August 15, 2006

Using Google as a verb.

Complaining about it now only makes it obvious that you waited too long. You allowed the word Google to become deeply ingrained in our speech about the internet. It seems you enjoyed the attention when it served the interest of trumpeting the dominance of your brand. Now that it's become wholly natural for us to use Google as a verb, you want us to to make a conscious effort not to use it. We're supposed to pay attention to you all over again?

IN THE COMMENTS: Drew makes a stunning point:
I don't know about the rest of y'all, but when I go to "google that hottie" I go to google.com and type in her name.

Google's success and thus popularity is in their superiority to the competition. The verbification (I apologize for my english) has only served to increase their popularity.

Google is crucially different from other products, like Xerox, that had good reason to work hard protect their trademarks from becoming generic. The only way to do what the verb expresses is to go to a website. The way to get to a website is to use the name. If everyone says they're "googling," everyone goes to Google. They don't happen to go somewhere else to "google." What competitor would even want to trade on the name Google by saying come to our site to "google"? It would just send people to Google. As long as Google has the URL "Google," it benefits from everyone using the word.

29 comments:

BrianOfAtlanta said...

And here I was thinking "Wow, I thought it was only the Brits who got so worked up about the English language evolving." Then I clicked on the link.

BrianOfAtlanta said...

Then I actually read the link. My apologies to Brits everywhere. Is Google determined to become as hip as IBM?

Dave said...

My response to this type of lawsuit is: the naivete of lawyers continues apace.

If lawyers really think they are able, in this day and age, to retain control of the way in which their client's brand is used in the press (or, more importantly, in blogs) they are naifs who should go back to school for a real education.

Doubtless some lawyer will see this comment and respond by saying that companies have to "vigorously defend" their good name, yada, yada, yada. Well, that's all well and good but defending one's good name need not mean starting frivolous lawsuits, which lawsuits will not yield the hoped-for outcome.

Simon said...

This story explains why the natural reaction to think they're being silly is perhaps a touch premature:

"The risk for Google is that it ceases to become a brand altogether. If it becomes generic, the brand can be struck from the register of trademarks, leaving the owner without rights. This has happened before: escalator, aspirin, pogo, gramophone and linoleum were once registered trademarks that became victims of genericide.

More recently, in 2002, Austria's supreme court ruled that Sony does not have exclusive rights to the Walkman name for personal stereos and allowed a wholesaler to label rival players as Walkmans. In 2004, Australia's trademark office has dismissed 'Linux' as too generic to protect.
"

I wholly agree that Google is on the losing end of this one (and specifically with Dave's point that the genie is well and truly out of the lamp), but to be fair to Google, their concerns aren't as ludicrous as it might at first appear. I think people tend to underestimate just how serious a driving force Google has been in expanding the web; sure, there were search engines before Google, and there were commercial airliners before the 747 - it's a question of scale. Google has made almost any information so readily and easily available. Small wonder they want to avoid becoming a backwater.

Bob said...

First they turn into a$$-kissers to Commie China, restricting search results that might get the Red Leaders' panties in a ball, and now they get their lawyers acting on trademark issues. I know trademark protection is a big deal (witness Kleenex, Xerox, et al) - I think there was some discussion about "photoshopping" here last week - but man, talk about being a bunch of uptight googholes. I predict this reveals Google to be just another bunch of money-grubbers faking it as laid-back non-conformists.

"Don't be evil" my butt! Let the ridicule begin!

Joseph Hovsep said...

I don't see how becoming ingrained in the language hurts Google the business entity. The list of products that have been victims of "genericide" cited in Simon's comment doesn't seem very telling. It seems to me that the generic use of brand names like Kleenex for facial tissues or Tylenol for ibuprofin only serves to help those brands in the marketplace.

But I suppose Google's rationale is that its search engine is not a generic search engine in the way that Tylenol is just a different name for the same ibuprofin... and they'd be right about that. The software underlying Google is more advanced and superior to its competitors in a very real and provable way. Even so, it seems like a poor public relations move even if there is plausible legal justification.

Nasty, Brutish & Short said...

You would think the product identification value of having your company's name become a verb would far outweigh the value of the word in terms of it's intellectual property.

Remember when Xerox did this, though? People do now refer to it as "making copies" instead of "xeroxing."

Dave said...

Simon, I don't disagree that the genericization (is that a word) of "Google" is a risk for the company, but companies operate under all manner of risks all the time.

