Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Porta whaaat? and trademarks

There's protecting your trademarks, and there's… whaaat?

MySociety have mentioned a complaint by Portakabin Limited regarding a couple of reports on FixMyStreet (a MySociety project) which used the words “portacabin” or “portaloo” in them.

(For those who don't know, FixMyStreet is an innovative free service in the UK that lets citizens report online any problems in their local area e.g. (to quote the site itself) graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs, or street lighting. The FixMyStreet website then forwards reports to the relevant local authority. A very useful (non-profit) service for the public. And, of course, that should include problems with broken public toilets.)

Portakabin Limited do have trademarks on Portakabin™ (two!) and Portaloo™ (two, again) and it's understandable that they'd want to try to avoid their trademarks becoming genericised (hoover, anyone?).

But what I want to know is, did they check first to see if the broken down portable units concerned were actually made by them or not, huh? If they were, surely the uses of the words in the reports would have been entirely warranted?

If not, this action does seem a bit fierce (MySociety linked to a blog about another Portakabin complaint made to Private Eye magazine a couple years back).

But trademark owners do tend to be very protective - Google don't want people using their name as a verb for "to search on the Web using a search engine that's not Google", for instance, although they're letting advertisers use other people's trademarks in ads, and I've not heard of them getting out the lawyers on this sort of usage yet. Now put down the lawyer.. step away from the lawyer..

Anyway, MySociety are fixing this just by rewriting any reports using the verboten words so that they refer to "portable cabin" and "portable loo" instead.

I notice that Wikipedia redirect this URL to "Portable toilet":


- and this URL to "Portable building":


Was that a clever way to try to avoid a similar problem? Or are they going to be in trouble too for including trademarked words in the redirected URLs?

Maybe those are signs that it's too late to stop the genericisation…



(It was very hard to avoid the temptation to use a headline with a pun involving a word not unadjacent to "s**t". But I did it.)

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