Kill the father!
The blogospheric lynch mob is out for Tim O’Reilly. His crime? Trademark enforcement.
A few years ago, O’Reilly and his business partner came up with a brilliant name for a new conference: the Web 2.0 Conference. They dutifully did what any companies would do when they coin a distinctive name for a new product: they began the process of registering “Web 2.0” as a trademark for their conference business. The conference turned out to be a great success, and it’s become a very lucrative franchise. Now a non-profit Irish organization, IT@Cork, is promoting its own Web 2.0 Conference. Although the re-use of the term was done with complete innocence, it nevertheless clearly infringes on the trademark of O’Reilly and his partner – a valuable trademark – and O’Reilly’s partner sent the company a perfunctory cease-and-desist letter in order to protect its property.
If you’d like to receive a similar letter, announce today that you’re coming out with an operating system named Vista or a magazine named the New Yorker or a golf tournament named the Masters. Although all three of those are generic, descriptive, commonplace terms, they are also, when applied to a particular type of product, trademarks. In those contexts, they are the property of their owners, and you’re not allowed to steal them any more than you’re allowed to walk into my house and swipe my cutlery.
But don’t tell that to the the mob. “O’Reilly,” writes a typical blogger, “has just put himself on the fast track to reputation implosion.”
In a nice gesture, O’Reilly’s company has apologized to the Irish firm for not speaking with them personally before sending out the cease-and-desist letter, and it’s granted them the right to use the term in their conference title this year:
In retrospect, we wish we’d contacted the IT@Cork folks personally and talked over the issue before sending legal correspondence. In fact, it turns out that they asked Tim to speak at the conference, though our Web 2.0 Conference team didn’t know that. We’ve sent a followup letter to Donagh Kiernan, agreeing that IT@Cork can use the Web 2.0 name this year. While we stand by the principle that we need to protect our “Web 2.0” mark from unauthorized use in the context of conferences, we apologize for the way we initially handled the issue with IT@Cork.
That’s not enough for the mob, though. To the mob, O’Reilly’s response is just “a strong dose of deceptive corporate-speak that is the very antithesis of Web 2.0.” The mob, you see, is feeling righteous and betrayed, and it won’t be satisfied until it’s tasted a bit of Tim O’Reilly’s blood. I have no doubt that it will soon get its wish.
UPDATE: Paul Kedrosky, in the course of a sideways voyage up my fundament, dismisses my argument here as “studiously awry.” The assumption that there can be only one legitimate view of this case staggers me. Anyway, here’s how I responded:
I have to sincerely disagree with your characterization of my argument in this case as “studiously awry.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I don’t think it’s an apt description. O’Reilly et al. created a conference that they named the Web 2.0 Conference. At that time, hardly anyone was using the term “Web 2.0” – a few scattered references, perhaps, with various meanings – and no one was using it in the way O’Reilly et al. defined it. And certainly no one was using it for a conference – nor had anyone, I’ll bet, even thought of using it as a conference name. “Web 2.0” was at that time purely a creation of O’Reilly et al. O’Reilly et al. had every right in the world, therefore, to get a trademark on the use of “Web 2.0” in a conference name, and they went through the prescribed, proper process to get that trademark. In the wake of their coinage, Web 2.0 has become a very popular term – with the meaning O’Reilly et al. came up with. To argue that because they came up with a term that became popular – that filled, apparently, a real need – they should now be somehow prohibited from using it as a trademark for a conference they invented is – wouldn’t you grant this? – a little bit perverse. I would think that the fact that their invention has proved so valuable underscores their right to own it as a trademark for their conference. Now, you may disagree with this line of argument, but I fail to see how you can dismiss it out of hand as “studiously awry.” I happen to believe strongly in people’s right to control their intellectual property. Remember, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all if O’Reilly et al. hadn’t created the term – in what has since become its common sense – as well as the conference.
Now, your other argument is that its use as a trademark offends your sensibilities. Clearly, it offends a lot of people’s sensibilities. It doesn’t happen to offend mine. Does that mean my sensibilities are illegitimate?
I’m sorry, but I think there are two sides to this question.
UPDATE 2: Cooler heads seem to have prevailed, at least for the moment. Bravo!