“You’ve Got Mail” Shouldn’t Be Such A Big Deal

America Online’s latest spat with AT&T reveals that there are colossal egos nesting at the top of the number one online service provider.

AOL’s recent court battle trying to bar AT&T from using the phrase “You’ve Got Mail,” on its WorldNet online service also says a lot about the company’s priorities. For instance, even after a federal judge threw the case out of court last week, AOL lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Can Phrases Be Registered Trademarks?

AOL continues to argue that the phrase “You’ve Got Mail,” which it uses to inform subscribers they have unread mail, is synonymous in the public’s mind with its service. It also wants to ban AT&T from using the terms “Buddy List,” in connection with its Buddy chat function, and “IM” for its instant messaging. Currently, AOL has applications pending at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register both of these phrases. Nevertheless, the court ruled last week that these terms are in the public domain.

Making Enemies And Not Influencing People

One thing is certain. If AOL continues appealing this ruling all the way to the Supreme Court, it could do much to hurt its current image. It might even build sympathy for its major rival, Microsoft Corp. — which is also locked in battle with AOL over blocking its subscribers’ instant messages. This makes me wonder about the leadership of a company that is so territorially fixated on something so small that it could eventually hurt itself when it comes to something much more important.

What About Pay Back Time?

For instance, isn’t AT&T the same company that AOL may soon find itself negotiating with for the use of its ubiquitous broadband capacity? Isn’t AOL the company that frequently complains to the government that other high-tech giants are creating unfair monopolies? What kind of pay back does AOL’s top executives think it might bring on itself for being so obstinate and hypocritical? Wouldn’t it make more sense to bury the hatchet and work things out, then to tick off major players that will be looking to exact a pound of flesh in future retribution?

Pride Before The Fall

I know it might seem to some that I’m overreacting to AOL’s actions — that my criticism is out of proportion with what some would simply characterize as the company’s pugnacious determination not to give an inch to its competitors. But the reason I’m making such a big deal about something that shouldn’t be a big deal — is that I sense a certain amount of blind arrogance in AOL’s recent doings.

So what?

Well, everyone — including AOL top brass — should recognize that pride always comes before the fall.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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