A few months ago, I wrote about how editors of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary were adding “Google” to their dictionaries as a verb (see “Google Becomes a Verb”, 10-Jul-06). In it, I noted that trademark lawyers (at least those at Google) probably wouldn’t be happy about this event since it dilutes the Google trademark, even though it’s essentially free advertising for Google. The concern is, of course, that if a trademark becomes used generically, the trademark owner loses the ability to protect it.
How right I was. According to a short blip in The Independent, Google is now sending nasty-grams to media organizations – though not us, yet – to warn them about using its name as a verb. Other sites have picked up the news, but as is often the case with the close-mouthed Google, little hard information has emerged. Google has confirmed sending the letters, saying in one instance, “We think it’s important to make the distinction between using the word Google to describe using Google to search the internet, and using the word Google to describe searching the internet. It has some serious trademark issues.”
Perhaps the most interesting coverage I found by googling for “Google verb legal letters” comes from a posting by Frank Abate on the American Dialect Society Mailing List, in which he claims that Google can’t really do anything to people using “google” as a verb because U.S. trademark law explicitly excludes proprietary rights in verbs (and nouns, as opposed to proper adjectives). Although I found plenty of support for the fact that “proper” usage of trademarks involves using them as proper adjectives (“a Xerox photocopier”), I couldn’t confirm that a company would be on shaky legal ground if trying to prevent usage of a trademark as a noun or verb. But you know what’s funny about Frank Abate’s list posting? It’s from February 2003. I guess Google has been prickly about being verbed for some time now. But they also haven’t sued anyone for it yet, as far as I’ve seen.