trademark database search scotched that. “We saw Peep was taken, so we went with Peeple,” Chuter says with a laugh, clearly enjoying the irony. “These women are funded, I think,” he says, referring to Peeple, the app. “They should be able to search trademarks and figure that out.”
That doesn’t mean Chuter isn’t without sympathy for the founders of the app, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough—in part because he’s getting a lot of irate tweets meant for them. “I feel bad for them. I can’t imagine what this is like, I’m only seeing a percentage of it.” It’s been an interesting glimpse. “The LGBT and trans communities are going nuts against these people,” he says. “Which, it makes sense—a lot of people who are already experiencing oppression and bullying don’t want an app like this.”
It’s possible that Peeple the app will back away from its nefarious-sounding purpose; other, similar conceits have done so before. When Lulu launched, it was pitched as a guy-rating app for women, and men had no idea their profiles were included within the network. After backlash, though, Lulu included ways to pull your profile. “If you don’t want to be on Lulu, you don’t have to be,” says cofounder Allison Schwartz. “There were a lot of misconceptions about it, and we had to spend time educating users and the press.” In addition to rewriting Lulu’s early story, the app also added automatic removal—originally it was a manual process only. “Now our community management program is expanded, so there’s self-removal and the community removal program.”
While Peeple could pivot and attempt another stab at user approval, there’s that whole matter of its trademark, which Peeple the thing has and Peeple the app doesn’t (yet—the application remains in limbo… in Canada). “As a company, we have the registered U.S. trademark with intent to use,” says Chuter. And just so it’s clear: “We are not changing our name and we’re not going anywhere.”