Over on kottke.org at the moment there’s a piece by Jason on Google’s response to verbing. The story goes like this – there’s an entry on Wordspy for a the verb to google. Google decided to respon to this entry by sending a letter telling them that they shouldn’t publish stuff like this because it dilutes their brand. Jason’s comment?
“That letter from Google is a bluff, an example of a corporation using their significant corporate resources (i.e. time and money) to make individuals – who generally have neither time nor money, relatively speaking – do what the corporation wants them to do, regardless of legality.”
Unfortunately in this particular case, I believe that Google are in the right and Jason is incorrect. The problem is not particularly one of Google trying to force the little-guy into acquiescing. In fact Google have to go through processes like these to stop their brands becoming normal parts of language. When you’re trained as a journalist, you’re told that you have to capitalise brand-names. If you don’t, the company concerned is forced to write to you requiring you to make it clear that it’s a brand. If it doesn’t do so – and cannot demonstrate that it’s done so, then the word can be associated with any product at all. Classic examples are things like Hoovers and Frisbees – they’re synonymous with the object themselves, but they have to be routinely defended otherwise Hoover (the company) loses the right to the brand name – and anyone on the planet can market a vacuum cleaner as ‘a hoover’. If Google don’t protect their trademark and it entered general speech, then there would be nothing legally to stop altavista renaming themselves altagoogle, or Google search.
At least that’s the way it works in UK law as it pertains to journalists. I’ll try and find some more information on this subject shortly.