What's a trademark between partners?

4 June 2006

Tim O'Reilly's response to the Web 2.0 trademark bust-up was curious in several ways. One of the most striking was his use of classic public-relations tricks such as deflection and outrage at his critics.

This was in stark contrast to the promotion that O'Reilly received from bloggers who know him, claiming that his straight answers would set everything right. A week on, and things are still rumbling along. If you take out his broad attack on bloggers, what he said did not differ substantially from the comments made by Sara Winge who brought much of the trouble down on the company. Yet, having them come from O'Reilly himself was enough for people to say: "Right you are guv, sorry to have doubted you." Maybe he was right to claim bloggers should read a bit more and post a bit less.

However, the funniest part of his post was the criticism of bloggers, who have done the most to promote his Web 2.0 agenda. It seems that bloggers are OK as long as they don't criticise O'Reilly. Then they're really bad people. And he wrote this without any sense of irony.

The substance of the post concentrated on the sequence of events that led to CMP owning the application for a trademark on the phrase "Web 2.0" as applied to conferences. But buried in there was an admission. He declared that businesses find trademarks to be important. Nothing to quibble about there. He said MediaLive routinely filed for trademarks. Yet, and this is the odd bit, O'Reilly declared he was ignorant of the trademark application for Web 2.0 until February of this year, after CMP had bought Medialive.

Think about that for a moment. You sign a deal with a conference organiser on a term that you claim to have come up with jointly. The organiser then trademarks the term without your knowledge, we are asked to believe. However, it's not as if Medialive had kept it secret the fact that it was going after a trademark on the conference. The company had, after all, printed as much on press releases for the conference - although Medialive was misleading in what it claimed to be protecting. I can only assume that Tim O'Reilly pays as much attention to press-release boilerplate as the rest of us and, despite believing that trademarks are important, did not consider checking on his business partners. Even so, I am surprised that O'Reilly claims to have had no knowledge of the trademark until this year, after CMP got involved.

If you believe that trademarks are handy to have, it seems a bit careless not pay attention to what your business partner was up to. Maybe the deal between CMP and O'Reilly means the two companies can never part company on the Web 2.0 Conference. But if there is a break-up, CMP is in a somewhat better position than O'Reilly Associates to maintain control over events called Web 2.0, no matter what Tim O'Reilly believes about "moral rights" to the phrase that both companies might have.