Monday, August 14, 2006

Googling the Google Brand Search Engine

In July, I wrote about the OED announcing that it is using "Google" as a verb is an acceptable usage of the English language. Mirriam-Webster added "google" (small g) a little later. Being included as a verb in these prestigious dictionaries marks the point at which a phrase has become ubiquitous, a moment of celebration for some. Unfortunately, it also means bad news if you've trademarked that word. Rather than take issue with the dictionaries (at least the major ones, unlike say an online dictionary like Word Spy that has no clout) Google has opted to send out a series of warning letters to media companies, warning them against using Google as a verb. This is sensible, standard practice (just ask the Xerox people) because the law forces a trademark holder to take active steps in protecting its mark before it becomes generic (and thus loses trademark protection). As this list shows, the list of product names that have become generic, or are in danger of, is quite long.

Google's approach to preventing genericism is to demand that its name not be verbized in the media. Fair enough, but to ensure that their demands are (a) widely spread and (b) not seen as too evil, Google included these illustrations of appropriate and inappropriate uses in their letters:
Appropriate: He ego-surfs on the Google search engine to see if he's listed in the results.

Inappropriate: He googles himself.

Appropriate: I ran a Google search to check out that guy from the party.

Inappropriate: I googled that hottie.

That's right, Google used the word "hottie" in an official legal warning letter.

However, like I said above, the Google strategy does not seem to deal with the fact that if the OED had not accepted Google's use as a verb, it might not be as widely used. We can quibble over whether the word is regular usage before or after the OED condones its use, but once it does, it's official. And don't forget that a court will look at the dictionary for an ordinary meaning - though I wonder if the OED counts, it being a foreign source of law afterall. Suing the OED would be decidly evil, but if there are no qualms about suing a web site like Word Spy, then I can't wait for someone to sue the OED (or Webster) for inducing others to genericize a trademark.
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