I'm no expert on trademark law, but a lawyer who is has managed to convince me that a trademark dispute brewing over the term "Pocket PC" offers more humor than insight into the complex system of owning a name.
In the trademark scuttle here, the situation has a quality that resembles the classic routine by American comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. (See http://www.abbottandcostello.net/.) Though, instead of scrapping over Who's on first base, What's on second, and the third baseman, I Don't Know, the stand-up characters in the raging Pocket PC debate want to know who's the rightful owner of the name.
The Who in this case is Ken Belanger, a San Francisco entrepreneur who invented a gag gift called the Pocket PC in 1985, slapping what's known as a "common law" trademark on the tiny toy and putting it up for sale in shops around California. After nearly 17 years of toying with the name, Belanger wants to sell his Pocket PC -- a fancy poker chip stamped with a unique serial number and shipped in a miniature wooden crate -- on the Internet.
However, to do that, he wants the Web site http://www.pocketpc.com/. With a very ominous tech behemoth owning that domain, Belanger is attempting to use trademark law to get the rights, and facilitate his venture into online retailing. He has filed a small-claims suit against Microsoft Corp.
What's on second? Well, that's a small electronic organizer called -- you guessed it -- the Pocket PC, which was developed in 1986 by a Florida businessman named Berwyn "Bud" Etter. As the founder of a now-defunct company called Pocket PC Inc., Etter was awarded a registered trademark on his product name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) -- about three years after you know Who first used it for the plastic toy.
When Bud Etter died in 1997, his son Jeff -- also a businessman dealing in small computers -- inherited the trademark hoping to revive the name with the release of a new pocket-sized computing device.
He had no luck, thanks to none other than I Don't Know, in this case Microsoft. I Don't Know is the defense Microsoft is taking as it sends a suit-and-tie attorney to San Francisco to protect the Pocket PC, a term it has used to promote its handheld operating system since January 2000. The company is scheduled to face off against Belanger before a small-claims commissioner at a hearing scheduled for March 4.
Now, Who (Belanger), What (Etter) and I Don't Know (Microsoft) have come to a head. Who says his common-law trademark trumps all other efforts to use the name. What says that Microsoft bullied him into abandoning his registered trademark years ago by burying him under legal papers and spreading FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) to at least one company that nearly licensed the Pocket PC trademark from Etter.
As for I Don't Know: "Pocket PC is a generic term that is used to refer to a small pocket-sized handheld computer," Jim Desler, a spokesman for the software maker says. "Microsoft uses this term because it is the common generic name for this class of computer."
Generic -- that is one defense. Desler noted that the beer-making industry has agreed to share the term "Lite Beer," so computer makers should share Pocket PC?
It sounds a bit fishy if you ask me. After all, Microsoft's flagship trademark "Windows" is pretty generic in its own right, and Microsoft won a trademark on that name after some begging and appealing with the USPTO.
One should also note that Microsoft has a spotty record with names -- having already changed the name of its handheld operating system once before from its previous moniker, Palm PC.
Not too happy about how close Microsoft was getting to its Palm Pilot trademark stake, 3Com Corp. (then owner of the Palm Pilot brand) sued the Redmond, Washington, software giant in early 1998 to protect its trademark.
Ironically, the Palm Pilot name too was subsequently changed the same year to just plain Palm after 3Com was confronted by Pilot Pen Corp., who makes the aptly named Pilot pen.
So then Who owns the name Pocket PC? or What?
Most likely, I Don't Know.