Ben Zimmer, "The Great Language Land Grab", NYT 3/27/2011:
When tech companies engage in legal squabbles about who gets to use our everyday words, what are ordinary speakers of the language to make of it all?
Microsoft is suing Apple, and Apple is suing Amazon, all over the right to use a simple two-word phrase: “app store.” [...]
It’s not the first time the tech industry has claimed commonplace language as its own.
Facebook has been notorious in this regard, filing trademarks on an array of common four-letter words: “like,” “wall,” “poke” and, naturally, “face” and “book.” [...]
Microsoft, of course, has long been playing this game by fiercely upholding prosaic brand names like Windows, Office and Word.
There was a flurry of news about the first "app store" lawsuit over the past couple of months, and the strangest contribution, IMHO, came from John Dvorak ("App means Apple", PC Magazine 3/2/2011):
Apple is going to war over the term "App Store," but it doesn't need to waste its time and money. We all know "app" means Apple. [...]
The one edge in the debate that Apple has is that app is actually a truncated version of the word Apple and there is no other reason anyone should be using Apple in their store name. When I see App Store, I think Apple Store. By saying it uses App as kind of a pun, meaning both Apple and "application," the company could have a strong case. Although it's obvious to me, I have yet to see if Apple has made this argument.
The idea that "app" might be short for Apple had never occurred to me before, I guess because as Ben points out in his article,
“App” has been used by the computing crowd since at least 1985 as a short form of “application.”
Of course, John Dvorak knows this, since he's been writing columns about computing since about that same time. So maybe he's representative of a group who lexicalized the term differently. Or maybe he just needed a provocative thesis for that week.
Anyhow, the fact that Apple's lawyers don't seem to have advanced this theory, either before or after Mr. Dvorak's proposal, suggests that they don't think it would work. Instead, as I understand it, their theory is simply that the phrase "app store", whatever its etymology or interpretation, belongs to them.
And following up on Ben's "language land grab" idea, it's worth noting that something does seem to have changed over the last few decades. U.S. trademark registration has been available since 1881 — before that, trademarks were dealt with under common law — but over the past 130 years, innovators have failed to make any attempt to register many valuable new words, new combinations of old ones, or new commercial meanings of words or phrases.
For example, the OED's earliest citation for email is from 1984. I'm pretty sure that the term was in use at Bell Labs when I started there in 1975 — though maybe we just called it "mail", as users of Multics and CTSS apparently did. In any case, at some point between 1965 and 1985, there were various opportunities to assert ownership of "mail" or various derivatives for the puposes of digitally-mediated communication, but this never seems to have occurred to anyone.
Moving back in time, the concept and word supermarket originated in the early 1930s — the OED's first citation is from 1933 — but as far as I know, no one tried to establish ownership of the word.
Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, but his company made no attempt to assert ownership of the word, which had been used for a half-century previous to that in a more general sense, e.g. for "a system of signalling by musical notes, devised by Sudré in 1828", or a "Marine Alarum and Signal Trumpet", or an 1860 invention by Wheatstone "in which musical pipes or free tongues are acted upon by wind. Compressed air or gas is admitted to the pipe by means of a valve acted upon by the magnetized needle of an electro~magnet. The alternation of long and short sounds may be grouped in a similar manner to the long and short lines in the alphabet of a Morse's telegraph."
It might have been plausible for AT&T to argue, as Apple now does about "app store", that use of the word "telephone" by its competitors "will confuse and mislead customers". And this would certainly have been helpful to Theodore Vail in his attempt to consolidate an effective monopoly of U.S. telephony after Bell's patent expired in 1894, under the slogan "One Policy, One System, Universal Service." But as far as I know, this idea never occurred to anyone.
It's easy to think of dozens of similar cases of (luckily?) lost opportunity — just in the area of new types of stores, there's "convenience store" (1960s), "video store" (1980s), "game store" (1980s), etc. (I'm not talking about traffic in the other direction, where brand names like kleenex or xerox become genericized terms for types of product or process. Rather, the issue here is words or phrases of the general vocabulary, often already in use for varieties of the application in question, that are turned into commercial property. As Ben's article suggests, this seems to have become increasingly common. The best-known case is probably "windows". Does anyone know what the first one was?