Does FOO Camp matter?

It started as an inside joke among friends, but FOO Camp has turned into an “event” that seems to draw equal parts admiration and criticism, depending on whether you get invited to it or not. For those who don’t know, FOO is short for “friends of O’Reilly” — as in Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, publisher of technology books and organizer of conferences. According to the Wikipedia entry on FOO Camp, the event got started after an O’Reilly staffer joked about having a “FOO bar” at a conference — a reference to the time-honoured term “fubar,” mean “f***ed up beyond all recognition.”

Over the years, FOO Camp has grown to become one of the hot, invite-only happenings in the Valley — yes, even bigger than Mike Arrington’s TechCrunch parties. And along the way, there has been an undercurrent of frustration from those who feel left out by the invitation-only status of the event, including some people who have never been invited (but think they should be) and some who were invited once but then weren’t asked to come back. The latest brouhaha — not surprisingly — involves Web guru Dave Winer, who clearly falls into the former category.

This definitely has a high-school, “who’s in and who’s not” kind of feel to it, but it also raises the same kinds of issues that the old “A-list gatekeeper” debate over influence in the blogosphere does. Is O’Reilly being elitist by having an exclusive, invite-only party — and if so, does it matter? For those who see the Internet as leveling the playing field, lowering the barriers to entry, and so on, FOO Camp seems like a kick in the communal goolies. But Tim appears to see it partly as good business and partly as an attempt to bring smart people together in a controlled setting, without having to worry about troublemakers, windbags and other assorted riff-raff (he explained to Roger Cadenhead why Dave isn’t invited, and there’s more details here).

For my part, I think Tim should be able to hold whatever kind of event he wants (and so does my friend Stowe Boyd — who gets a comment from the Scobelizer). Would I like to be invited? Sure. But I’m not going to bitch and moan because I haven’t been. Call it elitism or exclusionary or arrogant if you like — the fact is that not everyone can be invited to everything, and sometimes being exclusive (or discriminating, in the positive sense of the word) makes for a better event. My friend Kent Newsome has some thoughts from the other side of the argument, and Tom Coates of plasticbag has his own thoughts (he attended this year).

Tim O’Reilly handles it well — almost

I hope Tim O’Reilly’s houseboating trip on Lake Powell was relaxing, because he came back to a boatload of stress as a result of his company’s association with a “cease and desist” letter that CMP Media sent to a (non-profit) IT group in Ireland for using the term Web 2.0 in relation to a conference. There’s more on the history of it all here if you’re interested. Tim has now posted a long dissertation on what happened and what he thinks of both the Web 2.0 trademark (which wasn’t his idea) and the blogosphere’s “pile-on” response.

I will say this — after reading it, Tim strikes me as just the kind of stand-up guy and all-around straight-shooter that my friend Paul Kedrosky described him as in a discussion we had about the whole mess. And he is right that the whole affair turned into an unpleasant kind of schoolyard pile-on that had a nasty tone to it, which is unfortunate. That said, however, I’m pretty sure Paul still thinks that applying for the trademark was a wrong-headed thing to do, and I do too — and not just because I helped organize the mesh Web 2.0 conference earlier this month in Toronto.

One of my fellow organizers, Stuart MacDonald, firmly believes that O’Reilly was right to try and enforce its trademark (although it hasn’t been approved yet), but I tend to agree with Rob Hyndman that Web 2.0 is not something that is really trademarkable. As Marty Schwimmer of The Trademark Blog notes in a short post on the whole controversy, “If you coin and promulgate a term, you can sell it as a buzzword or you can sell it as a brand, but under trademark law, it’s virtually impossible to do both.”

O’Reilly has done an amazing job of spreading the gospel — so to speak — of Web 2.0, and they are justifiably proud of that. But trademarking it at this point is a dumb thing to do, and towards the end of his post it seems like Tim is coming around to that way of thinking too. I encourage him, as Chris Messina and others have, to offer Web 2.0 up as a Community Mark and turn this sh*tstorm of negative publicity into something positive. I think James Robertson has a good perspective on the whole thing here, and Don Park makes a very good point on his blog.

The O’Reilly Web 2.0 debacle continues

As my fellow conference organizer (and yes, it was a Web 2.0 conference) Rob Hyndman notes in his latest post, we’ve had a bit of a debate going among the mesh gang about the whole O’Reilly trademark thing — and not just because we have kind of an interest in whether conferences can use the term. From a philosophical point of view, Stuart believes that O’Reilly should be able to trademark the term, since they were the ones to popularize it and build a conference business around it. As he put it, why should they not be allowed to somehow protect the value that they created?

