To google or not to google? It's a legal question

Search engine's sense of humour crashes as it fires off warning letters over use of name as a verb

Search engine giant Google, known for its mantra "don't be evil", has fired off a series of legal letters to media organisations, warning them against using its name as a verb.

In June, Google won a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, while "to google", with a lower case "g", was included last month in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, America's leading reference book.

The online service WordSpy, meanwhile, defines "google" as: "To search for information on the Web, particularly by using the Google search engine; to search the Web for information related to a new or potential girlfriend or boyfriend." This is also what pops up first if you type "googling" into Google.

But the California-based company is becoming concerned about trademark violation. A spokesman confirmed that it had sent the letters. "We think it's important to make the distinction between using the word Google to describe using Google to search the internet, and using the word Google to describe searching the internet. It has some serious trademark issues."

But although an attempt to protect the company's trademark, the letters have raised snickers after they were leaked on to the web. Bloggers have been making fun of the examples Google's lawyers deem acceptable. They included: "Appropriate: I ran a Google search to check out that guy from the party. Inappropriate: I googled that hottie."

Web veterans have also been taken aback by Google's suddenly humourless approach. The eight-year-old company has previously cultivated an image of youthful non-conformity, from the jeans and T-shirts often worn by its billionaire founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, to the scooter lanes and volleyball courts at its Palo Alto headquarters.

Eyebrows may be raised, too, in the publishing and media industries, which are worried about Google's encroachment on their intellectual property via itsGoogle News pages and its plan to put every book ever published on to the web.