Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Facebook Says, "All Your Face Belong to Us"

Facebook wants to trademark the word "face." The social networker which connects more than 500 million users has already shown how we can all live together as one big happy set of FBF's by forcing other sites to drop "book" from their names, and now, in application no. 78980756 to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Facebook is asserting its ownership of the word "face" as well.

Controlling how the rest of us use common words like "face" and "book" is nothing new for corporate America. Coca-Cola has a long history of suing competing cola products (they successfully forced Sweetie Cola off the market, but they couldn't budge Pepsi), and Xerox still reminds us that xerox, a term which has long been synonymous with photocopy, is not actually a synonym for photocopy, but a trademark to be used only for copies made on Xerox Corporation machinery (Merriam-Webster defines the verb "xerox" as "to copy on a xerographic copier").

Similarly, search giant Google continues to insist that "google" is not a verb, despite the fact that Webster's says it is. Even Webster's, which lost trademark status for its own name over a century ago, exerts enough sway over dictionary-making that almost no one dares define "Webster's" as 'an English dictionary,' even though most Americans use the term as a generic to refer to any dictionary, not just one created by the corporate descendants of Noah Webster. (Searching for "Webster's" in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary returns this message: "The word you've entered isn't in the dictionary.")

Trademarks are a highly-contested subset of the English vocabulary, one where common usage often conflicts with corporate interests. Manufacturers want their brand names on everybody's lips, but if that name becomes too common, they can lose their legal rights to it and what was once a license to print money becomes just another word like "has" or "been." That's what happened to the former trademarks shredded wheat, linoleum, zipper, aspirin, and thermos—they all became generic. Even heroin was once a trademark owned by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer (it owned aspirin as well), which marketed the drug as a cough suppressant and, amazingly enough, an antidote to morphine addiction (a classic big pharma error). Bayer forfeited the heroin trademark after World War I, which may be just as well because today no law-abiding business wants to be associated with the name.

Sometimes a company will claim it owns a word that is already in common use. Monopoly has been an English word since the 14th century, but when the game of Monopoly was launched in post-Depression 1933, it quickly became a hit and the word "monopoly" became a trademark, though only in reference to games of banking and real estate, not to the larger world of collateralized debt obligations and industrial monopolization.

But in the digital age, where every click represents income potential, companies are pushing their trademark monopolies to the limit, exerting their sway not just over words that are in direct competition with their own products—for example, in the 1980s CompuServe tried to patent "Email"—but more general uses of words as well, like Apple's recent attempt to trademark "pod."


A 1983 CompuServe ad from BYTE magazine with Email trademarked.
The company abandoned its attempt to trademark the term a year later.

For now, Facebook may be content with prosecuting other interweb use of words like "face" and "book." But commercial use of these words is widespread—everything from Face the Nation to Hawaii 5-0's "Book 'em, Danno" stands to become a target of Facebook's legal department, not to mention the Army's patented "about face," the sociological concept of "saving face," common expressions like "Face it . . ." or "face the music," and such book classics as the little black book and the New York Times Book Review. The CIA World Fact Book is also problematic, since according to a Facebook "cease-and-desist" letter, "fact" in the title is "face" with one letter changed.

Considering Facebook's general disregard for intellectual property as well as personal privacy—founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience in January that privacy is dead, that he's just helping people do what they want, which is to share more and more of themselves online, including their words and pictures—Facebook may soon claim the rights to your face as well as to your books (though not those ebooks whose rights you've already licensed from Amazon—they remain not yours, but Amazon's).

Facebook may also go after Apple's FaceTime app for the new iPhone 4 as yet another infringement on its new trademark. Not that Apple is blameless in the word wars. After foolishly insisting that it owns "pod"  because we invariably associate the word with iPods, there are rumors that the company is planning to go after the pronoun "I," one of the commonest words in the English language. According to a secret internal document that was inadvertently-on-purpose left by an Apple employee in a Cupertino bar, once Apple secures ownership of the first person singular pronoun, it will force us to lower-case all of our i's, a bold challenge to competitor and Word-monopolist Microsoft's insistence that all the stand-alone i's in English be upper case. And that shrewd move by Apple's Steve Jobs makes Facebook's attempt to corner the market on "face" and "book" look like Small Potatoes™.

It's possible that the Patent Office could agree with Facebook's claim that trademarking face is vital to the company's survival. After all, FB's lawyers might argue, Friendster's failure to secure the rights to friend was a key factor in that company's decline (a more significant factor was competition from Facebook). But lawyers, corporations, and trademark commissions can't dictate how those of us who use English every day will deploy any word, even if we use those words on Facebook. Google, for many, will remain a web search, regardless of the search engine. Xerox will refer to any copy on any copier. Webster's will be for many just a dictionary (most people don't even know which dictionary they use). And despite Facebook's attempt to corral and monopolize global interpersonal communication, books and faces will keep on being books and faces.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 9th 2010, 5:59 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Fascinating and intriguing article. I don't understand how a corporation can co-opt a word that pre-dates the corporation. Claiming ownership of the word "Face"? How can that be? I can understand if the company invented the word, but in this case it didn't.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
There is something highly suspect about this article. If it were April 1, I would smile at the joke. But since it isn't, and the article has been published on a reputable language website, I can only wonder at the author's sources and intentions. It sounds to me like privacy fear-mongering thinly disguised as a meditation on trademarking of common words. I "googled" the search terms "Apple trademark i pronoun" and the only relevant hit that came up was a reference to a 2006 article in "The Onion." If the hotly-followed "accidental on-purpose" leaks in Cupertino included this one, surely there would be thousands of blog entries about it.

