May 18, 2004

Google/Googol Owned?

Can someone own a word? Some people think they do. According to The Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun, Peri Fleisher, the great-niece of Professor Edward Kasner, who coined the term googol, is considering suing Google on behalf of her son, who holds the copyright in Kasner's book Mathematics and the Imagination, for taking advantage of the word without compensating them. They say that it isn't fair that Google has benefitted from the use of the word without bringing attention to Kasner's work. Curiously, they aren't trying to get Google to publicize Kasner's work; they want money. To be precise, they want insider status when Google goes public. (This is particularly silly since Google is planning to use a Dutch Auction, which as I understand it means that there won't be any insiders.)

In any case, its not as if Google doesn't acknowledge the source of its name. The Google History page on the company's web site begins:

Google is a play on the word googol, which was coined by Milton Sirotta, nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner, and was popularized in the book, "Mathematics and the Imagination" by Kasner and James Newman. It refers to the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. Google's use of the term reflects the company's mission to organize the immense, seemingly infinite amount of information available on the web.

What is really bizarre here is the idea that Kasner's heirs own the word googol. By its very nature, every bit of a language belongs to the commons, and it is perfectly clear that Kasner intended googol to become part of the English language. You can copyright a sufficiently long and original sequence of words, but not an individual word. You can trademark a word, but only for specific uses, and in any case neither Kasner nor his family has ever used googol as a trademark. Legally, I am confident that the family hasn't got a leg to stand on. Morally, they don't either. None of them had anything to do with the introduction of the word, and none of them has been in any way injured or lost any opportunity through Google's use of the term. In his role as a scholar, Kasner introduced a word to the English language and thereby contributed it to the public domain. He knew that this is what he was doing because this is how science works. People make discoveries and come up with new ideas and create language for talking about them. Other people use these ideas and facts and words and build on them. We admit only a very limited form of short term ownership of ideas, in the form of patents, and even this has become increasingly problematic as patents have been extended to software.

Allowing people to own words would make life as we know it impossible. Only certain people, those with the appropriate licenses, would be able to talk about certain things. You wouldn't be able to talk or write about genetics unless you held licenses to use repressor and allele and so forth. You couldn't discuss syntax without licenses for E-language and foot feature and Determiner Phrase, and if you had them, you might find that you couldn't use, say, functional unification and thematic role in the same paper because of the restrictions in the licenses imposed by the proponents of rival theories. The mind boggles at the insanity of this idea.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 18, 2004 10:52 AM