Friday, February 23, 2007

Everything's in a name

I would like to take this opportunity to poke (already) obvious holes into the flawed essay (“What’s in a name”) written by one Peter Mwaura (Saturday Nation – Jan 7th 2006). First off, he makes the assumption that grabbing names for some material advantage is common the world over; this is sheer lunacy by all means because it is tantamount to claiming that a reprehensible business ethic is allowable as long as “everyone else is doing it.” Next, he proceeds to congratulate the ODM “name thieves” for their entrepreneurial vision – to boldly find a business opportunity where no man has ever found one before. (Sheer lunacy!) The author might argue that the words “orange”, “democratic” and “movement” are ordinary words that are individually restricted from copyright protection, but it is the conglomeration of the words that is indeed something unique; in fact, it is so unique that people imagine a sort of “inspiration” is what drives a person to concoct a particular name from a set of seemingly benign words. Therefore, in direct contravention of another assumption the author had put forward, the Registrar of Societies is DUTY-BOUND to inquire as to which “inspired” individual(s) birthed the creature known as the ODM. In all honesty, if this notion of inspiration was posed by the Registrar to the “name thieves”, it is doubtful that any of them would be able to show any inspiration preceding the runaway success of the Orange team in the constitutional referendum that was responsible for turning the ODM into such a lucrative acronym/name.

As if this wasn’t enough, we are reminded that “name theft” is extremely extensive business – practically global in fact, thanks to the internet; after all, neither President Kibaki nor Mr. Raila Odinga can lay claim to their own domain names. The current law may say that the people who poached these domain names were acting within their legal rights, but I believe it is time for every sane man and woman to stand up and call them out for what they really are: a sad bunch of vultures and hyenas. You do not congratulate such people: YOU PITY THEM!

The “name thieves” may not have broken any laws (in the legal sense), but morally, they broke one of the oldest laws humankind has ever had – that of “reaping where they have not sown”. Instead of Mr. Mwaura advising the ODM politicians to negotiate with the new name owners, he should be advising the infamous trio to negotiate for the use of the name, which already comes heavy-laden with millions of shillings in terms of a countrywide load of advertising and support-raising that they would probably never be able to rack up on their own.

I suppose the greatest damnation for Mr. Mwaura current train of thought should be placed on his blind “adherence” to the law. The law is an explicit guideline for acceptable behaviour that is expected from members of society. However, try as it might, no law can ever completely explicate acceptable behaviour (call to mind the disturbing breadth of the Wako Draft), and this is where, pray, the mature conscience of the members of society fills in the gaps; hence, you should be able to count on people to refrain from committing offences because “it is the right thing to do” and not only because “the law says so”. In fact, when it comes to the internet, it would be rather expedient for Mr. Mwaura to distance himself from that selfsame “righteous” piece of law which allows spammers to fill your inboxes daily with depraved ads for every piece of trash under the sun.

Further, I would like to place another fallacy from Mr. Mwaura on the stake - “…You cannot kill a movement by stealing its name.” You may not kill the movement, but you definitely put a big dent in its integrity. Case in point, the brand name now belovedly known to all as SONY went through a tumultuous battle with regards to its identity when it was but a fledgling company; this was simply because as soon as the SONY name began to gain popularity, there were people waiting on the wayside to cash in on its popularity – in this specific case, it was a food company. In response to this, SONY co-founder Akio Morita (in his book, “Made in Japan”) had this to say,

“A trademark and a company name are not just clever gimmicks – they carry responsibility and guarantee the quality of the product. If someone tries to get a free ride on the reputation and ability of another who has worked to build up public trust, it is nothing short of THIEVERY.”

Fortunately, the Japanese courts voted in SONY’s favour, and the SONY brand today is a hallmark of professionalism. In this case, someone could have argued, like Mr. Mwaura, that the letters “S”, “O”, “N” and “Y” are ordinary letters that people cannot copyright, and neither was the acronym SONY creative; however, the only precedent with regards to the use of the name had been set by Akio Morita, and it wholeheartedly belonged to him and his business partners. Yes indeed, a name matters!

Another of Mr. Mwaura’s faux pas was his decision to paint the splinter group from KANU as “…equally enterprising people”. One does not have to sink to the level of politics to assess this situation – it can be done using common sense, and common sense dictates that you should not lay claim to trademarks of a party that are obviously not yours. The sheer length of the symbols’ use (42 years) totally excludes such an option, not to mention the obvious fact that a splinter group by all means should seek to carve out its own separate individuality. Just look at the case of Ariel Sharon – himself a co-founder of the Likud Party; when he decided to part ways with that party, he did not resort to haggling for scraps of the very party that he helped to build; rather, he sought a new identity for his Kadima Party, which, against all odds, has received an overwhelming amount of support from the Israelis. If our luminaries from the New KANU alliance aim to show us that they are ready to lead this country, then they had better start off by emulating good leadership and not showing us how shrewd and calculating they can be – the “magic” is not in the symbols; it’s in the heart of the party.

The lesson to be learned here for everyone at large is that the higher standard expected of our actions isn’t that they simply follow the law; they must be infused with honour and morality, particularly if they are meant for public consumption. I guess the biggest test for us would be whether we could wholeheartedly and unashamedly teach our own children – in the manner espoused by Mr. Mwaura: that we are within our rights to do things as long as the law does not explicitly proscribe it. God help us all!

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