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Culture Re-View: How changed the English language, legally

Google on a laptop
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By Jonny Walfisz
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15 September 1997: is registered as a domain name


It’s been quite a big September for Google. Last week, the world’s most powerful company celebrated its 25th anniversary. On 4 September 1998, American computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company.

Before the pair founded the company though, they had already registered the domain name for what would become their ubiquitous search engine.

From a project on the relatively nascent World Wide Web, the pair worked on a research project to create an index for Stanford University. As the project’s scope grew in size, they moved it past the university’s remit.

Nearly a year before the company was officially founded, Page and Brin registered as a domain name on this day in 1997, just over seven years after British scientist Tim Berners-Lee had released his World Wide Web to the public.

Since registering the domain, Google has grown to be an all-encompassing company. The pivotal moment was arguably when search engine’s index was shifted to operate on a model that benefitted advertisers willing to pay for higher slots. From that point on, Google became a company defined by the value of its data to prospective advertisers.

Today, Google isn’t just the search engine. From your emails, to maps, translation, operating systems, and basically every technological factor in modern life; Google has a service.

The proliferation of Google, from the humble beginnings of registering that domain name, has even changed the definition of Google in many languages.

Originally derived from “googol”, the mathematical term for the number 10100, or 10 duotrigintillion; “Google” was an unintentional misspelling by Page and Brin to promote the scale of the search engine.

In everyday life, especially in English, if you want to ask someone to search for something online, you’ll likely ask them to “google it”. While that may sound like an uncontroversial fact, it’s a display of the market power the company has to become so synonymous with the act.

A Google appCanva

Legally though, when company names become synonymous with actions related to their purpose, it can be a problem. It’s a situation that’s faced companies like Velcro, Aspirin and Xerox. When people started replacing the terms “hook and loop”, “painkiller” and “copy” for the company names, the companies risked losing control of their trademarks.

It’s a legal problem nicknamed “genericide” and as more people use “google” as a verb instead of a company name, the world’s biggest search engine runs the risk of genericide turning their name into a meaningless trademark. That makes it harder for companies to legally act when other companies misuse their brand name.

Luckily for Google, when they were taken to a US court over the accusation the trademark had become generic, they argued that because the use was as a verb, and not a generic noun, they were safe. The argument worked and they’ve kept their trademark… for now.

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