THE WORLD'S BIGGEST Internet presence Google was founded on a single laudable principle: "Don't Be Evil." That informal corporate motto, from which Google has recently tried to distance itself, was originally intended as a sideways swipe at some of its original competitors, companies like Microsoft and Yahoo, which were seen as tyrannical multinational greed machines sweeping across the fledgeling Internet sucking up the vast untapped resources of online wealth and giving little in return.
After a little under fifteen years, Google has effectively monopolised the Internet search engine premier league, gaining such an iron stranglehold on its original market that even mighty Microsoft has failed miserably to gain even the most precarious of footholds on the slippery slopes of the world wide web. We wouldn't even hazard a guess as to how many tens of millions of dollars Steve Ballmer and his Redmond minions have poured into Bing, the Vole's search portal that was supposed to take on Google at its own game but so far has been unable to find its football boots, let alone get out on the pitch.
And those of you old enough to remember the once world-conquering Yahoo will no doubt realise that the mighty can fall all too quickly in an online world where the next big thing is just around the corner.
The secret with Google, and the reason it has stayed at the top of its game for so long whilst its contemporaries wither and die, is that it has evolved with the Internet rather than trying to maintain a comfortable status quo. It has invested heavily in giant data centres and given ground-breaking products to an eager public free of charge.
Who can forget the unbridled excitement encountered when you first got that email from a friend inviting you to try out Google's totally free Gmail service. At rollout Google made the brilliant marketing decision to allow each user to invite just ten friends to join the service, which made it seem like an exclusive little club that most of your luddite colleagues would never be invited to join. The invites were strictly limited, they said. There were kudos in being one of the first to get access to that enormous 1GB of free storage. It really was too good to be true.
That Google chose to launch the service on April 1st 2004 really set the cat amongst the pigeons. Many commentators swore that offering the unwashed masses a free email service with unprecedentedly huge amounts of storage - in fact 1GB was about 100 times more than your average commercial email service offered at the time - with the added promise of no advertising banners, had to be a cruel joke.
There were even rumours flying that Gmail invites were changing hands on Ebay for up to $100 a pop.
Google's philanthropic kindness didn't stop there, however. The company was soon snapping at the heels of Microsoft's dominance in the workplace by offering a totally free web-based alternative to the software giant's all-powerful Office suite of applications.
Google Docs could do just about everything that Word, Excel and Powerpoint could do, in a cloud-based application, for absolutely nothing. Free. Buckshee. And the magnanimous megacorp would look after all of your data for you. Forever. Whether you wanted it to or not. Oh dear.
Someone once said "With great power comes great responsibility" - it was either Spiderman or Franklin D Roosevelt depending on how old you are - and Google has now amassed such massive power that it is wobbling at the edge of a great abyss. The Internet behemoth now generates so much wealth, employs so many people and touches so many lives that its original principle - to avoid doing evil - seems almost impossible to maintain.
Google's rise and rise is the stuff of fiction, and like all the best movie villains - the ones who were once good kind people but are turned by fate or circumstance to the dark side - Google is at a fork in the road. The money making machine has built such momentum that it will take more strength than any number of well-meaning board members have to keep it on the straight and narrow, the path of righteousness.
There are, however, chinks in its corporate armour. Google announced yesterday that it had uncovered the tracks of some very sophisticated hackers who had broken into its servers and weaselled about in the private data of some well known Chinese anti-government dissidents. The company stopped short of directly accusing the Chinese government, but the implication was crystal clear. Google will no longer kowtow to the demands of the oppressive communist regime by censoring web inquiries in China. And if the Chinese authorities don't like it, Google is prepared to shut up its Beijing shop, take its ball and go home. We can guess how this one's going to play out.
But the yin and yang must be balanced. For every act of political courage or corporate generosity there must, inevitably, be a kick in the teeth for someone.
And so we turn to the tale of another super hero, or heroine, and oppressive actions of a different kind.
It seems there's an online comic book called "I Am Googol". In the story, the leather-clad super heroine has an extraordinary brain that enables her to process more than one googol of data per second - which sounds a bit lame to us as super powers go, but she would be great at splitting the bill in a restaurant. The character's creator, Sylvaine Francis, says she was born when she found the word and its definition "completely at random" one day.
Sylvaine has some rather ambitious plans to turn "I Am Googol" into a movie but, without wishing to rain on her obvious enthusiasm for her creation, a ranking of 1,634th on the Webcomic list and 140 Facebook fans - including, for the purposes of research, your humble author - seem hardly likely to have James Cameron beating a path to her door.
Unfortunately for "I Am Googol" and her creator, trying to file a trademark registration for the comic book character has attracted the attention of Google's lawyers.
