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Fighting the Internet Word War

Apr 3rd 2011 at 6:24 PM

When IT and tech companies slug it out in legal squabbles about who originally invented the technical jargon that end users use every day, what are ordinary speakers of the language to make of it all?

Microsoft is suing Apple, and in turn, Apple is fighting it out with Amazon, all over the right to use a very simple two-word phrase: “app store.” Apple is firm on its stand, stating that it introduced its App Store in July 2008 as an online bazaar for its mobile applications. But in January, Microsoft argued that “app store” had already become a generic expression. Last week, Amazon joined the fray by introducing its own “Appstore” for Google’s Android Services. Apple then prompted an infringement case with Amazon.

This is just two of the legal scuffles of companies in the tech industry in which each company claims rightful ownership of the term. Facebook, for instance, is infamous in the regard. The famous online networking site has been claiming trademarks on common four-letter words such as “like,” “wall,” “poke,” and of course “face” and “book” and has guarded their so-called trademarks ferociously. For instance, last year, two small start-up websites, Placebook and the educational site Teachbook, received warnings from Facebook regarding the use of the word “book” in their names. Placebook renamed itself, but Teachbook is determined to fight it out.

Microsoft had been a long-time fighter of the word war by fiercely guarding prosaic brand names such as “Windows,” “Office,” and “Word.” Linux-based operating system, Lindows, has to change its name to “Linspire” after long years of debating over whether the word “Windows” was generic or not.

Christopher Johnson, a branding expert who runs the website The Name Inspector said that “there’s a land grab going on” in the information and technology economy. He added, “Companies are trying to snatch up pieces of our cultural commons.” He blames the conflict on the increasing scarcity of available names for trademarks, domain names, or Twitter handles.

Laurel Sutton, co-founder of the branding company Catchword, believes that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is “about 5 Internet years behind the times” in its keenness to allow tech and Internet giants to claim generic words as their own.

“All kinds of stuff gets approved that shouldn’t have,” she said. “Smaller companies could be hurt. This type of appropriation of language is only going to continue unless the USPTO realizes the potential for damage.”

Jessica Stone Levy, a Denver-based trademark lawyer laments, “This is not something that the general public needs to be bent out of shape about. This is really corporate maneuvering.”

Observers in Silicon Valley are shaking their heads about this word war. They remarked that these giants are wasting an enormous amount of money and time in trademark proceedings and fighting over little words. They said that these companies should be developing new products and services considering that they are innovators of the Information Age.


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