It's bad enough that we have to deal with struggles over the use of trademarks that have become generic terms, like "Xerox" and "Coke", and trademarks that were already generic terms among specialists, such as "Windows", but a new low in trademarking has been reached by the joint efforts of Dell and the US Patent and Trademark Office. Cyndy Aleo-Carreira reports that Dell has applied for a trademark on the term "cloud computing". The opposition period has already passed and a notice of allowance has been issued. That means that it is very likely that the application will soon receive final approval.
The term "cloud computing" refers to a model in which computer services are provided in a distributed manner over a network to users who do not necessarily know anything about the technology or the way in which resources are distributed. Search engines like Google are an example: when you run a search, the work is divided up among multiple machines without you being aware of it or playing any role in the assignment, and many people use Google's resources at the same time. In the computing world, it is a generic term with no association with a particular company or technology. Aleo-Carreira found examples in the mainstream press as early as 2001, in this New York Times article. It appears that Dell itself did not use the term in press releases or discussions with journalists prior to 2007.
In other words, this is a pure example of theft from the public domain. Speakers of English have a term, "cloud computing", which the US government is on the verge of privatizing and assigning exclusively to Dell. Other companies providing similar services will not be able to describe what they are doing as "cloud computing" any more than Nike is able to describe its shoes as Reeboks. In theory a system exists for preventing such abuses: the USPTO ought to have staff who are knowledgeable enough in their respective fields to recognize such generic terms. Moreover, in theory members of the public can notify the USPTO of problems during the opposition period. It is increasingly apparent, however, that USPTO is either unable or unwilling to do its job, and that the public opposition process is really only useful in detecting excessive similarity to existing trademarks: only trademark specialists have the time to check the Trademark Gazette regularly, or the $1,536 per year it takes to subscribe to the printed version.
I'm beginning to think that non-arbitrary trademarks (those that are real words or phrases, as opposed to artificial creations such as "Google" and "Viagra"), should be abolished lest greedy corporations enclose too much of our linguistic commons.