Head lost in the clouds of computing

A sigh of relief that Dell was not allowed to trademark a generic phrase.

It would be too much to say that intellectual freedom has just dodged a bullet. But a decision earlier this month by the US Patent and Trademark Office did leave some people cheering, or at least smiling. Dell, the computermaker, had sought to trademark the phrase "cloud computing," but the Patent Office said ixnay.

The idea behind cloud computing is that a business or other organization can get the computing services it needs over the Internet (seen as a "cloud" for some reason), rather than investing in server hardware and software that "live" on the organization's own premises. It's like getting your electricity over power lines instead of having your own generator.

It's the next big thing, or maybe it's going to be the next one after that – but in any case, there are several other players in the game, and using the same name for it: IBM and Hewlett-Packard, to name two.

And the reason this discussion is showing up in a column on language would be...? It's that your resident columnist resists tying up any more words behind the wall of copyright protection than we have to. The information wants to be free, and the words do, too.

The Patent Office explained its position thus: "In addition to being merely descriptive, the applied-for mark appears to be generic in connection with the identified services and, therefore, incapable of functioning as a source-identifier for applicant's services."

That is, customers don't have to go to Dell for cloud computing – though they do have to go to, for instance, Johnson & Johnson for a genuine Band-Aid.

It appears that the PTO has struck a blow for preserving the commons of language and giving editors around the English-speaking world one thing fewer to worry about in handling copy.

Dell is seen to have some wiggle room in all this: "No final determination as to the registrability of the mark has been made," according to the Patent Office. The company may choose to appeal the decision.

In this context, "cloud computing" is a pretty generic phrase, and Dell's effort to trademark it was not exactly greeted with gasps of admiration.

One thread through the reader comments on articles on the Patent Office ruling was disappointment. A number of people evidently find "cloud computing" a tiresome buzzword they would prefer to see fenced off behind legal protection, which (they hoped) would prevent other people from using it.

They may be thinking of what I think of as the "Happy Birthday effect."

There's a particular chain restaurant near my home where I eat occasionally, especially when I'm feeling carnivorous. It's popular with families, and I'm never there without overhearing one or more of those little celebrations where all the servers come over to sing "Happy Birthday" to whoever is having his or her special day.

Except that they don't sing the traditional "Happy Birthday" song; it's something else, more of a cheer than a song, evidently introduced into the repertoire after legal advisers determined that the real thing is under copyright protection and cannot be "performed" publicly without royalties being due.

"Mommy, why did they sing that other song?" I can imagine a baffled birthday boy or girl asking in the car on the way home afterward. At which point Mom, who has perhaps been bracing for the big discussion on the birds and the bees, has to shift gears and prepare instead to introduce the rising generation to the rudiments of intellectual property law.

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