trademarks gone wild

I try to avoid drawing parallels between trendy tech issues of the day and my own past experiences – generally I believe that to move forward you have to treat most of your past as irrelevant.

But the parallels are too strong in watching Twitter make a controversial attempt to trademark the term “tweet,” bringing them into a cycle of uncomfortable conflict and limited accommodation with their own developers.

Second Life faced exactly the same issues – a passionate and well-meaning developer community using many terms associated with Second Life that the company hoped to protect as trademarks.  We ultimately came up with a comprehensive policy that was and remains a subject of derision in the SL community (see comments to the linked blog post).

It can be very difficult to engage in a productive conversation about trademark law, because even the basics are hard for nonlawyers (and some lawyers) to absorb, and yet because we’re just talking about using the English language, it seems like anyone who speaks English good should be able to comment intelligibly.  [Yes, the usage error in that sentence was intentionally ironic.]

I think everyone – the company and the commentators – could make better progress by ignoring the legal issues, and just focusing on the marketing questions.  Now, marketing is another one of those disciplines that requires a lot of expertise, and is nonetheless discussed with fervor by anyone who has a couple of IQ points to rub together.  But I think the marketing questions here are simple enough even for me to understand.

1st question:  Is there a name for the product or service that the company should be able to control?  The answer to this question is almost always yes for at least one name – companies are generally better off when they control the primary name for their offering.  Once you reach that answer, following trademark law in order to implement that answer is a straightforward process, and having good customer communication around that process is a requirement.

2nd question:  When there are words associated with the product or service that facilitate the use or adoption of the service, is that facilitation improved or hindered with greater company control over those words?  Marketers and lawyers almost always have the same bias for control (though for different reasons).  The bias itself is always wrong – I don’t mean that it’s always wrong to have that control, I mean that it’s always wrong to approach this question with bias.

Does it really do any good for Twitter to own the word tweet?  Some brand marketers and lawyers will raise the specter of genercide (basically, losing control over your brand name), but this fear should not be the primary analysis unless we are talking about the primary name.  When we are talking about those strongly associated words that help spread the gospel of the company, the analysis should not be of the law and certainly should not come from a place of fear.

The analysis should dispassionately examine whether unrestricted use of the words will help spread that gospel.  And it will often make sense to have less control over these words, not more.  If religion were a business, it would probably make sense to trademark “The Holy Bible” – but trademarking “Christ” would probably make for a lot fewer Christians.

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