July 21, 2009

What’s in a name? Who owns the Rosetta Stone

Posted at 12:39 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

In a case that only tenuously relates to restitution claims, a software manufacturer is involved in legal action with Google over the fact that other companies may be taking out adverts that are set to appear when the name of their business is entered in a search. What makes this semi-relevant though is that the name of the company is Rosetta Stone – so one would have thought that at present any actual ownership claimed on the name might belong to the British Museum. Of course though this is not the end of the cycle either – Egypt disputes the British Museum’s ownership of the stone & as such would have the rights to the name of the stone.

The question that this raises, is what gives others the right to re-appropriate a term & call it their own, to the extent of trying to prevent others from using it – a situation not dis-similar from the British Museum’s current claims that artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone are now integral to their own collections & therefore can not be returned to their true owners.

Telecom TV

Google v. Rosetta Stone: the case of the stolen words
Posted By TelecomTV One , 17 July 2009

What’s in a word? Often a lot of money for a start. And where there’s money there’s lawyers. And where there’s lawyers there is, sometimes, a measure of clarity. By Ian Scales.

At least the issues get a good outing. The Google v. Rosetta Stone case is currently raging in the US courts and it’s about when and to what extent a word could or should be controlled by those who claim it as a trademark.

Rosetta Stone is a language software company (I know it’s an ancient artifact too – there’s more on that later) and it claims that Google’s AdWords mechanism – the thing that makes the money from its popular search engine – is stamping all over its rights.

As everyone probably knows by now, Google makes money by selling words to companies to ensure that their small ad appears in the discrete column to the right of the main search results when a user searches using that word. If you buy, say, 1000 instances of Rosetta Stone, then your ad will appear in 1000 results for that search term.

Rosetta Stone says that this is unfair. Its competitors, it claims, are riding for free on its expensive promotion of its own name by being able to buy ads off Google and insert themselves between it and customers who are looking to buy its services. And it claims Google’s business model has forced it to buy millions of dollars in AdWords just to protect its own trademark (which seems to be going a bit far).

Sure enough, a quick ‘google’ of Rosetta Stone yields an ad for a ‘free language course’ in the right hand column. But it also yields the ‘official’ Rosetta Stone website top left.

The fact is that if I actually am Rosetta Stone (the company, not the stone) I come top of the search results anyway due to the fact that I am the one most people click when they search with the term.

But that’s not good enough apparently. In owning the trademark, Rosetta Stone thinks it owns the exclusive use of the words as well.

Some background. The Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian artifact covered in hieroglyphics and lodged in the British Museum. So, based on the arguments currently being advanced in a US court, it’s in fact the British Museum which has given the words the currency and the associations that makes them commercially valuable to a language learning software company.

So is the British Museum is the institution that should rightfully own the words?

Maybe: imagine the confusion of a bewildered London tourist doing a Google search on a smartphone to find out how to get to the Rosetta Stone, only to be spammed by some outfit wanting to sell him a language course he doesn’t want.

So case closed then? Will the headline be ‘Software company coughs up some large splash of cash to British Museum over word ownership?’

Not so fast.

There are several leaden ironies in this story. The first is that the real Rosetta Stone story is all about words and their meanings and uses; the second is that the stone’s own ownership isn’t straight-forward either.

It turns out the Rosetta Stone was actually discovered in Egypt in 1799 during the Napoleonic wars by the French, it was liberated by the Brits after a battle and transported to London. Now the Egyptians are arguing for it to be returned to them. An ownership trail indeed.

Or should we consider the rights of Rosetta Stone, a band formed in the mid 1980s and featuring ‘jangly-guitar sounds’. Maybe.

And then, of course, there are those poor, put-upon Rosettas – the Stone offspring whose parents couldn’t resist the lure of the joke name. Surely, if anyone is to profit from name ownership, it should be they?

The outcome of the Rosetta Stone case (and others) could be devastating to Google’s business model if it goes the wrong way. And if Rosetta Stone won, it WOULD be the wrong way. Not because Google’s business model trumps Rosetta Stone’s, but because words must belong to the people who use them, not to a company which happens to be the latest in a long line of ‘owners’.

Bottom line: trademark rights are fine to a point, but taken to where Rosetta Stone wants them they are a species of theft (if you think about it) or at least a species of what in England was called ‘enclosure’, where common land was fenced off by the then equivalent of large corporations. Preventing the free and common use of words in a search engine seems to me to add up to about the same thing.

So maybe it’s time to entrench the concept that words are public and not to be fenced.

We, us, you and all our forebears, use them as a currency for ideas. And we garnish them with associations – some of which are shared, some of which are private; some are widely known, some obscure. Words are a resource into which we all invest time and effort, and from which we all gain. And as we’re all invested, we all own.

Most of all, if I use a public word in a search engine, I’m the one to decide what I’m going to click from the results. And if I type ‘Rosetta Stone’ the chances are that I’ll be looking for a cheap alternative to its overpriced language courses. That’s my prerogative and I’d like to keep it.

So let’s affirm ‘words’ as public property. Like the real Rosetta Stone (the one temporarily in the British Museum) it’s time to give them all back to their rightful owners.

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