As my fellow conference organizer (and yes, it was a Web 2.0 conference) Rob Hyndman notes in his latest post, we’ve had a bit of a debate going among the mesh gang about the whole O’Reilly trademark thing — and not just because we have kind of an interest in whether conferences can use the term. From a philosophical point of view, Stuart believes that O’Reilly should be able to trademark the term, since they were the ones to popularize it and build a conference business around it. As he put it, why should they not be allowed to somehow protect the value that they created?
My point is not just that it’s stretching things to say they “created” value in any meaningful sense by using the term Web 2.0 — although, as a commenter on the O’Reilly Radar blog notes, the term was used in a widely-publicized sense as early as 1999 — but more that I don’t see the point in trying to “protect” it, or how that benefits O’Reilly’s business. If anything, in fact, trying to protect that value by sending cease-and-desist letters to a non-profit group in Ireland has damaged O’Reilly’s brand, in the sense that it has got people re-thinking their commitment to the company. That just doesn’t seem very smart in a whole bunch of ways.
Now people are even starting to mutter about how there has been little or no response from the “FOO” camp, or friends of O’Reilly — and what response there has been, including the recent post from Cory “freedom fighter” Doctorow at BoingBoing, seems particularly mealy-mouthed and disingenuous at best. In the end, however, I think Cory seems to be making the same point I am trying to (although he dances around it), which is that it’s better for O’Reilly to be known as the pre-eminent Web 2.0 conference holder than it is to be known as the lawyer-mongering owner of that trademark. Way better, in fact.
Are people going to stop going to O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conferences just because some non-profit group in Ireland uses the term? Hardly. But there might be people out there reconsidering their attendance as a result of all this ham-handed trademark bullshit. That’s the real issue for O’Reilly, it seems to me. Chris Messina was right in what he said in a comment on one of my previous posts: O’Reilly should make Web 2.0 a “community mark” — a Creative Commons-style public trademark — and put all this to rest.