Palm tightens grip on fan sites

Palm Computing is beginning to crack down on sites that use the Palm name, but has already alienated some supporters in the process
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor on

Users of Palm Computing devices have accused the company of heavy-handed tactics in dealing with Web sites that infringe Palm trademarks. The twist is that the infringers are also Palm supporters and evangelists.

For nearly two years, Palm has been targetting commercial Web sites that use the Palm name in their Web addresses -- such as PalmCentral and PalmTracker, now Handango.com and VersionTracker.com -- and says it is now turning its attention to small, non-profit sites often run by hobbyists. However, many Palm users say they feel alienated by Palm's heavy-handed approach, and at least one fan site has changed its allegiance to support Microsoft's rival PocketPC platform.

The difficulty for Palm is that the company feels obliged to protect its trademarks, but doing so means involving hobbyists in legal contracts and obligations that can seem intimidating.

Even if a site licenses the Palm OS brand, it often has to change its Web address: Palm rarely lets other sites use the name "Palm" on its own, instead letting them use the "Palm OS" moniker. However, most people refer to the devices as "Palm", and sites tend to be named accordingly.

Palm promises to help promote the new address, if a site has to change it, but the requirement seems offensive to many Webmasters who consider themselves not trademark pirates, but loyal Palm supporters.

In standard letters recently sent to sites such as PalmGuru.com and Palmstation.com, Palm gives sites the option of signing a fee-free licence to use the PalmOS name. If they choose not to license the name, they are allowed to use "palm" or "palmos" as an internal address (such as www.zdnet.co.uk/palm or www.zdnet.co.uk/palmos). Palm says that in some cases, such as the site PalmGear, it can sell royalty-bearing licences for the Palm name.

"Palm is our company name and house mark while 'Palm OS' is our platform brand," explains the letter, signed by Jason Firth, Palm's senior trademark counsel. "Accordingly, we can be more liberal in licensing certain third-party uses of 'Palm OS.'"

This all seems a bit much to some users, who consider themselves part of a grass-roots Palm community. Jim McCarthy, who received the letter regarding his Reno, Nevada-based PalmGuru.com site, said he felt intimidated at Palm's legalese and its request to contact Palm's lawyers "within the next two weeks."

"It was not a friendly approach to businesses or hobbyists that have volunteered countless hours of their own time... to promote, sell, and evangelise the Palm OS platform," McCarthy told ZDNet UK.

In McCarthy's case, the situation grew worse after he posted the letter on his site, with a note explaining his situation to his readers. The letter set off a heated debate among the online Palm user community, and McCarthy found himself telephoned by Palm's lawyers.

In the end, citing his disillusionment with Palm's treatment of its supporters, McCarthy decided to rename his site PocketAnywhere.com, as of 5 October, focussing on Pocket PC coverage. "Microsoft has been far more supportive of their online evangelists than Palm has ever been," McCarthy said.

According to Palm, the company's hands are tied: it must protect its trademarks, or it risks losing control of them. "Trademarks must be used properly and consistently; otherwise the trademarked name, phrase, or symbol risks becoming unenforceable," Palm's Firth wrote in the letter.

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