Apple Claims to Own the Word “Pod”

You gotta hand it to Steve Jobs and Apple — they really know how to wrap a mesmerizing aura of Cool around a company whose policies are often quite small-minded and conformist. The company that uses splashy advertising to link itself to visionaries (Einstein, Gandhi) and exhorts us to “Think Different” has long dismissed the toxic risks of discarded computers and lobbied against e-waste recycling and computer takeback legislation.

Apple sounds like a whiny Microsoft when it complains about the French government’s attempts to make iTunes interoperable with other digital music systems and thereby prevent anticompetitive abuses. Steeped in a culture of secrecy that makes George W. Bush look like a paragon of candor (_Wall Street Journal_, June 28, behind paywall), Apple recently attempted to censor an Apple fan blog and other websites that had dared to leak news about coming Apple products. (Apple ultimately lost.)

Now in an act of hubris that brings to mind Disney, Mattel, and other bare-knuckled bullies of the trademark world, Apple is claiming to own the word “pod.” As reported by the Financial Times (August 15), Apple lawyers have threatened at least two companies that use the word “pod” in their products’ names.

Mach5Products makes the Profit Pod, which is an infrared scanner used to record activity on arcade video game machines. The company’s owner says he thought up the name five years ago, before the introduction of the Apple iPod — adding that the Profit Pod is not sold to the general public in any case. Apple is also objecting to TightPods, the name of a slip-on cover that protects laptops, MP3 players and other electronic devices.

Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group who alerted me to this story, suggests some other products that might ultimately become defendants in Apple lawsuits: Star Wars Attack Pods, a Florida maker of storage pods, and the Association for Computing Machinery, which has hosted an annual Symposium on Principles of Database Systems (PODS) since 1991. Oh, and let’s not forget the Pipeline Open Data Standard (PODS) group! (Apple is no stranger to disputes over the ownership of words. In a previous blog, I mentioned Apple’s trademark dispute with Apple Corps, the record label founded by the Beatles, over who could use the word “apple.”)

The chief reason that Apple’s claim to own the word “pod” is not laughed out of court is the “trademark dilution” standard that large corporations have sought and won from Congress — a vague standard that large trademark holders keep trying to extend. If your use of “their” word “dilutes” their distinct identity and image, you are violating the law. Ridiculous. Memo to Apple: Culture is all about re-using and transforming other people’s works. Remember your famous ad tagline — “Rip. Mix. Burn”?

I don’t know if Apple really believes its own marketing baloney or not. It certainly makes excellent products (I love my Mac). Too bad that Apple apparently takes this as a license to act like a Master of the Universe and claim literal ownership of our words. A bit of advice for Apple: Think Different. You’re being rude.

Update: Public Citizen Litigation Group issues a statement about the “pod” case and how trademark dilution law is restricting free speech.