Friday, April 23, 2004

The mark of the beast

Poynter's Matt Thomspon covers trademarks -- and when it's OK to use brand names in everyday copy. If you need a copy, can I Xerox it? When Bob is fired, does he take his Rolodex with him? When titles are dumbed down, are they Headlines for Dummies?

Having a product become a household name may be positive for start-ups. But it becomes a problem when companies have to worry about the dilution of trademark. They don't want their product's name to become generic because then they won't have a basis for their trademark and anyone could use the name. That's why it's worth it for them to pay armies of lawyers to send cease-and-desist letters to newspapers with haphazard mentions of "kleenex" and "dumpsters" and "googling."

Thomspon shares a great story about the Mail & Guardian newspaper of South Africa. It published a story about a new dumbed-down form of cricket, with the headline "Cricket for Dummies." The publishers of the "For Dummies" series of books, Wiley Publishers, told the paper to cut it out.

But the newspaper had a good defense. It wasn't writing a how-to on cricket. It wasn't using the phrase in a way that would compete with the books. It asked, "How can a company trademark words of the English language in such a way that we cannot use them for editorial purposes?"

The publishers have no problem with it: "Any words placed in front of 'for dummies' are not permitted by third parties."

Ridiculous, I say. I think John McIntyre of ACES agrees in the article. He pushes for restraint -- no need to use trademarked terms for metaphors, for example -- but that doesn't mean the letter writers are always right. And he shares a great anecdote about social workers in Maryland that is worth the price of admission alone.

Also, I'm glad to see Thompson covering issues with an editing bent. You may remember his article on copy-editing blogs.

>Trademark Law for ... Dunderheads [Poynter]
>Thompson interview with McIntyre [Poynter]
>Cricket for Dummies [Mail & Guardian]
>Voertsek for Dummies [Mail & Guardian] (Thompson wrote that voertsek means "bugger off.")
>Trademarks for Dummies [Mail & Guardian]
>Is Anyone Editing Their Copy? [Poynter]


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