Facebook has every right to sue for infringement over commercial uses including the words 'Face' or 'Book,' where the use of these terms, especially when compounded with other words, could be mistaken for products from Facebook. The same goes for Apple with commercial uses of "Pad" or "Pod." Let the courts decide whether these uses actually consistute infringement. But to suggest that Facebook could control any use of the word 'face' in common English is just silly.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
A funny coincidence: Immediately after reading and responding to this article, I saw the following quote at the end of Anu Garg's Word-a-Day entry:

"Sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride."
Samuel Johnson; Preface to the English Dictionary; 1755.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 10:36 AM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
Trademarks on established words would necessarily require strict parameters - the use of the word in a specific commercial meaning communicated in a specified environment. Facebook may be able to restrict a company from calling itself Facecard or Faceoff if that company is publishing an open social forum where people could exchange greetings (Facecard) or hold debates. But even that would seem to be a stretch if Facebook could not demonstrate that either company would harm their business.

The trademark authorities should view the reservation of existing words with a skeptical and exacting standard.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Wood F.: Though Prof. Baron's tongue is firmly in cheek about that "inadvertently-on-purpose" leak (recalling the to-do over the iPhone leak last April), there's a kernel of truth to the joke. Apple lost a trademark dispute in Australia recently, and the trademark tribunal ruled that Apple has no claim to the use of lowercase "i" in product names.

Kip: For more background on how companies can trademark commonplace words, check out last year's Language Lounge column by Orin Hargraves, "Grand Theft Motto."
Thursday September 9th 2010, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
Not sure what to make of this article. What is tongue in cheek and what is not? Disappointed!
Thursday September 9th 2010, 1:23 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Since Facebook is being investigated in Canada for its privacy misdeeds and refusal to comply with Canadian restrictions, perhaps we are safe here in our use of 'face' and 'book'!

Whatever would we get from a library? And what sort of work would be done on a head to help with the ravages of aging, if not a 'facelift'...

And I would think that this question would not arise in regard to words as they are already used, titles that have preceded Facebook, and so on...

So it would seem logical that Face the Nation is safe, as is saving face...

I cannot imagine that the Facebook folk would be so omnipresent in our lives as to seek to identify any indivisuals 'saving face' orally, or in print!

It truly boggles the mind that this would even be considered... Surely, this is part of the 'tongue being in the cheek' part of the essay.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 3:43 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
I agree with Ravi. Is the whole article a paranoid joke? The topic is legitimate, but if the author doesn't separate his satirical (I can only hope they're satirical) musings from actual facts about attempts to trademark common words, it's no better than reading the National Enquirer. At least with The Onion, we know they're not serious.

On a separate topic, if anyone else was wondering about why the title of the article is so weirdly worded, apparently it's a reference to last year's uproar about Facebook's revised Terms of Service, which is in turn a reference to... well, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_your_base_are_belong_to_us

Not sure why the author left out the word "are." Clearly I wasn't internet-savvy enough to get the joke.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
As for the title, your humble editor omitted the "Are" from the original, in order to maintain the flavor of the founding meme while not being off-puttingly ungrammatical for those unfamiliar with it.

I trust that readers here will grow accustomed to Prof. Baron's sometimes mischievous humor! He'll certainly keep you on your toes.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 4:37 PM
Comment by: Gun Y. (Toronto Canada)
Good thinking!
Thursday September 9th 2010, 5:11 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
Thanks for the clarifications, Ben. I guess I mistook the mischievous humor for paranoid rantings.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 6:10 PM
Comment by: Lindsay R.
I for one am a bit disappointed with my fellow readers' enthusiasm for jumping the gun, crying foul, and generally favoring literal over literate. Whether Prof Baron's tongue was lodged in cheek or wagging, he's presented a balanced overview of an interesting issue.
Thursday September 9th 2010, 8:21 PM
Comment by: Keith (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
This is all pretty silly!
Thursday September 9th 2010, 8:59 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
you can read the trademark application for "face" online. my blog program doesn't allow links in the first graf but you can use the number to trace it. sorry there are no elbows in the ribs when i write. i've considered telegraphing the satire but always decide such a move vitiates rather than illuminates. i do enjoy reading all the comments. writers crave readers.
Friday September 10th 2010, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Kitty G.
Who does Facebook think it is? I mean, really, nothing ceases to amaze me in our so called modern world.
Facebook, Give all those lawyer fees to feed people, or do some good. Crazy.
Saturday September 11th 2010, 8:00 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
So does this mean that ThinkMap, Inc now owns the words: Think, Map, ThinkMap, MapThink, Visual, Thesaurus, Visual Thesaurus, and other permutation of the vowels, letters and consonants? I believe Noblsavaj is spot on.
Monday September 13th 2010, 7:09 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
Love the allusion of your title: "All your face (base) belong to us!" Captures the surreal, scifi, inadvertently alien nature of the topic.

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