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The Perseverance of the Principled Individual

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It would be nice to think that everyone running a business behaves ethically at all times and would never dream of trying to get one over on their colleagues or competitors. Sadly, as reality has shown all too often, this is not always the case. Luckily, there are also people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to see things through to the bitter end, not just for their own benefit, but for everyone else who might be affected.

Two years ago, one Jason Gambert began proceedings to trademark the term SEO. Search Engine Optimisation. That thing that people cleverer than me do to get websites and pages higher up the search engine rankings. It’s not a product. If you do it for yourself, it’s not even a service. At its simplest, it’s a series of processes, though you can’t guarantee that applying them to two separate websites will have an identical effect on both. Trademarking the term SEO would be like an alcoholic attempting to trademark “drinking to excess.” Some do it with beer, others will need vodka.

From the public documentation and Mr Gambert’s own utterances, it appeared to be something of a power-grab, through which Gambert hoped to be able to define precisely what SEO is and how any businesses using the term would be able to operate. Naturally, SEO professionals were a bit alarmed. There were multiple blog posts, calls for action, and a fair amount of righteous indignation. Notices of opposition were filed, lawyers were hired, and the wrangling began. One by one, however, whether due to technicalities, legal costs, or simply losing interest, those pushing against the trademark application dropped out of the fight.

Today, two years later, the trademark application has been thrown out. This is down to the efforts of Rhea Drysdale, who spent countless hours and more than $17,000 of her own money to shut Gambert’s application down. She’s not a high-powered lawyer, or a millionaire with cash to burn. At the time she started her action, she was a 25 year-old on contract at a startup. She had no expertise in intellectual property law, and no way of knowing whether she’d be successful. Last week, all her efforts finally came good and thanks to her, SEO professionals can operate in peace, without the threat of spurious legal action down the line.

Now, reams have been written about the maladministration of copyright and trademark, particularly in the United States. I could easily write a new blog post every day about ridiculous patent applications and dodgy claims of ownership, but there are websites that already do that much better than I can. What is most frustrating is that not only was Gambert’s original trademark application allowed to get so far, but that despite various businesses and professionals having a vested interest in seeing off the application, it was left to one individual with only the courage of her convictions to do the heavy lifting.

The main lesson to take away from this is that you can’t leave it up to somebody else to fight your battles for you. The business world does not operate according to your personal moral code. You might do everything above board, but there will always be somebody else who is willing to play dirty. If you’re going to protect your livelihood, you need to be prepared to dig in and defend your corner. Otherwise you are simply allowing yourself to become a victim of circumstance.

And if you are an SEO professional? You might want to consider chipping in to thank Rhea Drysdale. Find a way to send in a donation for those legal bills, whether by hook, crook or fairy godmother.

Update: Rhea’s PayPal address is rhea_drysdale@yahoo.com. Make it right, people. You would be in a very precarious position without her.

[Image by Dru Bloomfield]

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