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On June 21, lawyers for Microsoft filed an application to trademark a stylish, logolike version of the term “.net.” Big deal? You bet. The following morning, the software giant unveiled its new .NET strategy, a “next generation Internet experience” that Bill Gates described as a bet-the-company plan to reinvent the way Microsoft does business. Analysts immediately hailed .NET as Microsoft’s most important announcement in years.

Amid the hoopla, Microsoft’s trademark application went completely unnoticed by the pundits. That’s no surprise, as Trademark tends to be the ignored “middle child” of intellectual property (IP) protection. Trademark’s little brother, Copyright, gets all the empathy because he’s getting beat up on the Internet by services like Napster.Meanwhile, Patent, the big sibling of the IP family, is stirring up controversies over genetics and online business models.Yet Trademark is often the most successful of the three-quicker than Patent and more powerful than Copyright.

Simply put, a trademark grants exclusive rights to a word, phrase, symbol or design that is used to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one party from those of others. That may sound like a funny way to protect technology, but Microsoft knows that the success of .NET depends most of all on winning over the hearts and minds of consumers. Thus,Microsoft’s effort to corner the brand names it will soon spend millions making synonymous with the next wave of personal computing. In addition to filing to protect its new .NET logo, the company filed to protect the words Office.net, Exchange.net, Passport.net, Msn.net and Word.net, among others.

Trademarking these names is all the more crucial because, technologically speaking, Microsoft isn’t doing
anything all that unique here. The .NET effort is based on XML, the Extensible Markup Language, a technology for making any kind of data or content portable among devices as diverse as cell phones, digital TVs, home appliances and previously incompatible computing systems. As such, XML will be a public-domain technology defined by standards bodies and owned by no one in particular.

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