SyFy Portal v. SyFy Channel: What’s in a Name?

syfyA little while ago I wrote an article about SciFi Channel’s name change to Syfy Channel and how that move was, in my opinion, really an attempt to protect their brand and allow themselves to trademark their name. It would appear that prior to formerly announcing the change, NBC Universal (NBCU), the parent company of the SyFy Channel, was very busy securing their new brand. In fact, they approached the owner of SyfyPortal.com and eventually bought the site and the name for $250,000.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal for Michael Hinman, the owner of the site, right? Apparently it’s less sweet than the rest of us would like to believe. Back on March 31, 2009, an article appeared at Roddenberry.com, wherein Mr. Hinman cried foul and stated that he was upset about NBCU’s claim that they had independently came up with the name “SyFy” then discovered his site and decided to purchase it.

As the story goes, NBCU approached Hinman through one of their shell companies, New Fizz Corp. and offered to purchase his site. Since most people offer to purchase fairly popular sites for pittances, Hinman was surprised when New Fizz offered him a higher price. He refused, however, and a back and forth negotiation took place. In the meantime, Hinman and the rest of his team was considering the offer:

‘We did think about it.’Michael shared with me. ‘I talked with some of my staff who are part of the upper management, and wondered what if we rebranded. We were launching a new television website and our naming process had changed quite a bit over the last decade, and SyFy Portal, as much as that name has been around for a long time, but it didn’t really mesh with the names we were planning for our future sites and existing site.’He told them the deal would require a certain amount and the other party agreed.

Hinman says he had no idea that NBCU was behind the purchase, at least until his lawyer got his hands on the paperwork:

I asked Michael when he became aware that it was an attorney who worked in this field for NBCU. He explained that at first, he was dealing with a company who called themselves New Fizz Company but once the deal was reached, it went to the lawyers to get the paperwork done. Michael’s attorney researched the attorney for the buyer and they discovered in his resume that he did intellectual property work for NBCU. He then began wondering who was buying it as the money was too large to be someone just starting a website. He and others thought it might be NBCU, but nothing was known for sure. ‘We really have any confirmation of it till everyone else did when NBC announced a couple of weeks ago that they were changing the name of the (SciFi) network.’When he found out that the name was the new SciFi Channel name, he was ‘….totally shocked by that.’

On July 10, 2009, Himan wrote an open letter to Michael Engleman, a VP of NBCU, criticizing the amount NBCU paid for his former site, the allegedly devious methods in which NBCU purchased his site, and claiming that he was entitled to recognition for creating the term ‘syfy’.

I’m going to be honest with you here, I haven’t spoken to Hinman or anyone at NBCU, so anything I say in this article is merely based on what I’ve read. Should either party like to correct me, I’m happy to speak with them and provide a follow-up article. In the meantime, I would like to essentially discuss Hinman’s three basic claims.

Claim #1: It’s not about money for Michael Hinman (but if it was about money, it should be about more than $250,000)

Claim #2: NBCU was dishonest in their approach to purchase the website from Michael Hinman

Claim #3: Michael Hinman invented the word ‘syfy’and should get the credit

In the original Roddenberry.com article, the author stated the following:

Some might think that Michael is simply wanting attention, or more money or something like that. According to him, all he is seeking is for NBCU to state the facts, that he created the term, Syfy. ‘That’s all I’m asking of them. I don’t want money, I already got that. I don’t want publicity, I’ve already got that. I just want that when ten years down the road, whether this name is a failure, or success, I want them to look back and say, Michael Hinman created this.

In his own article, however, Hinman actually seems very upset about the fact that NBCU only purchased his site for a paltry $250,000:

Last year, NBCU made $16.9 billion. Our little SyFy Portal operation? About $40,000 and some change. Let’s spell that out … $16,900,000,000 versus $40,000.

How much of a budget hit was that to NBCU? Let’s spell it out again: $16,900,000,000 versus $250,000. That is 0.0014 percent of NBCU’s overall revenue for a brand that they are now using on a major property.

If they had come to us as NBCU, they know that we would’ve looked at the $16,900,000,000 in revenue, and likely would’ve wanted to move the decimal point in the percentage of revenue to the right a few places. Even then, even if we had asked for $2.5 million for the brand and the domain name that we put so much of ourselves into, that would be just 0.014 percent of NBCU’s overall revenue for the year.

Despite claims that this ‘isn’t about the money’Hinman apparently feels like he was cheated. So, I have to ask…..exactly how much would have been an acceptable percentage to you, Mr. Hinman? 1% of NBCU’s profits? 10%? 40%? By his own admission, Hinman sold his site for far more than he had ever been offered before, so what did it matter who bought it and for what price, so long as they sold it at a price that was acceptable to Hinman?

If a company that had only $2 million in revenue had purchased the site and paid Hinman $250,000 for it, would that have been acceptable? Hinman had a business that he, admittedly, spent many years working on and building. I say kudos to him for that. I’ve been involved in building websites for a few years myself and I know how hard it is. However, you cannot sign away your business on the dotted line one day and then turn around the next and cry foul because you feel you should have been paid more than what you accepted. Last time I checked, there was no gun to Hinman’s head and he choose to sell.

