Last Friday’s New York Times had an article about QVC, described as “the leading home shopping network”. QVC is one of those boring abbreviation names—it stands for “Quality, Value, Convenience”. Apparently QVC wants to jazz up its image with a rebranding of sorts, and has a new ad campaign prominently featuring the letter Q. The Times quoted Jeff Charney, QVC’s chief marketing officer: “We’d really like to own the 17th letter of the alphabet”.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to own a letter. According to MediaLife Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, which goes by the nickname of O Magazine, was sued for trademark infringement in 2001 by a German publication called O Magazine. Judge John Koeltl, who dismissed the lawsuit, reportedly said that O, The Oprah Magazine, which features stories about women’s health and well-being, and O Magazine, which features photographs of women in fetish attire, are “devoted to different aspects of women’s lives”. Indeed.

Now the folks at QVC may have had a purely metaphorical, fun, marketing use of the word own in mind. But companies often do get all hot and bothered about trying to own our cultural commons more literally. When The Name Inspector worked at a language technology company in the late 1990s, one of the executives thought we should seek a patent on our code because it would be “like having a patent on the English language”. Such hubris, such naivete.

Ah, now The Name Inspector is taking a trip down memory lane, and is reminded of another story from the late 1990s, which Geoffrey Pullum wrote about in 2004. James Pustejovsky, a famous computational lexical semanticist (at least, about as famous as a computational lexical semanticist can be), started a natural language processing company in 1997. First he called it Lexeme. This is a perfectly nice real-word name. Lexeme is a technical term in linguistics that means, basically, ‘word’. But a large company threatened to sue for infringement upon their trademark. Any guesses about which trademark it was? Lexus. Yep, for the luxury division of Toyota. Somehow they believed they owned the sequence of letters lex, despite the fact that this is an ancient Greek root found in English words like lexicon, lexical, and dyslexia.

As Pullum wrote, “Aren’t the owners of the English language ever going to rise up against greedy corporations like Lexus and Microsoft and Starbucks who lay claim to whole regions of the phonetosphere…?”. The prospect of huge legal fees forced Pustejovsky to change the name of his company, but he found his own way to fight back: he called his company LingoMotors, no doubt intending a dig at Lexus. But The Name Inspector fears that fighting linguistic land grabs with little witticisms is a bit like the idea, lampooned in Woody Allen’s movie “Manhattan”, of countering a Nazi rally with a devastating editorial.

[tags]q, the letter q, qvc, abbreviations, lexeme, the name lexeme, lingomotors, lexus, o magazine, oprah magazine, oprah[/tags]

2 Responses to “Q gotta be kidding”

  1. on 04 Oct 2007 at 10:46 pm Danny Bronski

    In the case of the fetish O magazine, the name is actually somewhat cleverly alliterative (“Story of O”), although in Oprah’s case, there is clearly a laughable dose of “such hubris, such naivete” involved. That legal decision was a bad one, my gut tells me.

    I don’t think Lexeme had anything to worry about from a legal perspective, but the good news there is in the past few years, overstaking one’s claim to the phonetosphere via trademark infringement letters had led to more than one big company getting blasted in the blogosphere.

    Perhaps the only reason the Q to the V to the C are still in business is that their main competitor chose the awe inspiring “Home Shopping Network”. Few naming sins worse than trying to forcefeed a consumer an acronym.

  2. on 07 Oct 2007 at 12:25 pm Marc Naimark

    There was a noted case recently in France regarding the use of a letter.
    An article can be found here (bottom of page 2):
    http://20minutes.s3.amazonaws.com/20070920_PAR.pdf

    Basically a café owner was found guilty of “counterfeiting a brand” and fined 13,000 euros.

    His café was named “Café K”, after his own name Karim Kaci, and he had registered the brand name three years earlier.

    A cinema chain, MK2, sued, because they have their own “café K” (as far as I understand, this specific brand is not registered… just the MK2).

    The court judged (!) that any use of the letter K by the café owner was illegal. No possibility of using the name “café Ka”, or even “café Kaci”, his own name.

    The result is that he’s renamed the place, which had a strong brand recognition as a music venue, the “café I”, after his wife, Isabelle.

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