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To google or not to google?

Paul McFedries, who runs the excellent Word Spy, has received a letter from one of Google’s lawyers concerning his citation of the word google (v.):

To search for information on the Web, particularly by using the Google search engine; to search the Web for information related to a new or potential girlfriend or boyfriend.

The letter reads in part:

This definition implies that “google” is a verb synonymous with “search.” Please note that Google is a trademark of Google Technology Inc. Our brand is very important to us, and as I’m sure you’ll understand, we want to make sure that when people use “Google,” they are referring to the services our company provides and not to Internet searching in general.

Frank Abate, a participant on the mailing list, responds to Paul’s query for information and advice and points out that Google can’t really do anything about it:

Of course google is used as a verb. And why not? It only makes sense, it is short, it is fun, it works. And what the Google (TM) lawyer knows, but does not say, is that the company he represents cannot do anything about its use as a verb, legally. They cannot sue, as one cannot claim proprietary rights to a verb. Jesse Sheidlower recently pointed this out to me; apparently it is an explicit part of US law re trademarks.

I can’t speak to the specific legal matters in this case, but having some experience in getting such letters from lawyers, it looks as though Frank is right. That letter from Google is a bluff, an example of a corporation using their signifincant 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.

When companies get big, do they just naturally turn into bullies or is it a conscious decision? (via Grant)

Update: I’m well aware that Google, in order to protect their trademark, has to send out such letters. By law, trademarks need to be defended by the entities that own them or else they could lose that ownership. But still, it seems a little bullying when letters are sent out with the implication (however indirect or slight) of legal action when no legal action (assuming that Mr. Abate is correct) can be taken. Just rubs me the wrong way, although I’m unsure of a solution given the legal options available.

Cory Doctorow adds:

Allowing the generic use of “to google” by critical/academic sites like WordSpy does *not* constitute an abandonment of trademark (in fact, trademark abandonment involves a *very* high standard that is far in excess of allowing people to casually use your mark). What’s more, trademark specifically does NOT protect your mark from use in criticism, parody, instruction, and other first amendment contexts.