When Google won the Search Engine Watch award for Outstanding Search Engine in January, I explained to readers how Google's success as a search engine was underscored by the increasing use of its name as a synonym for search, a consumer tribute but a trademark owner's nightmare:
Throughout 2002, reports of people using "google" as a synonym for "search" continued to roll in. The American Dialect Society even recently named "google" second place for 2002 "Word Of The Year," and it was the unanimous choice of the society for the "Most Useful Word" for 2002.
Xeroxing a copy; Rollerblading down the street; FedExing a package -- all are examples where companies providing excellent products and services have seen their names transformed by the public into ways of describing those products and services, regardless of the actual manufacturer.
While such transformations give trademark lawyers at those companies fits, they also remain the highest compliment that consumers can give to products.
Now Google's first publicized action to protect its trademark from being transformed into a generic word has occurred. The company sent what's now become a well-cited letter to Word Spy editor Paul McFedries asking him to identify Google as a trademark, after McFedries featured Google as a word of the day on his web site.
The situation was easily resolved. McFedries simply added to his definition that Google was a trademark of Google Technologies Inc., which is all Google was fairly requesting.
Legally, McFedries almost certainly did not have to make the change, as he wasn't using the term in a trademark sense. Nor did Google try and order him to do so. But without doubt, this won't be the last action Google has to take.
The company has also already contacted others, as explained in this recent article exploring the tricky challenge that Google faces in protecting its name. Indeed, its name has been used in the film Maid in Manhattan, a New Yorker cartoon and into several television shows, such as Friends.
So, expect the headaches to continue for both sides. Google will have to keep acting to show it tries to protect its trademark, while those using the word will wonder whether they are violating trademark law (often not).
Solution to this headache? How about taking two aspirin, aspiring being of course a former trademark of Bayer in the United States now gone generic.
Will we some day see a Google competitor such as MSN Search asking, "What do you want to google today?"
SMALL PRINT: Terms used may be trademarks of their respective companies. Product offer void where prohibited by law. Reading articles may cause eyesight weakness; consult a doctor if disoriented.