jkOnTheRun Op-Ed: the Psion netbook trademark situation

45 Comments

eee-pc-21The news that broke this holiday weekend about the move by Psion Teklogix to step in and start enforcing their “netbook” trademark ruffled a lot of feathers.  The netbook term has been reported to have been created by Intel and thus fair game for Psion according to some.

I’ve been giving this whole situation a lot of thought and want to weigh in with my thoughts on this trademark thing with Psion.  First of all we should set the record straight, Intel did not create the term “netbook” to describe the sub-notebooks that they have come to describe.  The term started appearing on many different web sites and from different sources and it wasn’t until the term seemed clear to stick that Intel moved in and started using it officially.

I believe this is important to clarify because the way the netbook term came to be is the same way that other generic terms come to be used.  The public starts using the term to describe a product or class of products and that’s what sticks.  This is not fair to lay on the feet of Intel, the term was already being used when they jumped on it.  They actually were trying to get the term MID popular, something that has only been somewhat successful.

So even if the term netbook has been generically adopted to describe the little notebooks what does that mean given this Psion situation?  I’m not a lawyer so I can’t really say.  I have mixed emotions about this, I am a firm believer in the right of entities to protect their trademarks and intellectual property.  Psion did have an actual product named the netBook and they did trademark the name.  That means something to me and it should.

The problem sets in when you realize that this product is not produced nor sold currently, and hasn’t been for a few years.  You can make an argument that there is no product so there should be no claim to the trademark.  That doesn’t exactly fit though as Psion does actively support the netBook product even today.  So you can make a case either way, Psion deserves to enforce the trademark or they should let it go.

I believe the reason that some are reacting negatively toward Psion has to do with their waiting until the netbook term became very commonly used for the sub-notebooks.  I’ve seen many comments to the effect that Psion should have stepped forward when the term was first bandied about months ago.  There is some merit to this argument but not doubt Psion will respond that they were waiting until it was apparent the “misuse” of the term was going to continue.

Whatever side of this fence you sit on this will be interesting to see how it unfolds.  Trademarks are serious things and should be treated as such.  The argument can be made that they are enforceable no matter what is going on or how long the “misuse” has been taking place.  It’s not straight-forward as you can see.

Imagine this hypothetical scenario: Company X steps forward today and claims that the term “notebook” is in fact their trademarked term.  Research shows that years ago Compnay X did in fact trademark the term so their claim is legitimate.  That aside what could be done about it?  The term notebook has been used by everyone dealing with laptops for years and it’s a very generic term now.  It’s not clear-cut what would or should happen.

Let’s just start using a different term.  Psion will be happy and everyone except Intel will be happy.  They’ll have to get a different domain for their netbook web site but so be it.

Based on a successful Psion campaign to get their trademark back, what should we call these little cheap laptops?  We’re interested to hear what you think, leave your new name in the comments and let’s see if something sticks.

45 Comments

Richard

Maybe this will help others name these things…These diminutive (I do like wee) portable, battery powered computers are just old tech in a different weight/shape/size form factor. Meanwhile they aren’t books (a naming convention leapt at first by Apple, I think) and don’t really share any similarities with them. Their user attributes include low cost, attractive packaging and convenience. Mostly though they’re Model T’s with new paint. Underneath they have either a geek friendly OS or a creaky, vulnerable XP. They are fun but in a couple of years the wave will be gone replaced by something being developed now in a skunk-works project at Apple or ??

wanchaiman

I agree with Alex – they are just trying to bluff. The law just is not on their side.

But at the same time they are shooting themselves in the foot.

I hope they lose the case and a bucketload of dosh.

RalfM

The law doesn’t really matter here… Psion has chosen a destructive route in terms of their marketing channels. I imagine their marketeers and lawyers finger pointing each other during the new year’s reception about whose idea it was to send out those C&D letters.

Alex Whiteside

The law on trademark issues is actually pretty clear in both US and English legal systems, both statute and common law (and probably Scots law and a fair few others too, but I’ve not read up). It’s not like a patent, where you pay money for the exclusive right to some intellectual property. To make a case for trademark infringement, Psion would have to demonstrate that the customer would be confused into thinking that the small laptops released under the “netbook” name are in fact Psion netbooks. This simply cannot happen because:

1) No company has actually released a netbook called “netbook”. Therefore no netbook company has infringed on their trademark.
2)
a)
i) Their trademark is essentially meaningless in the public mind from disuse.
ii) The customers around today who are aware of the original Psion Netbook product are well aware of the distinction between that and Eee-alikes anyway.
b) Therefore it seems unlikely that anyone buying a “netbook” from the store would be confused into thinking it was a Psion product or compatible.

Furthermore it has to be pointed out that this has absolutely nothing to do with blogs covering netbooks, as they are not in the business of making or selling netbooks. jkOnTheRun could spend the next eight thousand years referring to the Eee PC as the “Psion Netbook” and it would never constitute trademark infringement.

Their legal team have to be aware of all this (otherwise they should be fired) making this a very cynical ploy to set up a de facto protection of the trademark by threatening people who use it.

