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Semtex: From High-Profile Explosive to High-Energy Drink

Semtex: From High-Profile Explosive to High-Energy Drink

Posted: September 06, 1995

By Jette, Julie

One is battery-acid yellow, comes in a black-and-orange can, and is supposed to give those who drink it a burst of energy. The other is a plastic explosive favored by armies, demolition experts and terrorists.

They're both called Semtex, and the explosive's manufacturer has just lobbed a legal Molotov cocktail at the soft-drink maker.

Chemical manufacturer Synthesia says that Bohemia-based Pinelli, producers of Semtex and other noncarbonated soft drinks, is unfairly trading on its explosive's good name. The two companies are about to battle it out in court.

Pinelli began manufacturing Semtex, which it promotes as a quick-energy drink, earlier this year. In late 1994, the company submitted an application to the trademark registry to gain exclusive use of the name Semtex for food or drinks.

Synthesia registered the name Semtex in the explosives category way back in 1959. This spring, after the Semtex energy drink began taking off on the market, Synthesia filed an application to gain a universal trademark for Semtex. Such a registration would prevent any company but Synthesia from using the name Semtex on any product.

"It's not the lemonade that's selling, its the name," claimed Synthesia spokesman Gregor Vavrina. "We tried to force them to stop production or use another name."

"It wasn't Synthesia that made [Semtex] famous, it was the terrorists," replied Pinelli owner Kvetoslav Srovnal.

Semtex, a puttylike plastic explosive, has been blamed for numerous terrorist attacks. Its notoriety has been spread by spy novels and Hollywood movies. Czechoslovakia's former state trading company, Omnipol, which was in charge of arms exports, wasn't picky about its customers, and stories about smuggled and stolen Semtex continue to surface periodically.

Last year, Synthesia began a program allowing legitimate, licensed users of Semtex to trade old, nearly untraceable Semtex for a newer version that bomb squads can detect more easily.

Srovnal said that, by donating partial proceeds from each can of the soft drink sold to the charity of Synthesia's choice and by crediting Synthesia on the can, the drink company offered Synthesia an opportunity to improve Semtex's notorious image.

Synthesia's directors had been keen on the idea, but then its supervisory board vetoed it, and in a "typical socialist management tactic" decided to file the suit, Srovnal said.

But the chemical giant faces an uphill legal battle, said attorney Milan Chromecek, a trademark-law expert and partner at the international law firm Squire, Sanders and Dempsey.

Essentially, he said, the race is on. Synthesia must register Semtex universally before Pinelli registers it as a soft-drink name. Synthesia's original Semtex trademark probably won't help it.

A revamped trademark law that comes into effect Oct. 1 could complicate the case. The old law protected registered trademarks from copycat products or services "of the same kind." The new law just says "similar" products or services, according to Chromecek.

"I think the conclusion must be that [a soft drink] is not similar to an explosive," he said.

Chromecek said Synthesia would have to prove that the Semtex drink had somehow harmed the distinction of its trademark. That won't be easy, he said: "[Semtex explosive] doesn't need much denigration."

Pinelli's Semtex is a sweet, lemony, noncarbonated drink. Srovnal likened it to the popular European drink Red Bull, which contains a high dose of caffeine to give the drinker an energy boost.

One liter of Semtex provides 144 milligrams of caffeine, 180 milligrams of taurine, 100 milligrams of vitamin C and other vitamins, and what tastes like a lot of sugar.

In addition to the Czech Republic, Semtex is distributed in Slovakia and Hungary, and Pinelli plans to begin distributing it in Germany and Austria.

Srovnal didn't want to release sales figures because he said he was afraid that might give Synthesia more ammunition in court. He did say, however, that of the three trucks in which Pinelli exports its drinks to Slovakia every month, one is filled entirely with Semtex.

By Jette, Julie

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