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Trademarks and Microsoft

How short the memory is… News.com has published a story saying that Microsoft has finally filed for trademark registration on Excel, 19 years late.  The author tries to make it into a story about big bad Microsoft bullying little Savvysoft, but really it’s a much more sophisticated strategy than that.

If you think back to Windows, the company unsuccessfully tried to gain a trademark for the term windows several times during the 1980s.  It was not until 1994 that the US PTO accepted their argument (US trademark registration #1959130 if you want to see the actual filing) that in the public’s eyes the term Windows, as applied to computer software, meant Microsoft. In common law, when a term "becomes associated in the mind of the public with the particular good or service," a trademark exists.

Up until that point in 1994, whenever we spoke about Windows, or wrote about Windows, we had to use the official handle — Microsoft® Windowstm.  After that point, we could simply say — Windows®.  Windows was just Windows, and anyone who tried to use Windows in their product name, without kissing the ring, could be held to account.  Many companies received cease-and-desist letters as a result.

It’s a very clever, and long term trademark strategy. Not only does the use of a common English term  have more power than a coined name might, it also has the power to infect anyone who uses a synonym.  And think for a moment about the audacity of claiming a commonly used word from the English language as your own.   It’s the ultimate "domain name" squat.

Excel is obviously next.  Then… Office? Word? 

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