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Oh Really, O’Reilly?

When I was in the Air Force, a popular tee-shirt read, “If you love something, set it free. If it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and kill it.”

The O’Reilly conglomerate–oh they of the nerdily useful tomes–donned that tee-shirt a couple of weeks ago when they went after a nonprofit for using “Web 2.0” in a conference title. Shades of Al Gore: O’Reilly claimed it had invented Web 2.0.

Then the boss went on a long-deferred vacation, the flacks and lawyers went amok, and soon the gruesome affair was slashdotted, whereupon the nattering classes had their predictable shark feed. That’ll teach Tim to take time off from work!

In the meanwhile, Michael Casey of Library Crunch took the precaution of declaring that he had invented Library 2.0, partly to protest O’Reilly’s thug-like actions.

When the boss returned, O’Reilly backed down from its legal threats. But it sounds as if O’Reilly is continuing with its plan to register “Web 2.0” as a service mark.

It was greedily un-2.0 for O’Reilly to decide to turn “Web 2.0” into a service mark to begin with. O’Reilly has enough presence in the tech and publishing industries that it doesn’t need to assert exclusive control over a phrase it had worked hard to turn into a meme in the first place. It’s positively sad that O’Reilly isn’t hearing the real message, which is that it is oddly contradictory to promote a concept such as Web 2.0 and then insist on owning it.

I remember a different O’Reilly. In the last decade, I’ve probably purchased two dozen O’Reilly books for my own use, and many more for libraries. In early 1993 I established a staff Internet training program at Queens Borough Public Library, and–because it was the only book available, not to mention a terrific book on the subject–I bought hundreds of copies of Ed Krol’s “The Whole Internet”–a copy for every library worker who attended training, books I piled high in my tiny office and brought to our sessions on telnet, email, and gopher. I am sure some copies immediately slid into desk drawers, never to be seen again; but thanks in part to Krol’s patient, useful guide to accessing what he called “an almost indescribable wealth of information,” other copies of “The Whole Internet” launched journeys that continue today.

Like a certain company, up until now you could at least say O’Reilly was trying not to be evil, if not actively attempting to be good. Now we are watching O’Reilly become yet another corporate conglomerate so preoccupied with its bottom line it cannot hear its own users speaking–a company so internally diffuse in its mission and philosophy that its titular leader cannot take a well-earned rest without chaos erupting in his absence. Ah, O’Reilly, we hardly knew ye.

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