Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Keep your hands off my word!

It was a wonderful little gift for a Mac lover, a friend who works with a Macbook and iPhone. It was just a postcard showing a saucepan containing water and an egg. The egg was being boiled, and the text in German called the saucepan an “Ei-Pott”. The German word "Ei" means egg, and "Pott" is used in northern German dialects to refer to a variety of containers such as coffee mugs, saucepans - and even ships. And in combination, of course, the result is a beautiful parody on a portable music player produced by the maker of the Macbook.
I was equally amused when I heard that another company had produced an egg cup with the same title. Another perfect gift for Mac lovers.

Perfect gift no more. I will not be able to buy the egg cup. The "Ei-Pott" egg cup has been forbidden in a German trademark case. Selling it - or even possessing it - can be punished by a massive fine or by a few months in prison. A company called Apple took the egg cup manufacturers to court and won a judgement against them. Perhaps the people at Apple are not Mac lovers. Or at least, they are not amused.

I have a copy of the court ruling (in German) from the Hanseatisches Oberlandesgericht Hamburg, reference 5 W 84/10, of 9th August 2010. The main reason given in the ruling is that the “Ei-Pott” could be confused with Apple's registered trademark “iPod”. Apparently, Apple has also registered the name “iPod” for kitchen utensils, so I suppose the court had no real alternative to its ruling. The court nevertheless discusses other cases in which well-known trademarks were parodied and this use was judged to be artistic freedom (the purple cow of the “Milka” chocolate bars, and a German jingle for AOL). But it did not give me the chance to buy the “Ei-Pott” egg cup. That's a pity - my Mac loving friend will just have to do without this brand-enhancing gift.

The "iPod" features in another current case. Another U.S. company, Sector Labs, produced a projector and gave it the name “Video Pod”. This is of course closer to the technological nature of Apple's “iPod”, although the name doesn't rely on the linguistic device of adding a small “i” before a word. Sector Labs argues that “pod” is a normal English word, so it should not be taken out of free circulation by way of a trademark. There is a certain plausibility on both sides of this case, so it will be interesting to see how the judgment goes.

Another interesting trademark issue a few years ago was when Google threatened court action in an attempt to forbid the use of the verb “to google” as a generic term for using a search engine to search the Internet. The issue is summarised on Wikipedia, which quotes dictionary definitions stating that “to google” means to search the Internet with the Google search engine. The article does not discuss the possible next step in generic use. It is conceivable that the verb could also be used for searching the Internet with other search engines.

This would not be the first time that such a trademark falls into general use. In popular UK English usage you can “hoover” with a vacuum cleaner manufactured by Siemens or Electrolux. The word “Kleenex” is often used for paper handkerchiefs of any brand (just like the brand name “Tempo” in Germany). Transparent adhesive tape is popularly referred to as “Sellotape” (or in German, “Tesa-Film”), irrespective of who actually made it. Even familiar words such as “Aspirin”, “escalator”, “yo-yo” or the “Thermos flask” were originally trademarks (see here).

There are other familiar trademarks which are generalised or parodied. One is the oval shape containing the words "Intel inside". I have seen this spoofed on T-shirts or bumper stickers with religious claims (Jesus inside), plain parody (Idiot inside) or personal statements (a pregnant Mum wearing a T-shirt "Jakob inside"). The soft drink slogan "It's the real thing" has also been pressed into a religious mould as "Jesus Christ - he's the real thing" (set in the typical Coca Cola typeface with the characteristic flourish above and below the text). There are plenty more such cases.

I find it amazing that mere words can cause such a fuss. Just a sequence of sounds or a series of marks on paper can cause expenditure amounting to millions of pounds (or euros, dollars or whatever), and sometimes they keep courts and lawyers occupied for days or even weeks on end. The miracle of language has enormous power, and language creativity is often inseparably linked with financial reward.

Dear reader, I am sure you could add more examples of the power of brand names, advertising slogans, and perhaps stories of legal and illegal parodies. Any comments?

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