Careful who you call a "geek." It might get you sued. The US retailer Best Buy, which is renowned in roughly equal measure for selling cheap electronics and providing patchy customer service, is claiming legal ownership of the well-worn term of abuse.
Lawyers for the firm, which owns 950 warehouse-like stores in the US – and is currently attempting, with mixed success, to launch in the UK – have pursued at least a dozen individuals and firms which have intruded on what it believes are its exclusive global rights to refer to employees as "geeks."
Its victims have ranged from rival firms who offer services such as "Speak to a Geek" and "Rent a Geek," to a priest who decorated his Volkswagen Beetle with the phrase "God Squad." Best Buy said that the priest's slogan was in a similar font to the "Geek Squad" logo used by its technical support staff.
The policy illustrates the zeal with which US corporations occasionally seek to assert their rights to trademark a well-worn word or phrase. And it showcases the extent to which the word "geek" has, in the Mark Zuckerberg era, come to symbolise a mixture of steely competence, visionary talent, and stratospheric commercial success.
Best Buy's latest effort to assert rights over geekdom backfired, however, when a comically-aggressive cease-and-desist letter sent to Newegg, an internet firm which also sells discounted electrical goods, was photocopied then published on the rival's Facebook page.
In the letter, Best Buy complained that Newegg's corporate slogan "Geek on!" was an infringement of its trademark in the term "Geek Squad". The firm demanded Newegg "promptly and permanently" stop running an ad which satirises poor customer service at a supposedly-generic high-street store.
As the disputed Newegg commercial shows "a blue-shirted salesperson in a store with a similar layout/colour scheme to Best Buy," the letter alleged that it was defamatory. "The fake Best Buy employee is depicted as being slovenly and uninformed about computer products," it complained.
Newegg denied its ad was meant to "focus on any particular retailer," and claimed Best Buy was protesting too much. It eventually agreed to run a disclaimer which claimed it was "solely intended to parody business establishments that provide poor customer service (but none in particular)."
Discussing his hard-line efforts to claim ownership of the term "geek," Best Buy's founder, Robert Stephens, was unapologetic yesterday, telling the Wall Street Journal that companies which don't aggressively defend trademarks against minor intrusions risk losing more substantive disputes, if the courts later decide that they abandoned them.
He added that he has charitably allowed several school chess clubs to call themselves "geek squads." The word is now a hugely valuable commodity, he noted."Geeks are like modern-day monks, but instead of poring over manuscripts we are reading computer manuals," he said.
* Donald Trump, star of the US version of The Apprentice tried to copyright the words "you're fired" in 2004 but failed. Good news for Lord Sir Alan Sugar.
* The actor Charlie Sheen has filed a petition to acquire the rights to 22 of his signature phrases, including "Duh, winning".
* The retired US basketball coach Pat Riley had his phrase "three-peat" passed as an active trademark. The phrase is widely used in US sports in reference to winning three consecutive championships.
* ChaCha Search Inc, a software development company based in the US, filed a trademark lawsuit earlier this year against HTC of Taiwan in an effort to prevent a new mobile phone from acquiring the "ChaCha" name.
* A Polish company last year tried to trademark the made-up name "jogi" (used for yoghurts) as a copyright but the attempt was struck out in court.
* The hotel heiress Paris Hilton reportedly filed for copyright of her slogan "that's hot" but the application was struck out.
* OurPet's Co, a maker of pet products in the United States, filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the Colorado-based Kong Co for patent infringement over a fetch and retrieve dog toy.