Mob Mentality and Web 2.0

31 May 2006
Disclaimer: I'm an O'Reilly author. I've been to Foo Camp. I've spoken at OSCON.

This is an opinion piece. I'll provide plenty of quotes and links, so you should have no trouble digging into the issue and coming to your own conclusions. These are mine.

Last week, Tom Raftery, an organizer for the Web 2.0 Half-Day Conference received a cease and desist letter from CMP Media, the company who produces the real Web 2.0 Conference with O'Reilly.

Understandably, Tom blogged about it. (Letters from lawyers are intimidating.) When I read his post (it was the first thing I read about this incident), I couldn't help but think the entire thing was crafted to be deliberately misleading. At first glance, I was appalled at O'Reilly's behavior, but I quickly realized that O'Reilly was not involved. A lawyer representing CMP Media sent a cease and desist letter for an obvious trademark infringement, yet this is the title Tom chose:

O'Reilly trademarks "Web 2.0" and sets lawyers on IT@Cork!

CMP Media filed for the trademark (for live events) back in 2003 (before, and in anticipation of, the first Web 2.0 Conference), and its lawyer sent the letter. Why? Well, the reason is right there at the bottom of Tom's post:

I am on the steering committee of IT@Cork and the organising committee of the Web 2.0 conference.

Although he seems to be claiming otherwise, Tom is not involved with the Web 2.0 Conference. Confused yet? You see, in an attempt to discredit CMP Media's actions (and tarnish O'Reilly's reputation), he slips up and demonstrates why trademarks are important. As Connor MacLeod would say, there can be only one.

Tom didn't stop there. With the attention he gained from his first post (it was Dugg, among other things), he continued with a series of related posts. In the first, O'Reilly's mean-spirited response, Tom references O'Reilly's initial response, Controversy about our "Web 2.0" service mark. (In it, Sara Winge gives a safe, corporate response, simply stating the truth. This is what a typical company would do, but people expect more from O'Reilly.) Tom also makes another very misleading statement:

If we run an event on Microsoft Windows, would Microsoft would send us a cease and desist letter for using their trademark in the title? Of course not, how is this any different?

It's unclear whether Tom is genuinely confused about trademarks or deliberately trying to be misleading again. O'Reilly and CMP Media have a conference called the Web 2.0 Conference. Microsoft has an operating system called Windows. Can you guess what would happen if Tom tried to sell an operating system named Windows?

Tom's series of posts continue with Cory Doctorow - O'Reilly apologist, O'Reilly vs. IT@Cork and Web 2.0 - a legalistic solution, I couldn't possibly condone this!, and finally, Sorry Tim. The last post is a rather weak apology, but an apology nonetheless. (He apologizes for not sending Tim an email first, but does not apologize for deliberately spreading misinformation and encouraging vitriol.)

Tim's response, which he just posted yesterday due to being on vacation last week, is very measured and genuine. Most corporate responses are similar to the previous ones made by O'Reilly in Tim's absence - safe and formal. Tim's response is a blog post, complete with personality and even a bit of edge. In fact, before discussing the issue in detail, he takes some well-deserved shots at the mindless mob mentality:

I used to bristle when members of the mainstream press wagged their fingers at the unprofessionalism of bloggers. I looked around at all the bloggers who are, to my mind, practicing great journalism, and wrote off the MSM criticism as fear of the new medium. But now I'm not so sure. The flap about the Web 2.0 Conference trademark has shaken my faith in the collective intelligence of the blogosphere. Of all the hundreds of people who commented on this issue, only a few touched base to do a bit of fact checking. The New York Times, by contrast, was all over doing due-diligence. They talked to everyone they could get their hands on before publishing their story.

He also makes a subtle reference to Tom's inappropriate behavior:

Given that Tom and I had previously had a conversation where I wished him the best of luck with his conference, while the lawyer's letter came from CMP, I would have thought that he would have wondered whether the right hand knew what the left hand was doing before launching and then encouraging the torrent of net vitriol that's come our way. He did call CMP to talk to the lawyer who wrote the letter, but he never tried to contact me. While he acknowledges that the letter was from CMP, he used O'Reilly's name in the headline and repeatedly throughout the piece for maximum net impact. So while we owe Tom an apology for heavy-handed tactics, I think Tom owes us an apology for the way he responded.

I was delighted that Tim didn't play it safe and instead offered a genuine, personal response to this incident. That's one of the reasons I respect Tim, and by association, his company.