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Trademark pundits: AOL should mind its Ps and ICQs

I thought I had a juicy rumor coming my way yesterday when my normally sober offspring burst into my study.

I thought I had a juicy rumor coming my way yesterday when my normally sober offspring burst into my study. "Hey Dad!" hollered Vermel. "Have you heard about the new intensive care unit S.F. General is naming after Picabo Street?" I allowed that I hadn't.

"They're going to call it the Picabo ICU!"

I suppose I should ground the kid for a joke like that. But softie that I am, I gave him a break. I've got a lot of sympathy for youngsters these days, especially when I consider the moral swamp that surrounds them. After all, what's a little stale Olympics humor compared to the keyword hanky-panky rocking America Online?

AOL's own game of peekaboo concerns the Internet messaging firm ICQ, whose letters stand for nothing but are pronounced in English as "I seek you." (In French it reads, roughly, "There it is ass." Go figure.) The funny thing about ICQ is that in addition to being the name of a company and a product, it is also an AOL keyword that takes the online service's 12 million members not to ICQ but to AIM, AOL's own Internet messaging service. Quelle coincidence!

At first, I thought this was a pretty nifty trick on AOL's part. After all, anyone who didn't know that ICQ has no business relationship whatsoever with AOL might be inclined to think that in searching for ICQ's Internet messaging they had indeed found it on AOL's AIM page. After all, AOL has content and services partnerships with just about everybody these days. But then I found out that this very confusion is exactly what trademark law is written to prevent.

"ICQ may have a legitimate complaint," mused a friend's attorney, who knows a thing or two about this ICQ. "The fundamental thing about trademark law is what's known as 'false designation of origin.' When an AOL user types in ICQ as a keyword--which is just AOL's search mechanism--do they know what they're getting?

"It could be confusing to the public and therefore in violation of the trademark laws," the lawyer added.

The one thing nobody seems to know is whether ICQ Networks--whose parent company is Israel-based Mirabilis--has registered its name as a trademark (although another ™ expert notes that just by using the name ICQ may have ™ rights). ICQ executives seemed too flabbergasted at the news of AOL's keyword shenanigans either to form an opinion or to remember for sure if they'd bothered to file any paperwork with the trademark office.

"Wow," said ICQ general manager Tim Sixtus when informed of AOL's keyword stunt. After a long pause, he said he was "almost certain" ICQ was a registered trademark, but company lawyers assigned to confirm that fact missed my deadline. (No hard feelings, folks--I miss it all the time myself.)

Over at AOL, spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg offered the same response to every query posed to her: "Keywords are for those with whom we have business relationships or for our own products." You gotta love those PR flaks; their evasiveness has an almost mystical quality.

Challenge question for our next edition of Chewin' the Fat: What other company or product names (if any) does AOL use as keywords without consent?

The key word for the computer industry as a whole these days seems to be "paranoia." Andy Grove warned us that only the paranoid survive, which must speak volumes about the trusting natures of the 3,000 employees his company recently laid off. Everyone from Woody Allen to Kurt Cobain knows that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that everyone isn't out to get you. As attendees of the latest Apple shareholders' meeting learned, that scrappy company isn't taking any chances these days, least of all with wireless modem-wielding journalists.

News hounds will recall that Apple's recent meeting initially was closed to the press. Then, after a predictable uproar, reporters received timely invitations like the following: "Are you interested in attending the Apple shareholders' meeting tomorrow? Contrary to what the rumor sites are saying, it's totally open to the press." Rumor sites? Like Reuters?

Anyhow, everyone who managed to rearrange their schedules in time was welcomed by security that would have put El Al to shame. Despite un-CEO Steve Jobs's company email memo stating, "We are not announcing anything new, and we expect the meeting will be uneventful," every guest had to empty his or her pockets and get a magic metal detector wand waved up, down, and between the legs by a guard, present company excluded. At the prospect of being asked to remove my fedora or reveal any item in my deep pockets, I skipped the line and was spirited by a trusted Apple Skinformant to a side door, where I found the meeting to be just as dull as Monsieur Jobs had promised.

Less dull is CNET's new ad campaign, which shows a man with a bodybuilder's torso, labeled "Ziff-Davis in print," and spindly little legs, labeled "Ziff-Davis online." The middle region is left unidentified, but at least it is tastefully covered, which is more than can be said for the model in the online postcard sent to various CNET managers via Net problem child Annoy.com. In this inflamed (if not inflammatory) parody, the model's naked nether regions are labeled "CNET online." The text reads: "Because you really want your online experience shaped by size queens!"

These Annoy.com people are just too sophisticated for their own good. What on earth is a size queen? I consulted Vermel's precocious gay classmate, Jay Pegue, who explained this with world-weary patience. "Mr. DuBaud, there are just two kinds of gay men in the world: size queens and liars."

Vermel rolled his eyes in one of those "Dad, you're so lame" looks and the two of them left me to ponder what I'd learned.

After some reflection with a cigar and a sip of a single malt, I still haven't gotten to the bottom of it, but it has dawned on me that my own kid is growing up right before my eyes, learning all kinds of things I ain't never dreamed of. I never thought I'd be pulling the old about-to-be-indicted-politician's lament, but here it is: My family must come first. It is with this consideration in mind, and in response to overwhelming reader demand, that I have decided to make this column a once-a-week affair. Until further notice, rumors, innuendo, and other tales of le monde en ligne will be served exclusively on Thursdays, making Monday's load that much lighter for you, me, my son, and above all, for the good people who devote their lives to the commendable pursuit of corporate public relations. Monday's column may be 86'd, but I need your rumors 24-7. Email me with the 411 and I'll try to make this single shot twice as nice.