What’s in a name? Whatever it is, it had better not be “pod”. Apple Computer is getting tetchy about other companies using the word in their names. Profit Pod and the maker of TightPods have received stern “cease and desist” orders as the maker of the iPod music player seeks to assert its copyright.
But leafing through a dictionary, I made a startling discovery. In fact, “pod” is not a derivation of iPod after all, but a 17th-century word in its own right, originally meaning a “seed vessel, especially a dry and dehiscent one”.
Technological giants such as Apple really ought to bash smaller fry only when their brands are in real danger; not when other companies make use of a word that – despite the iPod’s ubiquity – predates it by quite some time.
Google is a menace to the language in a slightly different way. What greater mark of respect can be given to a brand than a place in the dictionary? But far from expressing delight at this latest sign of recognition, the search engine company writes to those who use it as a verb and tells them to stop.
Unsurprisingly, people then write things such as this on the internet: “Google’s just another big fat company with lawyers now. They’re losing touch.”
Those lawyers are worried about “genericide” – brands being subsumed into the lexicon such as has happened to Jacuzzi, Hoover and Xerox. The Shepherd Group, a UK construction company, has had a protracted, public and unedifying fight with Private Eye magazine over the use of the word Portaloo, its portable lavatory. In this case, a company has become embroiled in a battle with a satirical magazine when a graceful silence would have served it better. If Google and Apple want to safeguard the goodwill that goes with their brand, they might be better off avoiding public attempts to protect them – unless it really threatens the bottom line.
Some cases do seem to demand action. Goldman Sachs has taken on goldmansex.com to protect its brand. But protect it from what? How many business people think the site that provides (some of) them with sexual relief is run by the same outfit that provides them with investment banking?
Others seem even more fatuous than Apple. Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, owner of easyGroup, the company that gave us easyJet, the no-frills airline, has assigned a legal team to take action against any company that uses the word “easy” without permission.
“No use should be made of the name ‘easy’ (or anything similar to it) without our consent,” warns a footnote to all the company’s e-mails, making no concession to the word’s 700-year existence in the English language.
But Easypizza, a pizza chain established in north London in 1997, way before easyGroup set up its easyPizza business in 2004, fought easyGroup’s edict and the giant backed down. It’s not easy to monopolise words and in most cases it’s not worth it either.
The writer is an FT reporter