When the Fed Ex man knocked on the door of Sylvaine's London home a couple of days ago, she was probably expecting a late Christmas present. What she wasn't expecting was a very scary letter from Christine Hsieh with Google's trademark team, the full text of which (edited only for spelling) follows:
Dear Ms. Francis:
As you are no doubt aware, Google Inc is a world-famous company specialising in supplying search services on the Internet, email, online mapping, office productivity, social networking and video sharing services, as well as advertising and other related services. We are widely recognised as the world's largest Internet search engine.
We own various registered rights covering the UK, including those UK and Community trade mark registrations listed at Schedule A. In addition, we have built up a very significant goodwill and reputation in the mark GOOGLE in the UK and worldwide.
It has recently come to our attention that you have applied to the UK intellectual Property Office to register the word GOOGOL as a trade mark in classes 16 and 41 under application number 2520099. You also registered the domain name iamgoogol.com on 23 June 2009.
Additionally, your website, www.iamgoogol.com, makes reference to a comic book character by the name of GOOGOL, who "can process more than one Googol of data per second allowing her to have abilities which go beyond everybody else abilities, given the same advance technologies and gadgets available to everyone in the future". This combination of the name GOOGOL and ability to process data alludes to our company and, in particular, our provision of online search services.
We are concerned about your use of the GOOGOL sign. In particular, given the similarity between the sign GOOGOL and our mark GOOGLE, your use of the sign GOOGOL creates a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public, including a likelihood of association with our registered trade marks. Further, your use of the sign GOOGOL is without due cause and takes unfair advantage of, or is detrimental to, the distinctive character or the repute of our GOOGLE mark.
In the circumstances, we consider that your trade mark application is invalid under sections 5(2), 5(3) and 5(a) of the Trade Marks Act 1994 ("the Act"). Further, any use by you of the sign GOOGOL in the course of trade in respect of goods or services would inevitably constitute infringement of our trade mark registrations listed at Schedule A under sections 10(2) and/or 10(3) of the Act (or, inr elation to our Community trade mark registrations, the equivalent provisions of CTM Regulation No 40/94) and passing off.
In the circumstances, we are entitled take the following actions:
to file an opposition in relation to your application; and/or
to initiate Court proceedings against you in the UK for trade mark infringement and passing off (as part of this we would seek an order preventing any further infringement by you and awarding us damages or an account of your profits and reimbursement of our legal costs).
Notwithstanding the above, we have no wish to engage in litigation if it can be avoided and prefer to resolve this amicably. We therefore request that you provide written confirmation by 4pm on 15 January 2010 that you will:
1) withdraw UK trade mark application number 2520099;
2) transfer the domain name iamgoogol.com to us; and
3) cease all use of the sign GOOGOL, whether on the website www.iamgoogol.con or otherwise.
Provided that this matter can be resolved on the terms set out above, we are prepared to waive our entitlement to damages and to legal costs. However, this letter is without prejudice to our right to claim damages or an account of profits and costs in the event that suitable confirmation is not received and formal legal action is required.
The origins of the Google name are buried in the mists of time but it is possible that it is an unfortunate and unintentional misspelling of 'googol'. The term 'googol' was invented by professor Edward Kasner who was looking for a new name for a very big number. Apparently at the suggestion of his nine year-old nephew, 10 raised to the 100th power - or a 1 followed by 100 zeroes for the mathematically challenged - became a googol. Incidentally, a googolplex is a one followed by writing zeroes until you get tired of it.
So for all intents and purposes Google's misguided and heavy-handed lawyers are trying to protect the copyright on a number. More importantly, a number which was invented by a dead mathematician, and which it didn't even have the good grace to spell properly.
Let's hope the men in grey suits at 7-Up don't get wind of this one otherwise we'll all be forced to change the way we count to: one, two, three, four, five, six, generic lemon and lime flavoured carbonated beverage, eight, nine, ten.
What next? Will Google be writing to the International Cricket Council insisting that no one is allowed to deliver a googly (a fiendishly-disguised way of bowling designed to fool the batsman into thinking the ball will move in one direction when it will, in fact, bounce off in the other)?
Will the Ukranian author Nikolai Gogol's family be forced to remove his works from publication for fear of legal action from one of the world's richest corporations?
Will the Goo Goo Dolls be forced to withdraw and rename their back catalogue?
We'd like to think that the world's most powerful Internet search company, which is busy facing off against the country with the world's largest population, would have more pressing matters to handle than harassing an inoffensive young woman over the whimsical name of her quirky web comic character.
Come on Google. Grow up! µ
Sign up for INQbot – a weekly roundup of the best from the INQ