By Dennis Baron
Facebook wants to trademark the word “face.” The social networker which connects more than 500 million users has already shown how we can all live together as one big happy set of FBF’s by forcing other sites to drop “book” from their names, and now, in application no. 78980756 to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Facebook is asserting its ownership of the word “face” as well.
Controlling how the rest of us use common words like “face” and “book” is nothing new for corporate America. Coca-Cola has a long history of suing competing cola products (they successfully forced Sweetie Cola off the market, but they couldn’t budge Pepsi), and Xerox still reminds us that xerox, a term which has long been synonymous with photocopy, is not actually a synonym for photocopy, but a trademark to be used only for copies made on Xerox Corporation machinery (Merriam-Webster defines the verb “xerox” as “to copy on a xerographic copier”).
Similarly, search giant Google continues to insist that “google” is not a verb, despite the fact that Webster’s says it is. Even Webster’s, which lost trademark status for its own name over a century ago, exerts enough sway over dictionary-making that almost no one dares define “Webster’s” as ‘an English dictionary,’ even though most Americans use the term as a generic to refer to any dictionary, not just one created by the corporate descendants of Noah Webster. (Searching for “Webster’s” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary returns this message: “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.”)
Trademarks are a highly-contested subset of the English vocabulary, one where common usage often conflicts with corporate interests. Manufacturers want their brand names on everybody’s lips, but if that name becomes too common, they can lose their legal rights to it and what was once a license to print money becomes just another word like “has” or “been.” That’s what happened to the former trademarks shredded wheat, linoleum, zipper, aspirin, and thermos—they all became generic. Even heroin was once a trademark owned by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer (it owned aspirin as well), which marketed the drug as a cough suppressant and, amazingly enough, an antidote to morphine addiction (a classic big pharma error). Bayer forfeited the heroin trademark after World War I, which may be just as well because today no law-abiding business wants to be associated with the name.
Sometimes a company will claim it owns a word that is already in common use. Monopoly has been an English word since the 14th century, but when the game of Monopoly was launched in post-Depression 1933, it quickly became a hit and the word “monopoly” became a trademark, though only in reference to games of banking and real estate, not to the larger world of collateralized debt obligations and industrial monopolization.
But in the digital age, where every click represents income potential, companies are pushing their trademark monopolies to the limit, exerting their sway not just over words that are in direct competition with their own products—for example, in the 1980s CompuServe tried to patent “Email”—but more general uses of words as well, like Apple’s recent attempt to trademark “pod.”
For now, Facebook may be content with prosecuting other interweb use of words like “face” and “book.” But commercial use of these words is widespread—everything from Face the Nation to Hawaii 5-0’s “Book ’em, Danno” stands to become a target of Facebook’s legal department, not to mention the Army’s patented “about face,” the sociological concept of “saving face,” common expressions like “Face it . . .” or “face the music,” and such book classics as the little black book and the New York Times Book Review. The CIA World Fact Book is also problematic, since according to a Facebook “cease-and-desist” letter, “fact” in the title is “face” with one letter changed.
Considering Facebook’s general disregard for intellectual property as well as personal privacy—founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience in January that privacy is dead, that he’s just helping people do what they want, which is to share more and more of themselves online, including their words and pictures—Facebook may soon claim the rights to your face as well as to your books (though not those ebooks whose rights you’ve already licensed from Amazon—they remain not yours, but Amazon’s).
Facebook may also go after Apple’s FaceTime app for the new iPhone 4 as yet another infringement on its new trademark. Not that Apple is blameless in the word wars. After foolishly insisting that it owns “pod” because we invariably associate the word with iPods, there are rumors that the company is planning to go after the pronoun “I,” one of the commonest words in the English language. According to a secret internal document that was inadvertently-on-purpose left by an Apple employee in a Cupertino bar, once Apple secures ownership of the first person singular pronoun, it will force us to lower-case all of our i’s, a bold challenge to competitor and Word-monopolist Microsoft’s insistence that all the stand-alone i’s in English be upper case. And that shrewd move by Apple’s Steve Jobs makes Facebook’s attempt to corner the market on “face” and “book” look like Small Potatoes™.
It’s possible that the Patent Office could agree with Facebook’s claim that trademarking face is vital to the company’s survival. After all, FB’s lawyers might argue, Friendster’s failure to secure the rights to friend was a key factor in that company’s decline (a more significant factor was competition from Facebook). But lawyers, corporations, and trademark commissions can’t dictate how those of us who use English every day will deploy any word, even if we use those words on Facebook. Google, for many, will remain a web search, regardless of the search engine. Xerox will refer to any copy on any copier. Webster’s will be for many just a dictionary (most people don’t even know which dictionary they use). And despite Facebook’s attempt to corral and monopolize global interpersonal communication, books and faces will keep on being books and faces.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language.