The issue with Netbook by Seth Chadab

21 06 2009

Psion’s latest battle against Intel and Dell to maintain exclusive rights in ‘netbook’ will be their final salvo in the war to prevent the genericide of their registrations. The Canadian-based hardware manufacturer announced last week they reached an agreement with Intel and Dell and will withdraw their latest ‘netbook’ applications with the Patent and Trademark office. Intel and Psion have battled publically since December 2008 over the use of the term ‘netbook,’ the industry-adopted term for a popular new technology in the consumer gadget industry which has spurred some tough competition.

Psion originally filed an application to register ‘netbook’ trademark in 1996 and introduced their line of mini-PCs shortly thereafter, but only finding minimal success in the market. Psion, however, sold only one line of computers under the ‘Netbook’ name (which was incidentally discontinued in 2003). In 2008, the demand for small laptops predominantly used for web-based applications exploded, prompting larger hardware manufacturers to flood the market. Netbook was widely used by Psion’s competitors to describe the genus of this new tech. Psion responded aggressively to the competition and chose to send out numerous cease and desist letters to these manufacturers and anyone else who had used netbook generically.

Psion’s threats backfired, prompting Dell and Intel to petition the PTO for cancellation of Psion’s registrations. Incidentally, Intel joined the suit in February 2009, despite neither manufacturing netbook computers nor selling any hardware under the ‘netbook’ name. Psion countered with a claim of more than $1 billion in damages. In the end, Dell and Intel successfully hammered Psion for failing to police the mark effectively and even cited to many generic uses of netbook by Psion in their own releases. It is uncertain what will happen to Psion’s current registrations, but it is clear that Psion will no longer protest the use of netbook.

While many predicted that Psion would ultimately lose this fight, the lesson learned by Psion and other hardware manufacturers is to be less descriptive in choosing the name for new products. The more functional and familiar the word is in the larger industry, the more likely that it become generic. Add netbook to the ever-expanding list of words returned to public, which includes PC, notebook, laptop, zip drive, and many more.

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