RalfM

Oh for goodness sake, just keep using the term netbook. We’re talking Psion against a legion of wholesale and retail resellers here. Psion industrial products depend on that very same wholesale channel. They won’t sue anybody… if they do they are gone.
Owner NetbookService.com & NetbookSupport.com

mactablet

Seriously what hope do Psion have in getting people to stop using a term that has now become part of the vernacular? It’s like someone having a trademark on sugar, just because they enforce it later doesn’t mean everyone in the world stops calling this substance sugar. Even if it’s branded something else people will still call it sugar. We have a great example here in Australia where we call things an Esky. It’s a big plastic box that keeps food and drink cool. I always wondered why the Kiwis (people from New Zealand) call them chilly bins, until one day Iasked a Kiwi and he said it’s because Esky is just a brand and the item is a chilly bin. You know he was dead right, but I never even knew that. Ever since I’ve noticed here in Oz there are dozens of brands of these things but everyone calls them Eskys, as in; can you get me such and such from the esky? Doesn’t matter that there’s a big Brand X printed right on the top. Netbook, right or wrong (I always thought of them as subnotebooks) is what people know them as now, Asus, Toshiba, whatever. Pass me the netbook please :)

Geoffrey M

I agree with those who don’t believe we need a special word. Mini laptop, mini notebook, small laptop, hyperpowerful calculator all work.

Jasen

To be honest, I second Atombook. The chips are pretty ubiquitous when it comes to these little machines anyways(still waiting VIA, one samsung doesn’t count). I like how it sounds, and certainly it would make Intel happy.

GoodThings2Life

No seriously, if Psion still actively developed and marketed the Netbook, I’d back them up on this. But the fact they haven’t done that for years just makes them stupid, lazy, and greedy.

Chris EA

Come up with a new name to describe small mobile computers without infringing any copyrights?

WiiBook?

Dagnabbit…

AndyT

Sleazy lawyers trying to make some EZ money. This is one of the things wrong with this country. In Russia they would simply be shot (or mysteriously disappear).

Bryan B.

Oliver makes a great point.

Get ready for this…

Small Laptop.

Yeah.

nomo

I can appreciate Psion’s perspective — the whole point of registering a trademark is to prevent others from using it. A quick search of the TESS database shows that other companies recently submitted applications for trademarks containing the word “netbook”:

NETBOOK – Psion Plc (11/21/2000)
G NETBOOK – Digital Gadgets LLC (7/21/2008)
WIND NETBOOK – MICRO-STAR INT’L (9/26/2008)
COBY NETBOOK – Coby Electronics (10/10/2008)
NETBOOK COBY – Coby Electronics (10/10/2008)

Psion might be circulating the C&D letters as part of it’s legal positioning to challenge these new trademark applications. If these other companies are successful, maybe Intel should just register the name “Atom Netbook” or “Atombook”.

TESS Link:
http://tess2.uspto.gov/bin/gate.exe?f=tess&state=u130t5.5.12

Steve New

Based on the marketed intent for these little jewels I’d like to propose “n@tbook”.

Oli

How’s about “Newton”? I’ve not seen a product by that name for ages :D

We could then have Newtonian bags and newt-accessories etc etc

pert

im looking forward to calling it netbook but typing “ne7bo0k” as this is not psions TM :P and we G33Ks stand together :D

Patrick Perez

I’m with Psion on this in protecting their trademark. And I can’t recall any manufacturers using the term netbook for their products (and if my memory is holding up in this case its probably because the manufacturers did a trademark search as part of their own marketing process and found Psion’s related use). It really seems to be the ‘marketplace’ of blogs and retailers that are using the term (and admitedly it is a good one). I don’t know the best solution other than to get momentum behind a non-infringing term. J & K, why not lead the way with a new term that is trademark free?

Patrick

borax99 (Alain C.)

The devices are small, so let’s call them kneetops – hehehehe

Oliver

Hmm, seems this is more an Ed than an OpEd ;)

My HP Mini is really no different than my Thinkpad, except it’s somewhat smaller and somewhat underpowered. And my Thinkpad in turn is not that different from certain other notebooks that are larger and somewhat more powerful. Why don’t we have a special name for those 17″ machines? Maybe MonsterBook?

Some people consider “cheap” to be a part of the netbook spec. Well, there are plenty of larger notebooks that are just as cheap as certain netbooks.

Quite frankly, to me this is just all silly. It’s a frikkin’ laptop or notebook, and it might be smaller or cheaper or less powerful than others, but it’s still the same type of machine. Inventing a name for it makes no sense to me.

AndyM

How about “psions”, or “powerbooks” or “informationsuperhighwaybooks”?

No but seriously, would subnotebook apply, as someone mentioned the other day? If not, the suggestions above are good, or maybe webbooks, smallbooks, microbooks.

I think what will happen is that people will call these whatever they want to call them, even if that term doesn’t appear in advertising or on blogs. Maybe Psion could license the name for a reasonable fee to manufacturers?

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