Does Psion own the term "netbook"? Dell doesn't think so.

When Intel popularized the idea of using the term "netbook" to describe the new breed of tiny, low-weight, low-cost laptops, I wasn't particularly happy. I felt that the word was a bit glib and not very descriptive -- but I finally gave in when everyone else adopted it. Now it turns out that there's one company that's even less happy than I was -- in fact, so unhappy that it's willing to go to court. 

Psion Teklogix, which describes itself as "a global provider of mobile computing solutions," has been busy since last December "affirming its 'Netbook' registered trademark" by sending cease-and-desist letters to manufacturers, retailers, and others using the term. (A lively site called Save the Netbooks that opposes Psion's actions has published what it says is an example of one of these C&D letters).

I have to admit that I'm nursing a secret grudge against Psion for abandoning its line of consumer PDAs back in 2001. I had been a loyal and enthusiastic user of two of its devices: the Series 3a and then the compact Revo. These highly practical devices added small but well-designed keyboards to PDA-sized electronics, which I found much more useful than the poke-and-select handhelds of the time. When Psion decided to drop all of its consumer products, enthusiasts mourned.

Among Psion's consumer products was a small notebook computer called the NetBook, which was, in retrospect, a precursor to devices such as the Asus EeePC or Acer Aspire One. Psion stopped selling its NetBook in 2003, moving instead to a commercial product called the Netbook Pro -- which soon disappeared from public view.

So why is Psion suddenly insisting that it owns the term "netbook" and that nobody else has the right to use it? A true concern for the misuse of its trademark? A sudden fit of pique that it may have missed the boat on the whole netbook thing? Bored lawyers?

The flurry of C&D orders attracted (as anyone knew it had to) the attention of netbook -- excuse me, "teeny tiny notebook" -- enthusiasts and fans of legal issues, who immediately started the Web site, a Firefox group, a Twitter conversation, and who knows how many blog entries. In fact, in researching this issue, I had a problem keeping the tabs on my Firefox browser down to a decent level.

This might have remained a typical Web kerfuffle of industry vs. bloggers, but at least one other company has decided that this issue is serious enough to take action. On February 17th, Dell registered a petition (PDF) with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, seeking to cancel Psion's trademark on three counts: That Psion has abandoned the trademark, that Psion committed fraud by falsely claiming that the company was still using the trademarked term in November of 2006, and that the term "netbook" has become a generic term.

Now that Psion is being challenged by some real muscle rather than an indignant mass of bloggers, I suspect it's going to quickly back down rather than spend a lot of time and money defending a trademark that, let's face it, it really hasn't used or wanted for years now.

Of course, if Psion wants to prove that it does actually own the term "netbook," it could rehire the engineers that produced its old PDA line and revitalize some of the innovative designs that it produced back in the late 1990s. Well, one can dream, can't one?

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