Better to focus your energies on risks that are manageable than to think risk-management entails initiating lawsuits that will accomplish little. All I ask of lawyers (and this seems contrary to their nature) is that they engage in a cost-benefit analysis of their litigation.

Actually, I suppose, this modest proposal is more accurately directed toward those who hire such lawyers: consider the ROI on such lawsuits. It likely is nonexistent.

As I've said before, I care little whether "the law" gives Google the right to sue, or even if "the law" indicates that Google should sue. What I think is the more important issue is that such litigation is a poor use of shareholder capital--capital, it should be remembered, is invested in Google on the premise that its management will use it well.

SWBarns said...

Companies have to "vigorously defend" their good name, yada, yada, yada.

This situation is one of the most terrifying that a IP lawyer can face. Your company has a trademark worth billions of dollars on the line. The first defense of a trademark infringer is that the mark is generic ("google the hottie" is a generic use). If your mark is found to be generic its value goes to $0.

Asprin, Trampoline, Raisin Bran, Elevator and Heroin are all examples of trademarks which have become generic.

Balfegor said...

You would think the product identification value of having your company's name become a verb would far outweigh the value of the word in terms of it's intellectual property.

The fear is that some other websearch service will come up, label itself "Google," and start leaching market share. This seems like much less of a risk for Google than for most of the other companies that have had this happen to them, simply because in order to search using Google, you usually have to type "Google" into the address bar, and the domain name system thereby insulates Google pretty well from copycat competition.

But search bars and aggregators and the like may grow to be a more significant share of the search functionality market in the future, and when the user himself is not typing in the Google address, the possibility of meaningful copycat competition seems (to me) to increase. When the naive user simply requests "Google" search functionality, he may select the "wrong" Google, after all.

Remember when Xerox did this, though? People do now refer to it as "making copies" instead of "xeroxing."

That's what they wanted. So Epson or whatever couldn't manufacture a Xerox copier, and piggy-back on Xerox's success.

alkali said...

swbarns is right. Don't blame Google, blame the case law that requires Google to show as a condition of enforcing its trademark that it is in the habit of writing annyoing letters to people.

W. Chambers said...

Joseph Hovsep: Tylenol is not ibuprofen. Tylenol is acetaminophen. Advil is ibuprofen.

And that's your pharmacology lesson for the day.

--W. Chambers, Pharm.D.

Bruce Hayden said...

This debate sounds a bit familiar - we seemed to get into it a little bit last week when we were talking about Adobe®'s Photoshop© mark being used gerically to indicate photoediting.

That said, Adobe® is in a much better position here than is Google™ because Google™ was unable to get full federal registration for its mark. You should notice that both Adobe® and Photoshop® typically appear with the registered trademark symbol (®), whereas Google™ typically appears with the unregistered trademark symbol (™) (Try searching using Google™, and you will notice the ™ in much smaller font above and to the right of the name). I suspect that part of the problem is that they don't have that broad a registration of their mark (because of other uses thereof). Here is a link to the USPTO trademark search for "Google".

One thing of note here is that they filed registrations for the primary register for "Google Writeley", "Google Checkout", "Google" for charitable uses on July 31, 2006, "Google" for telecommunications, etc. on March 2, 2006, "Google Talk" on August 23, 2005, "Gmail" on April 7, 2004, the Google logo on September 18, 2001, and it was only published for opposition on November 1, 2005. They do have a couple of granted registrations, including the most important one, 75978469, granted January 20, 2004, for their search engine. What this all suggests to me is that the company just recently has gotten a lot more agressive in asserting trademarks.

Bruce Hayden said...

Sorry about that last post, it should have been Adobe® Postscript® (not Postscript©).

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that I inadvertantly answered my question of why the mutlicolor Google
logo on the search page comes up with a ™ instead of a ® is because
the registration (#76314811) for that Google logo is still
pending. As noted before, it was originally filed on September 18,
2001, and published for opposition on November 1, 2005.

Madison Guy said...

As a number of commenters have noted, for an innovative, pioneering giant like Google to have its trademark go generic is a marketing advantage if anything.

Before Google went public it did not waste its resources with such frivolous lawsuite (frivolous, not in the legal sense, but the business sense).

After Google went public and they were rolling in even more cash than they already had, they started running out of productive uses for the money. Since the cost of hiring way too many lawyers was trivial, they did. This is the result.

It's a kind of hardening of the corporate arteries.

Drew said...

I don't know about the rest of y'all, but when I go to "google that hottie" I go to google.com and type in her name.

Google's success and thus popularity is in their superiority to the competition. The verbification (I apologize for my english) has only served to increase their popularity.

