March 26, 2011
Modest Proposal: Open Source Words And Ilg Blerps

An article in the New York Times takes a look at the legal battles between major computer companies over use of pairs of common words.

Microsoft is suing Apple, and Apple is suing Amazon, all over the right to use a simple two-word phrase: “app store.” Apple got there first, introducing its App Store in July 2008 as a marketplace for mobile applications. In January, Microsoft disputed Apple’s trademark claim, arguing that “app store” had already become a generic expression. And last week, Amazon announced its own “Appstore” for Google’s Android devices, prompting an infringement suit from Apple.

"Facebook" strikes me as a less obvious use of a pair of words than "App store". But Facebook has actually filed trademarks for "like" and "wall" among other words. See the article for details. This all seems like a big problem that will probably grow much worse. What to do?

Modest proposal: Make up new words to replace commonly used words and then create the equivalent of an open source license for each word where the word can be be used by anyone without fear of trademarks. If we created enough different words and also extended the license to include all combinations of open source words then we could have things like App Stores (perhaps renamed Ilg Blerps) where lots of companies could name their similar things by the same name. We'd all know the Amazon Ilg Blerp, the Google Ilg Blerp and the RIM Ilg Blerp sell the same kinds of things. That strikes me as incredibly handy.

The licensing model should probably be tweaked to allow use of open source words in copyrighted novels and news stories. If one uses 100 or 200 or 1000 (take your pick, we can debate) words in a row then that combination could be copyrightable. Though we'd want to avoid copyright on word orders derivable from sorts or other mathematical manipulations of words.

What do you think of this idea? Do you want the ability to use the same word pair to describe similar things sold by or owned by different companies? Do you see this as a valuable innovation in human languages?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 March 26 06:36 PM  Comm Tech Languages

Mthson said at March 26, 2011 7:21 PM:

I'd say I like the idea, but I wouldn't want to infringe on Facebook's trademark.

Fat Man said at March 26, 2011 8:06 PM:

Trademark and copyright are two entirely different beasties. Generally speaking copyrighting a title is not possible -- it is not the creative expression of the author. A trademark maybe a single word or sign such as Exxon, Kleenex, Xerox, or Ford. But a phrase such facial tissue, gasoline, photocopier, or automobile is merely generic or descriptive, and it may not be a trademark.

Exxon was an invented word designed to avoid the descriptive problem. OTOH, aspirin was once a trademark, but is now descriptive and is not a trademark. The owners of Xerox and Kleenex live in terror of become generic.

App store, seems to me, to be purely descriptive, and not trademarkable, but I am sure that Amazon's lawyers will explore that issue for the Court.

A said at March 26, 2011 8:42 PM:

That's not how natural languages work in human communities of speakers. You can't just make up words and expect them to catch on in the way you're suggesting.

Michael B. said at March 26, 2011 9:53 PM:

This is ridiculous. You can't and shouldn't expect or be able to trademark a "self-explaining" name. Just another reason for me to not buy any Microsoft or Apple products.

Kralizec said at March 27, 2011 1:16 AM:

Randall, there's a problem in the circumstance that many readers, after thirteen or seventeen years of formal "education," still do not know that the phrase "modest proposal" is a signal for satire.

ErisGuy said at March 27, 2011 3:16 AM:

How could you write this without mentioning "windows?"

ASPIRANT said at March 27, 2011 3:16 AM:

I can't believe you can read stories like this and still support limited-regulation Capitalism. They'll try to take take anything that isn't bolted down.

Randall Parker said at March 27, 2011 10:01 AM:


You are telling me nobody reads Jonathan Swift any more? Did he get banned along with Mark Twain? Sometimes I feel like one of the few remaining survivors of a lost civilization.


I did not want to pay a royalty to a certain company in Washington State for mentioning that word. I hope you've already written them a royalty check for your own use of that word.

jim moore said at March 27, 2011 1:15 PM:

It's not that we don't read Swift anymore, its that we get exposed to so much idiocy on the internet that you take the satire seriously.

For example, I made a post called "A Modest Proposal for energy independence : Nuclear Frakking" Which I advocated for an underground nuclear war to liberate Natural gas from its oppressive rock strata in Appalachia. While Creating better jobs and doing less environmental damage than coal mining.

And it got deleted because they thought I was serious.

