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Can we still use the F-word?

7 January 2011
by Patrick Love

Sven? My lawyers would like a word with you...

Hi!™ You may have seen this article in Techcrunch at the end of the year claiming that F*book was trying to trademark the word “face”.  It seems they’ve got every right to try, in the US at least, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office’s list of current and pending trademarks.

According to the USPTO, your face is dead, while Pottyface seems to be doing just fine. I’ll bet that somewhere in Switzerland, David B. is feeling sick though. He abandoned his trademark in 2007. That said, I’m not convinced 600 million people would have signed up for ankle socks and shower shoes called Face.

Anyway, you can trademark a word you didn’t make up yourself. But what is a trademark? According to this OECD working paper, just about any kind of sign can be a TM, including combinations of colours or sounds, if it is used to distinguish goods or services.

The Facebook bid isn’t in fact as outrageous as it first seems since the protection would only cover social networking businesses that tried to cash in on the Facebook brand. However, it does raise questions about the value of intellectual property, what can and can’t be protected, and whether protection is beneficial to society as a whole.

If intellectual property protection is weak, then technology that exploits an innovation will spread more quickly, boosting growth. At the same time, weak protection reduces the incentive to spend money on R&D. 

As we mention in the Insights book on international trade, history provides some interesting examples to fuel the debate on the ideal level of intellectual property protection.

One of the most quoted ones is the light bulb. Joseph Swan patented a carbon filament lamp in England in 1878, and Thomas Edison patented essentially the same thing a year later in the US. At that time, there were no patent laws in the Netherlands, so in 1891 Royal Philips Electronics, as Philips was known at the time, could simply take the invention and turn it into the money spinner that would finance the firm’s expansion and inventions of its own.

Ericsson did something similar in 1876: it reverse-engineered Bell’s telephone, which he hadn’t patented in Sweden.

Some of the most controversial issues concern biotechnology, often presented as the right to patent life. In the 1980s, the OECD argued that discoveries regarding the chemical processes involved could be accorded protection as intellectual property

However, in the mid-2000s a company that developed a genetic test for cancer wanted to keep complete control of the testing and the databanks built up while doing it.

The OECD Guidelines for the Licensing of Genetic Inventions came out strongly against this, saying that yes, intellectual property should be protected, but it should also be shared. Health benefits should not be restricted by patent protection. Likewise, strict privacy guidelines were defined to protect the rights of the public.

Useful links

OECD work on intellectual assets and value creation

OECD work on intellectual property rights

OECD work on counterfeiting and piracy

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Baye Kambui permalink
    January 7, 2011

    Amen, Amen and Amen!

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