Trademarks disputes in tech


Trademark disputes and confusion have exited since they have; a tautological statement for which I couldn’t resist. But in the spirit of realising when I’ve been previously wrong about something, I’m here to explore the idea that there may be something to trademark antsiness in tech after all.

The term podcast was my first experience with this. Everyone I knew and respected in the tech and online media communities couldn’t stand the phrase when it came out in the mid 2000s. Frank Nora already had his New Time Radio moniker to describe downloadable online broadcasts. Jim Kloss famously used Internet Magazine at Whole Wheat Radio because he didn’t think the future only belonged to Apple. A former TechTV titan preferred netcast because it attributed the Internet as the enabling tech, like satellite radio.

(Incidently, this is the etymology behind the NetBSD name as well. I always thought it looked elegant compared to the other BSDs).

I used to think New Time Radio and Audio Magazine were more fun, clever, and relatable to a wider audience than podcast, but I’ll admit, deep down, I thought the association with Apple’s then-ubiquitous iPod was overblown. Despite what Apple’s legal team may have thought at the time, they didn’t invent the word pod. And besides, everyone knew they could download and listen to Ze Frank or Digital Flotsam wherever they wanted.

But just as I did with a new bottle of Sriracha Tabasco in a pasta dish, I grossly under-estimated the term’s impact. Years before podcasting became as cool and ubiquitous as it is now, I still fielded questions for my own silly show asking why they needed an Apple device to listen to it. I ended up linking to the BBC’s podcasting FAQ page where they took great pains to say it worked on your desktop, iRiver, flip phone, or anything else that supported MP3s.

Meanwhile GitHub was taking off as the Internet’s preferred code repository and collaboration platform. I still remember a lecturer at uni assuring us we didn’t need to use GitHub to use Git for our major assignment. I thought he was joking, but even afterwards we had group members who were confused. “GitHub is Git, right?” they all asked, before we decided on Subversion.

Another example is I recently noticed it among a vendor list on a client proposal. I thought they’d just listed the website for the indispensable file sync tool, but it referred to a commercial backup service. I realised my mistake, but how many other stakeholders were caught out too? Large companies can defend their trademarks, but I worry when I see the name of a free or open source tool being used in one. They may have the blessing of the tool’s creator—in some cases they may not have a choice—but it can introduce confusion, and the potential to assume that one endorses the other.

CentOS being Red Hat Enterprise Linux in all but name is one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry, so it’s clear it’s possible to build your own reputation and pedigree without piggy-backing off another title. I suppose that’s harder, though.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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