Friday, May 15, 2009

Google, Trademarks, Society, and Information

Reports today of a potential class action lawsuit against Google on behalf of trademark holders in Texas. At issue, apparently, is Google practice of allowing companies to "buy" as search words the trademark of a competitor. Thus, Dell, for example, could pay Google so that when someone searches for "Gateway," Dell appears high in the search results or a Dell ad appears in the "sponsored links" box.

Apparently, trademark owners say that this "use" of a trademark is violation of their property rights. Audrey Spangenberg, a software company owner who filed the suit, suggested:
It is inappropriate for Google to sell my trademark for a profit. It really misleads our customers and our potential customers.
The theory here would be that a company has invested in the creation of its brand identity (which "exists" in the minds of all of us out here who recognize the trademark and have particular associations with it) and that the other company is profiting from the use of this "thing" that the trademark owner has built. The word itself is physically in an index on the Google server and when the user types it in an action is triggered and this action is potentially profitable to the other company.

(She uses the word "misleads" here because that's a key concept in the law of trademarks -- more on this idea below.)

That's fine as far as it goes, but it makes a mistake that is common in conversations about trademark, copyright, brand identity, and so on. And that mistake is forgetting to think about the substance, the "thing-ness" that's of value. That substance is an association in my head, in all our heads. If, as a consumer, I do a search for "Gateway," it is likely that I am looking for, say, a personal computer. Fortunately for Gateway Corporation, I have some association in my head between this category (what I am actually looking for) and their trademark. But what I am trying to do is get the best deal on the best computer I can find. I use a search tool called Google to pursue my goal. Will Gateway begrudge me the use of my association between their trademark and the category I'm looking for? The fact that I use "Gateway" as a gateway to "good computer"? Do they really want to suggest that my association of their trademark with a generic category should serve to obscure, in practice, other entities in that category? And that if it does not do that -- if it, in fact, leads me into the very marketplace where I can find out who else sells computers -- that it is misleading me? Do they think they own my associations? Do I mislead myself by using their trademark as a lever with which to locate many things in the category of interest to me?

In fact, I think they are renting my associations and they should be paying me for their use. Their entire "brand identity" (the value of which, by the way, they are allowed to put on their balance sheet as an asset) exists in our heads. Is my slipping and saying "xerox" instead of photocopy a whole lot different from putting a xerox logo on my car? They might pay me for the latter, but not for the former.

Why is any of this important for a sociology of information? Because figuring out what kind of property different types of information represent is a big project for the 21st century. A significant portion of the information that is valuable to corporations resides in consumer interest, practice, and their social networks. The social, in other words, is creating a lot of the value of information.

Think about this in connection with recent debates about copyright in which it is implied that all the value of, say, a Beatles song, resides in the song itself. If we, collectively lose interest, there's nothing there at all. If, on the other hand, we hum along, talk about it, dance to it, request it on the radio, play covers of it, etc. then it has value. The record company wants all the value to lie in the thing itself because that's what they control and that's what they know how to extract value from. But without the social, they got nuffin'.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Origins of Life/Information

Now you will know I'm a little loonie.

In a former life I spent a lot of time studying chemistry and mathematics and I have for some time been thinking about molecules and information. In particular, I've been puzzling over the question of how information carrying molecules like RNA and DNA came into existence and how they manage to "code" for more information than they "contain." And I've been recently urging the idea of catalysis as a metaphor for infrastructure on my partner.

And so I was quite excited to read Nicholas Wade's report in this morning's Times ("Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life") on the work of John D. Sutherland and colleagues at the University of Manchester. The abstract of their article in Nature this week starts out like this:
At some stage in the origin of life, an informational polymer must have arisen by purely chemical means.
They go on to describe how molecules that could be present in a pre-biotic "warm pond" -- cyanamide, cyanoacetylene, glycolaldehyde, glyceraldehyde and inorganic phosphate -- can react to form the building blocks of RNA. (The chemistry of the reaction is shown in a nice series of graphics here.)

Can I say something really clever about what this really has to do with the sociology of information? No. But stay tuned. I can connect back to that comment about infrastructure and catalysis, though. The authors of the article note that the presence of phosphate not as an reactant but earlier in the process:
its presence from the start is essential as it controls three reactions in the earlier stages by acting as a general acid/base catalyst, a nucleophilic catalyst, a pH buffer and a chemical buffer.
In other words, its presence changes the environment, makes possible reactions that energetics would otherwise forbid or discourage. That seems like an interesting definition for infrastructure.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Information and Fairness

Insider trading is a classic example of the instrumental value of information and it reminds us of how markets are socially constructed (not in the sense that they are figments of the collective imagination but in the sense that they generally need the support of some social norms, rules, and laws in order to function well.)

The New York Times reported last November (in "S.E.C. Accuses Mark Cuban of Insider Trading") that Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has been accused of selling all of his shares in a company a few hours after receiving confidential inside information suggesting the stock price would drop. At first glance it would appear that the "bottom line" is the monetary value of the information (that Cuban had but others did not), but consider how a source explained things, as quoted by the article's writer: "It is fundamentally unfair for someone to use access to nonpublic information to improperly gain an edge on the market." The "technical" reason for prohibiting insider trading is that markets can fail if people think others have private information, but this comment suggests that there's a social norm at work too: it's just not informationally fair.