Who owns the word "politico"?

According to the dictionary, the word “politico” originated almost 400 years ago, and it means “a politician.”  Newspaper columnists have been especially fond of the word for decades, using it as an in-the-know slang word of sorts in discussing elected officials or candidates, sometimes shortening it even further to “pol” or “pols”.  It’s no surprise that the word gets exercised in the blogosphere, and also no surprise that a journalistic enterprise would want to use it for their somewhat unconventional approach to political coverage.  But does that mean that they’re the only ones who can use that word?

According to Patterico, it appears that they think so:

The College Politico has received a cease-and-desist letter from lawyers for Politico, demanding that he stop using the word “Politico” in his name — and that he give them control of his domain.

Stephen Gutkowski, the operator of the domain, has broken several stories, including one that proved that Obama=Hitler signs were being wielded by Lyndon LaRouche supporters.

Spread the word far and wide: we will not stand for such thuggish tactics. … Until this threat is withdrawn, I plan to boycott Politico, and I encourage others to do the same.

Just for the record, I’ve been through this myself, although it was much more pleasant than my friend Stephen has experienced.  When I ran Captain’s Quarters, I would often refer to it as “CQ” in self-references, and when I moved to BlogTalkRadio, I called my daily show “CQ Radio.”  Eventually, this caught the attention of Congressional Quarterly, which regularly uses (and trademarks) “CQ” in conjunction with its media projects.  I also got the dreaded “cease and desist” from CQ, but the attorneys were mostly interested in making sure I stopped using it, not in demanding massive changes in my blog.  In fact, both CQ and the attorneys treated me fairly and made it a short and friendly discussion.

That’s what seems to be missing in this transaction between Stephen and Politico.  The letter from the attorneys is harsh, intimidating, and frankly greedy.  They want to seize Stephen’s domain name without any compensation, and make the silly claim that “The College Politico” has infringed on “Campus Politico,” a trademark they say is “famous”.  I’ve never heard of “Campus Politico,” and probably wouldn’t recognize it if I tripped over it. And I think there is probably plenty of room for more than one entity to use the word “Politico” in the political sphere, since that’s the actual dictionary definition of the word.

I understand the need to protect a trademark, and it does require vigilance to keep one.  Many people don’t realize that cellophane used to be a trademark, but the owners didn’t pursue infringement adequately to keep it from passing into the language as a generic term for plastic wrap.  That’s the reason companies like Xerox and Coca-Cola (“Coke”) will regularly send letters scolding people who use their trademarks as generic words.

In this case, though, Politico is being both ridiculous and a very bad neighbor in the blogosphere with this ill-considered campaign of legal intimidation against Stephen.  I’d like to think that Politico just made a very poor choice of attorneys and will intervene to dial down the hostility and the ridiculous level of claims made in this dispute. We can certainly get our news elsewhere, rather than from a publication that acts like a bully in the blog spaces.

Frankly, this makes me even more grateful to the folks at Congressional Quarterly for their professional and clear-headed approach to our interaction.

Update: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and I want to expand on his thoughts:

The blogosphere has been very good to Politico, and I think they should bear in mind the ill-will they’re incurring as a result of their heavy-handed legal tactics.

Let’s make that clear.  Politico may have a valid trademark claim here (I’d question it, but I’m not an attorney), but they didn’t need to start off by issuing this particular C&D letter.  Someone at the office could have attempted to negotiate with Stephen first before demanding his domain name and seizure of the site, or the attorneys could have reached out in a much more reasonable manner, as did CQ’s in our interaction.  Stephen is a reasonable man, and might have been happy to reach some sort of accommodation.  Instead, they jumped immediately to legal threats, which is an unfriendly manner in which to engage the blogosphere, which probably makes up most of Politico’s readership.

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