Thursday, May 29, 2008

This Post is Entirely Safe For Work

(Drew Curtis, founder of Fark)

The popular trademark blog Trademork covered a story about the phrase "not safe for work" late last year. Apparently, popular news blog / forum Fark.com applied for a trademark to protect their use of the acronym "NSFW." The application was filed in November of 2007 and was denied in March 2008.

I guess there are three ways to view this. One is that Fark wanted to protect their use of the mark, that they wanted to be the only ones permitted to use the acronym. This seems pretty unlikely, since the mark is so widely used that Fark would have a hell of a time trying to sue all of them. Fark also officially issued a statement that this was not their intention (here).

Another possibility: Fark had an elaborate joke planned that uses the trademark. Even if this is true, as they hint in their statement, I can't imagine it being very funny.

The way I see it, this case is an example of the trademark process at work successfully. The mark is so widely used by internet forums and blogs that it has no association with Fark. Maybe Fark thinks that when people think of content that is "not safe for work," they think immediately of Fark. But it seems to me Fark just doesn't understand the real function of Trademarks. Trademark isn't a method for getting "squatter's rights" to a phrase just by being the first to use it. It's a method for protecting brand.

People sort of see trademarks as a big stick to hit people with if they use your trademark. But trademark should probably operate more like a wall, a structure that separates companies and their brands from each other. It grows naturally from the culture of branding in modern commerce, and it operates in the marketplace as walls operate in a mall; the stores are separated for the benefit of customers to choose which they will use. This is the ostensible function of trademark law, too.

That's why a trademark on such a functional phrase just doesn't make sense in this context. The name "Fark" and any symbols associated with it are trademarkable but "NSFW" isn't, in the same sense that "Starbucks" is trademarkable but "hot coffee" isn't.

References:
Trademork Article
Trademark Office Documents

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bissinger Vs. Leitch: How to Look Like a Fool to a New Generation

Above: Buzz Bissinger, a man about to have no job.

From what I understand, and from what my friend Hudi tells me, Buzz Bissinger is a reputable commentator and writer in most respects. He writes about sports in many conventional newspapers and magazines, or old media outlets. He is also responsible for the sports-media steamroller, "Friday Night Lights," which, in addition to being a book, became a movie and then a television show. The man is arguably making a lot of money off of the fact that subjects transcend media and can find incarnations in at least three different forms of media.

But why would I bring up that last bit? Why does it matter that Bissinger's money and fame depend at least in part on his ability to create something that can succeed in multiple different media?

The answer lies in a prominent viewpoint that he frequently expresses, most vitriolically on a sports show called "Costas Now" with well-known sports blogger, Will Leitch. In this segment, Bissinger expressed what Wikipedia calls his "self professed 'abiding hatred' of blogs" via personal attacks on Leitch, the founder and operator of popular sports blog Deadspin.

You can watch the video for yourself to get a taste of the kind of hateful, personally-directed language Bissinger used. And new media bloggers and news outlets have had a field day criticizing his rhetorical methods. Indeed, apparently even people who agree with him feel his message is lost in his caustic speech methods. But I'm here to tell you that, even if Buzz Bissinger were level-headed and even remotely likeable, he would still be on the wrong side of this issue, intellectually and, interestingly enough, morally.

First of all, from an intellectual standpoint, Bissinger finds himself arguing an indefensible point. His argument is that the print media and traditional sports coverage methods are superior to blogs, most notably because the blogs are mean and focused too much on entertainment and not on sports analysis. He insists that blogs are just plain wrong. Here are the three reasons why this viewpoint cannot be sustained:

1. Sports are entertainment. Sports analysis and coverage are to increase that entertainment. People who think it is fun to analyze the numbers and talk seriously about the coaching and managing decisions of their favorite teams go to sources that do precisely that. And they go to those sources because they are entertaining. People who go to blogs that talk about how stupid certain coaches are and how certain players are behaving off the field/court/ice/etc. go there for the same reason that people go to Bissinger's old media: to be entertained. The goals of the two media are no different; they are there to make sports more entertaining in whatever way works for their audience. Without this goal, sports writing wouldn't exist.

2. Blogs are mean, but so is traditional sports coverage. Bissinger complains that blogs waste time spewing "hate." But what should blogs be using this time for? The same thing that, for instance, "Costas Now" does, which is often registering distaste for people in the sports world? The only distinction between television and magazine sports coverage and blog sports coverage is a matter of degree, not a matter of one being hateful and the other not. And that degree is, again, determined by what their audience can stomach or even what their audience wants. And that brings me to...

3. Blogs, unlike most old media, are interactive to the level that modern media consumers demand. Books were fine as dominant media for a generation that didn't expect immediate results from their media. Newspapers were more immediate next, but that wasn't good enough for the television generation, which came to expect "breaking news updates." Now, in the post-breaking-news world, people expect to be able to comment on their news and to link people to it and to have an almost infinite selection of choices for how they get their news, be it sports news or otherwise. In Bissinger's world, this normal upswing in demand for interactivity should stop with his generation. What he needs is a dose of reality; his generation will eventually not be alive anymore, and the generation that he keeps criticizing will have the option of dismissing his generation's output, an outcome that looks increasingly certain the more he demands that media not evolve and audiences stop having expectations.

And that's only on the intellectual foundations of Bissinger's argument. He even has shaky ground to stand on from a moral standpoint. Remember how I mentioned that Bissinger's most succesful property was "Saturday Night Lights," something which gets him book royalties, movie royalties, and even still-running television show royalties?

Well, the natural development of the "Friday Night Lights" story from true events into book, then into movie, and finally into television, is a result of the precise new media conventions that he is criticizing. His high-minded story of triumph book became a populist drama story of triumph on the big screen, and it wound up a pretty straight populist drama on television, all because this is what the audience wanted. In essence, the kind of audience-driven content that Bissinger criticizes is what lines his pockets on a daily basis. There is a moral hipocricy in saying that his method for audience exploitation is somehow better than a blog's method to the same ends.

All told, Bissinger, in addition to coming across as a blowhard with a chip on his shoulder, comes across as an ill-informed relic of an almost-gone era of media. His tirades in support of the finer quality of print sports coverage and old media sounds more like the cries of a man that fears his job is almost gone. He has his supporters, but, thankfully for anyone that likes their media responsive to their demands, those supporters are dwindling. The world of blogs like Deadspin is growing, and the world of magazines, newspapers, and fossils like Bissinger is shrinking fast.

If Bissinger still wants to have a job in five years' time, maybe he should start a blog.

Related: a sweet post from the Washington Post, old media giants, via their blog. This particular writer has the unique position of having written for the newspaper and for their blog. It's great. Here it is.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Housekeeping!

- andrew at "radio free tobias" did a sort of commentary on the Anonymous protests in columbus. go read it.

- i have entries brewing concerning a recent blogs-meet-old-media fiasco and a trademark disaster waiting to turn into a fiasco. stay tuned.

- i also wanted to do an overview of some of the movies i have seen recently. but i might not.

- i also wanted to write a little about daniel tammet, though i recognize that intrepid readers will not need to read a blog entry by me on the subject now that i have mentioned the guy's name (that's what google's for).

- i'm thinking of striking capitalization from my blog, as a statement on the entrenched conventions of old media and their possible irrelevance in a new-media world.

so stay tuned for better, more interesting updates as soon as i finish school and get my job sorted out.