Rant: Trademarks of prior art

22 Dec 1999

I was shocked and annoyed when I heard that Martha Stewart had trademarked "It's a Good Thing", since friends and I and geeks around the world had been using the phrase for years, complete with capitalization and ironic (TM). The full irony of the (TM) didn't materialize until later. It was a happening waiting to be a joke.

Why can people trademark commonly used phrases? I presume for the same reason people can patent obvious "technology": because the USPTO has no idea what goes on outside their office.

I admit that CS geeks aren't plentiful enough or powerful enough to stamp "globally common" on their slang, but it was common enough in my social circles that MS's monopoly of it seemed preposterous, and this is my rant, so I'm ranting. But it's not just me. The usage was so widespread that "Good Thing" has an entry in The Jargon File, the canonical compendium of hacker slang.

It's a couple years later, and I'm annoyed once again, though I've long since become shock-proof. Epinions claims to have trademarked "Web of Trust", using it to describe their trust propagation system. In fact, "web of trust" has been the catch phrase to refer to PGP's trust model, which the Epinions model resembles closely enough that it may be the sincerest form of flattery. The phrase appears in the PGP changelog for version 2.5, released and distributed worldwide in 1994.

So listen up all you trademarking brand-building mindshare-wanting catch-phrase-stealing marketomatons: stop seizing my language, or I'll patent the business meeting.

Update: 23 Dec 1999

The universe mocks my modest outrage. Two hours after I posted this rant, Wired posted a story about some moronic French company suing a 31-year old arts organization for using the name "Leonardo". Don't even mention eToy, don't get me started on patents, and when you decide to exhibit outrage, don't give the universe a shot at cheap irony.