My point is not just that it’s stretching things to say they “created” value in any meaningful sense by using the term Web 2.0 — although, as a commenter on the O’Reilly Radar blog notes, the term was used in a widely-publicized sense as early as 1999 — but more that I don’t see the point in trying to “protect” it, or how that benefits O’Reilly’s business. If anything, in fact, trying to protect that value by sending cease-and-desist letters to a non-profit group in Ireland has damaged O’Reilly’s brand, in the sense that it has got people re-thinking their commitment to the company. That just doesn’t seem very smart in a whole bunch of ways.

Now people are even starting to mutter about how there has been little or no response from the “FOO” camp, or friends of O’Reilly — and what response there has been, including the recent post from Cory “freedom fighter” Doctorow at BoingBoing, seems particularly mealy-mouthed and disingenuous at best. In the end, however, I think Cory seems to be making the same point I am trying to (although he dances around it), which is that it’s better for O’Reilly to be known as the pre-eminent Web 2.0 conference holder than it is to be known as the lawyer-mongering owner of that trademark. Way better, in fact.

Are people going to stop going to O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conferences just because some non-profit group in Ireland uses the term? Hardly. But there might be people out there reconsidering their attendance as a result of all this ham-handed trademark bullshit. That’s the real issue for O’Reilly, it seems to me. Chris Messina was right in what he said in a comment on one of my previous posts: O’Reilly should make Web 2.0 a “community mark” — a Creative Commons-style public trademark — and put all this to rest.

This is taking the FOO thing too far

Update:

I — along with many other people — was hoping O’Reilly would respond to this whole Web 2.0 thing (see my previous post) by saying it was all CMP’s idea, or some lawyer’s overreaction, but it would appear that O’Reilly thinks it is in the right to be demanding that a non-profit IT group stop using the term Web 2.0. Although Sara Winge, in charge of corporate communications for O’Reilly, has said that the company believes it handled things badly by just sending a cease and desist letter (gee, ya think?) it is not backing down on the whole “we own Web 2.0” thing.

As my fellow Web 2.0 conference organizer Rob Hyndman points out, this is just dumb on so many levels. I’m tempted to say that it’s even more obviously dumb because a guy like Nick Carr agrees with it, but that would just be mean. But seriously — why would O’Reilly do this? Yes, an argument could be made that they were among the first to use the term, but they can hardly be said to own it. O’Reilly compares it to using the term LinuxWorld, but Linux is a product. Web 2.0 is a concept, one which I would argue predates O’Reilly’s claim to it.

It’s true that the term Web 2.0 has gotten overused (and I am as guilty of that as anyone, as people continually remind me), and maybe this is a good excuse to stop using it, so as not to give O’Reilly the satisfaction of owning something like that. But at the same time, I sort of feel like we should all use it as much as possible, just to give CMP and their lawyers fits. In any case, the thing that makes all this so ridiculous, as Paul points out, is that O’Reilly isn’t some corporate Darth Vader — Tim O’Reilly is widely admired, as is the company, for supporting startups and open source. This is about as anti- all of that as you could imagine.

Jeff Clavier argues that O’Reilly should do what Judy’s Book did after trademarking the term “social search” — they said that they would never enforce it because that would be, in Jeff’s description, “silly and a waste of money.” Exactly. Marc Hedlund of O’Reilly says in a comment that he trusts Tim and believes that in the end he will do the right thing, and I hope he is right.

Original post:

Somewhere, Tim O’Reilly is smacking his head with frustration, I would wager. It’s bad enough that lots of people blame him for coming up with the term “Web 2.0” in the first place (that’s a joke, Tim), but now he’s being virtually tarred and feathered for being associated with an attempt to trademark the term. Tim Raftery says IT@Cork, a non-profit group for information technology professionals, got a C&D (cease and desist) letter from lawyers associated with CMP Media, who organize Web conferences along with O’Reilly.

As someone who recently helped organize a Web 2.0 conference in Toronto called mesh, this one strikes kind of close to home — and seems like just the kind of ham-handed behaviour that lawyers (sorry Rob) seem to engage in a little too often. As someone said in the comments on one or the other of the postings about it, how Web 1.0. Of course, O’Reilly may have no idea that this is even going on, and for his sake I would hope that this is all some giant misunderstanding. Because it looks pretty stupid at the moment.

For anyone confused about the title of this post, FOO stands for Friends of O’Reilly, and FooCamp is a get-together that Tim has to which you have to be personally invited — which some people felt was a little too exclusive, so they started BarCamp. Then there was MashupCamp and GroovyCamp and, well… you get the picture.