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Owning Language

The Great Language Land Grab (New York Times) details the recent use of trademark law by tech companies to try to monopolize the use of words and terms. For example,

Microsoft is suing Apple, and Apple is suing Amazon, all over the right to use a simple two-word phrase: “app store.” Apple got there first, introducing its App Store in July 2008 as a marketplace for mobile applications. In January, Microsoft disputed Apple’s trademark claim, arguing that “app store” had already become a generic expression. And last week, Amazon announced its own “Appstore” for Google’s Android devices, prompting an infringement suit from Apple.

It’s not the first time the tech industry has claimed commonplace language as its own.

Facebook has been notorious in this regard, filing trademarks on an array of common four-letter words: “like,” “wall,” “poke” and, naturally, “face” and “book.” Last year, two small Internet start-ups, the travel site Placebook and the educational site Teachbook, learned the danger of using “book” for online services when Facebook’s lawyers came calling. (Placebook renamed itself, while Teachbook continues to fight it out.)

Microsoft, of course, has long been playing this game by fiercely upholding prosaic brand names like Windows, Office and Word. The Linux-based operating system Lindows, for instance, agreed to change its name (to Linspire) in 2004 after years of wrangling over whether “Windows” was generic. Now, in the “app store” dispute, the shoe is on the other foot, with Microsoft taking the role of language loosener.

According to Christopher Johnson, a branding expert who runs the Web site the Name Inspector, “there’s a land grab going on” in the information economy, as “companies are trying to snatch up pieces of our cultural commons.” He lays much of the blame on the increasing scarcity of available names, whether for trademarks, domain names or Twitter handles.

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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.