On to claim #2 then, that NBCU was dishonest in their dealings with Hinman. He says that they didn’t approach him as NBCU, but as a shell company called New Fizz Corp.

To make matters worse, NBCU didn’t even have the balls to approach us themselves. They used a shell company called New Fizz Corp. to buy the SyFy Portal domain name, as well as all of our branding that uses “SyFy” or even “Sy” (or even SFY). That allowed them to buy the brand for $250,000.

What would be the reasoning for this? Or perhaps a better question would be: do you know the most important thing to a company in the information age? Privacy. Or secrecy, if you will. In an age where scripts and spoilers are leaked, movies are pirated and rumors are taken as fact when posted on the internet, is it such a leap to consider that perhaps NBCU didn’t want to get the gossip mill fired up by attempting to purchase Hinman’s site before they were ready to announce the name change of one of their networks? What would have happened if NBCU had approached Hinman with their first offer to purchase his site and he refused and then, perhaps, posted about it on his site? In marketing timing is everything, so attempting to hide the name change until they themselves were ready to reveal it seems like good business sense.

Again, by his own admission, Hinman and his lawyer suspected that NBCU was involved in this deal and chose not to stop the deal or question the connection between New Fizz’s lawyer and NBCU any further. It’s not like they were even in the dark until SciFi Channel announced its name change. They simply chose not to question further.

NBCU was under no legal obligation to enter into the sale with Hinman itself, nor were they prohibited from using a shell company. Finally, they also had no obligation to divulge to Hinman the reason they were purchasing his site. If he wanted to know, he should have asked. If they refused to tell him and it meant so much to him, he could have canceled the deal and refused to sell. I don’t merely say this as an attempt to prove that NBCU used the law to cover some sort of devious actions. I say this because I don’t believe they were devious at all.

Finally, the third claim: that Hinman created the term ‘syfy’. First of all, the name is kind of ridiculous and the fact that multiple people want to claim ownership of it is beyond me, but to each their own. That aside, both parties should realize that they both essentially ripped-off the original term ‘sci fi’, coined originally by Forrest J. Ackerman. Finally, I would honestly like to see either party prove it.

Perhaps Hinman did create that term 10 years ago and maybe NBCU did create the term on their own and then found Hinman’s site. Why is that so hard to believe? Is Hinman the only person in the world creative enough to have coined the term? Of course not. In fact, in his open letter to Engleman, he admits that he originally came up with a name for his website that someone else had created first:

Several years back, when we were trying to come up with a name for our new horror site, I had come up with the name “Screamscape.” I loved it, and was dancing all over the place that we had such an awesome name!

I mean, I had sat at my desk, thought about it for 10 minutes, and wrote it down.

Then I Googled “Screamscape” and found out that it was already in use by a rollercoaster enthusiast site. Does that mean I created the name? Or do I have to buy out Screamscape before I can claim that I “coined” the term?

He claims in his letter that “Variety credited [Michael Engleman] for “coining” the term “Syfy.” Is that Engleman’s fault? Of course not. Maybe the guy really did come up with the term 10 years after Hinman did and told Variety the truth about how he came up with it. Or perhaps the person who wrote the Variety article had no idea about Hinman’s site. The point is, there is really no proof that Hinman was the only person out of the 6 billion people in the world to have spelled “sci fi” as “syfy” ten years ago and, therefore, created the name. He may have been the first person to build a website with that name and popularize the name, just like NBCU may be the first company to attempted to trademark it.

Himan ends his article with the following statement: “But to those of us who are struggling to do the things we do … it’s yet another example of how mega-corporations do whatever it takes to make money, even at the expense of the little guy.” How is NBCU, a mega-corporation, doing whatever it takes to make money? They didn’t steal his site. They didn’t force him to close it down (even though they could have technically trademarked the name syfy and then sued him for infringement….they probably would have lost, but it likely would have cost Hinman alot of money to defend the lawsuit). NBCU bought the site for what a lot of people would consider a great deal of money and for an amount that Hinman himself felt was acceptable.

The bottom line? You don’t sign a contract and deposit $250,000 into your bank account one day and turn around the next day and claim that “the man” had cheated you. You also don’t claim that you only want recognition for a name origin but not money in the same breath that you complain that you feel you undersold your website and would have tried to take more from a company if you only knew what their revenues were. Something doesn’t fly here, people, and it’s not just an incomprehensible fight over a silly name.

[Editor’s note: Since this article was published, Michael Hinman wrote to correct a few items. Most notable is the fact that the SyFyPortal website itself was not sold, merely rebranded as Airlock Alpha where Hinman and crew continue to publish content. NBCU only purchased the ‘brand’ that Hinman had created. ]



2 Comments

  1. Michael Hinman July 16, 2009
  2. Michael Hinman July 17, 2009

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