If a better or equivalent service would emerge, only then could we determine the impact to the brand.

I'm not a lawyer... maybe I'm missing something.

Joseph Hovsep said...

Chambers, Thanks for pointing that out. I hope people don't need a Pharm.D. to know that. Stupid error on my part.

Bruce Hayden said...

Another correction - sorry. As I noted, Google does have a federal registration (#75978469) for its search services, just not yet for its multicolor logo. So, I was incorrect using Google™, and should probably have used Google® (when referring to their search services). Also, if you want to display the ® symbol, use ®, and if you wish to display the ™ symbol (in Windows), invoke the character editor, select the symbol, copy it, and paste it in your post (as Unicode).

Bruce Hayden said...

Sorry, this is getting a bit ridiculous - the later looked fine in the preview, but didn't post correctly. The ® symbol is created by ®

Robert Burnham said...

As Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) once said, 'Verbing weirds words."

Bruce Hayden said...

I don't use MSFT IE, but with Mozilla, etc., I set google.com as my designated search engine, and then whenever I want to search something, I just type it into the address box on the top of my screen, and hit "Search". It saves typing in "google.com" all the time - as I use their search services dozens of times a day (as most of us probably do).

amba said...

As for brands used as generic terms, don't you say Scotch tape and Xerox even when the thing you're using was made by another company? And of course both are also used as verbs -- "I'll just Scotch-tape it," "Will you xerox this for me."

They ought to be flattered. If there was ever evidence of "penetration," this is it.

Ann Althouse said...

Drew made the key point. I'm going to do an update about that.

Balfegor said...

Drew made the key point. I'm going to do an update about that.

Yes, Drew highlights the reason Google has no current reason to fear widespread generic use of "Google." But I think they (or at least their lawyers) are not concerned primarily with the present, but preserving their rights for possible future threats. As I said above:

But search bars and aggregators and the like may grow to be a more significant share of the search functionality market in the future, and when the user himself is not typing in the Google address, the possibility of meaningful copycat competition seems (to me) to increase. When the naive user simply requests "Google" search functionality, he may select the "wrong" Google, after all.

That is, when you're accessing "Google," through a third party (i.e. the aggregator or the searchbar or whatever), the "Google" you access may not necessarily be the "Google" at www.google.com. Since Google's revenues stem primarily from search monetization, having another search engine capitalise, indirectly, on Google's name works an economic harm to Google.

Searchbars and aggregators are not currently the main way that search is carried out. But it's not hard to imagine that in the future, search will be carried out that way. If Google's trademark is found to be generic, I would expect Microsoft, in particular, to implement a Windows "google" toolbar linking back to some non-www.google.com location. Will people who know and are loyal to Google hate it? Sure -- but MS did something similar to Netscape, and it seems largely to have worked, even if they got hauled in on antitrust charges.

And even apart from Microsoft, there are all kinds of sites that have a little Google-search window in their sidebar. Some rival search company could pay those sites for the use of that "google" search window, implement an adwords type-system (for their own revenues), and leech revenues from Google that way.

Christy said...

I had resisted downloading the Google toolbar because the last thing I wanted was something else cluttering up my screen. And I was doing a bit of a boycott after that Chinese issue arose. Then the Google toolbar mysteriously appeared on my new laptop and it has been so useful that I never removed it or investigated where it came from. (Very useful for us lousy spellers with its spell check of comments) \

My point is that I don't have to go to Google to google. It stikes me that another company could hijack my toolbar just as easily and take away that google business.

Pogo said...

Re: "This has happened before: escalator, aspirin, pogo, gramophone and linoleum were once registered trademarks that became victims of genericide."

Rats.
Genericided already.
What's become of my brand?
Whom do I sue?

Steven said...

Why are we taking them at face value? I mean, it's possible Google might want us "to make a conscious effort not to use it." But it doesn't seem likely to me.

What they want is a paper trail so in 2010 they can stop Microsoft from setting up "google.msn.com" with a handy searchbar in Internet Explorer marked "Microsoft Google". And all they have to do, really, is to have a handful of staff lawyers send an occasional form letter of complaint. And it's not like the complaint letters themselves hurt anyone.

Matt said...

I am a trademark lawyer, and Google's justifiable in fighting "genericization"--a number of companies have had similar campaigns in recent years--Kleenex, Band-Aid, Xerox.

The only reason they don't have a registration is because a notable "trademark troll" named Leo Stoller has been playing games with them. He's now been sanctioned, and his delaying tactics are over. Google's logo registration should mature shortly.