How an Indian start-up won an IPR battle against the Somalian Govt.

Somali’s Ministry of Finance wanted the domain name ‘Minance’

Somalia often hits global headlines when its terrorists launch deadly attacks or when its pirates take vessels and ships hostage for ransom in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Sometimes these outlaws even work together.

But an Indian start-up had a strange experience with the Somalian Ministry of Finance over an IPR issue and while it won the case, it lost nearly ₹10 lakh.

Founded in Bengaluru in 2014 as a SEBI-registered investment advisory and private wealth management enterprise, Minance landed in trouble within a year (August 2015) when the Government of Somalia discovered that an Indian start-up held the domain name, sent the firm a notice that it wanted to use for its Ministry of Finance, and asked its Founder-CEO, Anurag Bhatia, then just 23 years old, to relinquish it.

The bootstrapped Minance was still trying to find its feet, said Bhatia, a former risk analyst at Amazon. He and his colleagues had just sold their vested Amazon stocks but had little idea of how to invest the money. “I loved the domain name and had no intention of giving it up,” he said, adding he decided to fight in a situation where one would expect most early-stage entrepreneurs to give up.

Goes for arbitration

But the Somalian government was as adamant. So, in this virtual battle between a David and a Goliath, the issue had to be taken to the Arbitration and Mediation Center run by the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva.

For a minnow like Minance, the cost involved in the entire process was an added financial burden and the decision to fight was a blind bet. But Bhatia managed to contact a high-profile lawyer who specialised in such IP cases.

“There was no way we could afford his fees but he offered us a deal. The lawyer was flying to London and if we could tag along, he would help us build the case on the plane.” So it was arranged for a Minance employee to take the flight to London alongside the lawyer and then promptly fly back.

Wins the case

Based on the defence (Minance had the international trademark to the name and was actively using the domain), the gamble finally paid off and Minance was allowed to keep the domain name. The entire episode lasted over six months with settlement of the case in December 2015, and cost the company nearly ₹10 lakh in legal fees and flight tickets. But, being a small player, Minance kept the case under wraps so far and is coming out in the open only now as it embarks on the next stage of expansion.

Asked if he sought any compensation or costs, Bhatia said it was not a judicial case but an arbitration case. Hence, no costs or compensation could have been paid, he told BusinessLine.

Minance’s victory was remarkable for a start-up with a handful of employees fighting and winning against a country’s might.

Expansion plans

Minance now has 42 employees and over 3,000 customers who pay it 10 per cent of profits. “We are also going in for funding this year as we plan to expand our customer base by five times in the next couple of years.”

Bhatia said Minance caters to investment management needs of the under-served market of SMBs and individual investors. It has Asset Under Management (AUM) of over ₹300 crore. After providing investment and taxation services, Minance plans to delve into the insurance and credit segments as well.

Virendra Pandit

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