Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is Facebook Going All Anne Elk On Us?

You know, if only Richard Nixon had copyrighted the “-gate” suffix, he’d be a much richer man nowadays. Or at least his estate would, given that he’s dead.

Or, conversely, we’d be much more free from overuse of the suffix in the media.

Hence a small part of me applauds Facebook for pursuing a trademark infringement lawsuit against Illinois-based for using the “-book” suffix in its website and company name.

There seem to be two sides to the Internet. One is that side that has to be so painfully original that they invent words on the spot with which to brand themselves. These are the Twitters, the Vimeos, the Flickrs and others.

Then there’s the side that figures originality and creativity are (somewhat) overrated so they end up either being banal – think youtube, craigslist and others – or enter into the realm of copycatting, either on name (like teachbook) or on appearance (like’s latest design iteration aping Twitter).

Facebook doesn’t claim to have copyrighted the “-book” suffix, but argues in a court filing provided by that:
The BOOK component of the FACEBOOK mark has to descriptive meaning and is arbitrary and highly distinctive in the context of online communities and networking websites. If others could freely use “generic plus BOOK” marks for online networking services targeted to that particular generic category of individuals, the suffix BOOk could become a generic term for “online community/networking services” or “social networking services.” That would dilute the distinctiveness of the FACEBOOK Marks, impairing their ability to function as unique and distinctive identifiers of Facebook’s goods and services.
Though I’m no legal scholar, what Facebook says here makes sense. They’re concerned if the “book” suffix becomes ubiquitous with a passel of non-Facebook-affiliated social networking websites, people will associate the term generically with social networking rather than exclusively with Facebook.

There may be some who would scoff at Facebook’s actions. I’m not one of them. As I’m a board member at Great Divide Media, which has filed trademarks on the Uncharted name in print media, online media and other categories with the U.S. Patent Office, I’m well aware of the cost and energy involved in building a brand. We’ve already seen some feeble attempts to copy what we’re doing using similar names and, thankfully, they never got to the point of a trademark lawsuit. But we had the big guns – our trademarks – ready to go, just in case.

Anne Elk here may be going overboard protecting her ideas, but at the same time, protecting your ideas is a good thing to do. Teachbook stands to gain more by using the “-book” suffix simply by riding on Facebook’s coattails than Facebook stands to gain by brushing off the competition, even if it doesn’t seem very competitive. It’s just too easy to dismiss Facebook’s legal arguments here in the era where the “little guy” on the Internet is always cast in the role of the victim because the bully is some huge successful company that, frankly, people are jealous of. Facebook has the legal right to defend its copyrights, and is not wrong to do so, no matter the size of the alleged infringer.

UPDATE: According to TechCrunch, Facebook is now trying to trademark the word "face," likely for reasons similar to what's already been outlined. There is, naturally, opposition. And a demonstration in the unoriginality of many, many Internet companies who think putting "face" in their name (or "book" for that matter) is going to help their chances by hanging onto the 800-pound gorilla's coattails.

No comments: