Sweden Raises White Flag on ‘Ungoogleable’
By Niclas Rolander
The global war over trademarks has pitted two heavyweights – Sweden and Google GOOG +0.05% – against each other in a language-related spat. And, it appears the search engine has the upper hand.
Google, the increasingly pervasive search engine and Web service provider, has apparently weighed in on Sweden’s right to formalize the word “ogooglebar,” or “ungoogleable.” According to the Swedish Language Council, the government agency was pressured by Google to remove it from a list of new words because of copyright concerns.
The issue stems back to the council’s decision last year to include “ogooglebar” on the list alongside other Swedish neologisms, including “emoji” (an animated symbol used to express emotions in electronic text); “grexit” (Greece’s potential exit from the euro zone); and “kopimism” (a religious and political ideology focused on freedom of information.)
“Ogooglebar” refers to something “impossible to find on the Internet using a search engine,” according to the agency. Google sought to have the definition clarified so that it directly relates to the Google search tool, not just any search engine.
Rather than haggle over the definition, the council decided this week to remove the word from the list. But the word isn’t dying a quiet death.
“We neither have the time nor the will to pursue the outdrawn process that Google is trying to start,” the council’s president Ann Cederberg said in a harshly worded article posted on the council’s web site, under the headline “Google doesn’t own the language!”
In a statement, Google said: While Google, like many businesses, takes routine steps to protect our trademark, we are pleased that users connect the Google name with great search results.”
So who does own the language? According to the Swedes, its users.
“If we want ‘ogooglebar’ in the language, we should use it, and it is our usage which determines the meaning, not a multinational company with its means of pressure,” Ms. Cederberg said.
A look at the history of ogooglebar’s root word supports her point. The verb Google was included on the 2003 list in its Swedish form “googla,” meaning looking for information on the Internet, using Google’s search engine. People all over the word use the term Google as interchangeably with search engines as others have used the term Xerox for a copy.
However, like Xerox, Google Inc. is doing its best to counteract the transformation of its company name into a common word. And it wasn’t happy with the definition of ungoogleable. The search giant argued that the definition should refer specifically to Google and demanded a change and a disclaimer noting that Google is a registered trademark.
For companies like Google, protecting its trademark is a serious issue, and it has argued it has legitimate commercial reasons to fight the sort of generic usage which “ogooglebar” represents.
In the U.S., the company is in legal questions regarding the argument that “google” as a verb has become so common that it no longer refers to a specific search engine. If Google loses, it could find it hard to protect its trademark, and could face the nightmare scenario of following the same path as extinct or diluted trademarks like “escalator,” “aspirin” and “yo-yo.”
But Google, which makes operating systems and hardware, has to toe a delicate public relations line as it attacks an organization as seemingly harmless as the Swedish linguists. After all, the company is known for its slogan, “Don’t be evil.”
The language council received some support on Twitter, where one user called Google’s actions “stupid meddling” into the council’s affairs. Another user proposed “google dictatorship” to the list of new words for this year.