The Great Language Land Grab

March 26, 2011
By Ben Zimmer



When tech companies engage in legal squabbles about who gets to use our everyday words, what are ordinary speakers of the language to make of it all?

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.

Laurel Sutton, co-founder of the branding company Catchword, said she believed that the United States Patent and Trademark Office is “about five Internet years behind the times” in its willingness to allow companies like Apple to stake claims to generic words and phrases. “All kinds of stuff gets approved that probably shouldn’t have,” Ms. Sutton said. If Apple’s trademark is upheld, she reasons, it won’t harm the bottom lines of Microsoft and Amazon — but smaller companies could be hurt. “This type of appropriation of language is only going to continue unless the U.S.P.T.O. realizes the potential for damage,” she warned.

For what it’s worth, the facts in the “app store” cases don’t look terribly promising for Steve Jobs and his fellow Cupertino visionaries. “App” has been used by the computing crowd since at least 1985 as a short form of “application.” And as Microsoft lawyers were happy to point out in the January filing, Mr. Jobs himself has used “app store” in a generic manner. In a conference call with analysts last October, he was quoted as saying that “Amazon, Verizon and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android.” Blithely pluralizing “app store” like that is no way to protect a trademark that is supposed to be distinctive.

Though I don’t have a dog in this fight, Microsoft also quoted me in its brief, since as chairman of the American Dialect Society’s new-words committee I was responsible for making the announcement that “app” had been selected as the society’s 2010 word of the year. That ended up being another quiver in Microsoft’s bow, demonstrating how widespread the terms “app” and “app store” have become.

No matter the outcome of this dispute, you don’t have to worry that Apple’s lawyers will pound on your door with a cease-and-desist order if you mention that you want to download Angry Birds from an “app store” lacking the Apple seal of approval. “This is not something that the general public needs to get bent out of shape about,” said Jessica Stone Levy, a Denver-based trademark lawyer. “This is really corporate maneuvering.”

The greater concern among Silicon Valley observers is the vast amount of time and money that these companies are spending in trademark proceedings that may amount to little more than gamesmanship. Rather than fighting over little words, the innovators of the Information Age could be busy, well, innovating.

When tech companies engage in legal squabbles about who gets to use our everyday words, what are ordinary speakers of the language to make of it all? Microsoft is suing Apple, and Apple is suing Amazon, all over the right to use a simple two-word phrase: “app store.” …


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