Randall Parker said at March 27, 2011 3:02 PM:

jim moore,

Maybe it got deleted because they thought you were talking about sex. You know what the second Battlestar Galactica called sex, right? I was kinda annoyed when they chose that word because I had become accustomed to "frel" from Farscape.

Where'd your post get deleted?

jim moore said at March 27, 2011 8:45 PM:

It was David Brin's web site. I thought he would have gotten the reference to Swift, but I think that all he saw was me advocating "eating Irish babies". I was trying to think of the most environmentally destructive way of getting more energy - using H-bombs to fracture rock shale rather than hydraulic pressure. I mean, we got the weapons all ready paid for, why waste them on foreigners? I kind of took the whole Drill Baby Drill idea and cranked it up to 11 on the crazy scale. I argued that using nuclear weapons underground was less damaging to the environment and the health and safety of the people of Appalachia than our current practice of mountain top removal.

Unexpected Satire in blog comments is almost always taken the wrong way.

C said at March 27, 2011 10:07 PM:

The thing about facebook is that college's had facebooks printed with pictures of school attendees for decades and that's exactly where zukerberg got the name as a sort of online version of the college facebook. So even though it is a non-obvious word pairning, it was a commonly used description of publication type well before the website.

Eric said at March 28, 2011 6:58 AM:

"Unexpected Satire in blog comments is almost always taken the wrong way."

Heh, I got a story about that.

In high school I submitted a short story I wrote to the school "literary magazine" titled Another Modest Proposal where I argued that the Middle East problem was insolvable and we should nuke the whole region and drill through the glass for the oil.

They rejected it with a comment saying that I was "unserious" and didn't "grasp the politics involved".

th said at March 28, 2011 6:23 PM:

Packard-Bell combined parts of 2 well known names into one that had nothing to do with either.
jim moore, they have already tried that, in the early 70's there was a lot of interest in colorado shale for gas and oil. The US govt blew up a section of it with a nuclear explosion hoping the radiation would somehow unlike all previous blasts stay in a neat pile, unfortunately it didn't proving fact is stranger than fiction.

Lisa S. said at March 29, 2011 1:01 PM:

I agree. That's a perfectly cromulent idea.

uncledip said at March 29, 2011 1:05 PM:

Well, isn't this a nice knock-down argument

Murgatroyd said at March 29, 2011 1:48 PM:

I have a copy of the Microsoft Windows 1.0 manual, one of the little boxed binders. There's a trademark and copyrights page ... Although Microsoft trademarked other words and phrases, they conspicuously did NOT trademark the word "windows."

I even offered my copy of the manual to Michael Robertson for use as evidence in the "Lindows" trademark dispute, but apparently he had other long-term objectives than to clear up the usage rights.

Meanwhile, Apple and Amazon seem to want to cush a gack over the issue of terminology.

Randall Parker said at March 29, 2011 7:41 PM:

Lisa S.,

Embiggen this idea wherever you can. Remember the orsigit won't norbig otherwise.

Daniel in Brookline said at March 30, 2011 6:17 AM:

Alternatively, the Extremely Smart People at Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon could just grow up a little.

Does anybody seriously think that "app store" should belong to Apple? What, is "app" supposed to be short for "apple" now? (If so, please show me another context in which that contraction is used.)

Does anybody seriously think that a Droid "app store" will steal business from an Apple "app store"? The two domains are mutually exclusive! Apples don't run Android applications, and vice versa.

As for inventing words: is it really true that you can't just invent words, because nobody will grok them? (Nonetheless, I think it's unnecessary. The English language has hundreds of thousands of words already; why should we make up more, just to satisfy the lawyers with too much time on their hands?)

Patrick Carroll said at March 30, 2011 9:16 PM:

What's the rot13 of "app store"?

Just wondering.

Engineer-Poet said at April 1, 2011 5:49 PM:

ncc fgber. Not what one looks for in a candidate generic replacement for a trademarked term.

Kralizec said at April 3, 2011 8:49 AM:
ASPIRANT said at March 27, 2011 3:16 AM:

I can't believe you can read stories like this and still support limited-regulation Capitalism. They'll try to take take anything that isn't bolted down.

Aspirant appears not to have noticed that it is only by means of governmental powers that one can deny all others the free use of plain, ordinary descriptive phrases. He does not seem to see that the very problem under discussion is the desire men have to "bolt down" something we think best remains in free, common use. Seeming completely unaware that he is making himself part of the problem, he puts himself on the side of expanding rulers' authority to bolt things down!
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