Word wars: Language copyright

It's becoming harder to exercise one's freedom of expression, even in the land of liberty. When at & t used the phrase "freedom of expression" in print ads in the us, it was promptly sued

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- Language copyright

It's becoming harder to exercise one's freedom of expression, even in the land of liberty. When at & t used the phrase "freedom of expression" in print ads in the us, it was promptly sued. The instigator was Kembrew McLeod, assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa, who has registered the phrase as a trademark. The professor sent a 'cease and desist' letter to at & t indicating he would like to prevent the public from assuming any ties between the telecom company and his anti-corporate publication, "Freedom of Expression". The litigation is also a protest against corporate control over language and ideas, as McLeod believes that private ownership of language can impede the free flow of information.

Intellectual property, trademark and copyright laws are increasingly becoming fertile fodder for lawsuits. In December 2001, Microsoft sued Lindows, a maker of Linux-based software, alleging that Lindows was capitalising on its Windows brand name. Microsoft argued that it has trademarked "Windows" and spent $1.2 billion marketing the brand. In return, Lindows sued to strip Microsoft of its trademark, arguing that "windows" was too generic. Lindows' legal representatives claim that Microsoft is unfairly trying to monopolise a word out of the English language. A decision in the case is pending.

Courts are likely to favour the big brand if a potential trademark infringement confuses customers. They are increasingly beginning to rule that using a name similar to an established brand even in an entirely different business is illegal, as it dilutes the brand. So beware if you happen to own a McDonald's dry cleaner or McDonald's car wash: you could well be dragged into a legal tangle with the McDonald's Corporation.

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