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    "Patent Pending?" iA's Militant Stance on Syntax Control

    12/26/13 - See update and postscript at the end of this article regarding iA's statement that it will abandon its patent applications. Also, please see The Verge's writeup on Writer Pro if you'd like an introduction to the software and the Syntax Control feature.
    Oliver Reichenstein, one of iA’s principals (he appears in the Writer Pro video posted to The Verge) has made some cryptic and vaguely threatening statements to developers about Writer Pro’s new Syntax Control feature:

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    iA also uses the (TM) symbol when mentioning Syntax Control on the Writer Pro website. And in a recent blog post, Mr. Reichenstein included a short blurb on Syntax Control, saying:

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    So, does iA actually have the exclusive right to the idea of Syntax Control, putting unsuspecting future developers on a collision course with iA? It appears the answer is no. What’s more, iA’s claims of beating everyone to the punch appear to be disingenuous at best.
    This may be different if iA had designed its syntax recognition from scratch. But in fact, the heavy lifting is already baked into Apple’s developer platform. Since iOS 5 and OS X 10.7, Apple has provided a class called NSLinguisticTaggerthat segments natural-language text and labels the text with various bits of information, including parts of speech. NSHipster wrote a quick blurb about the class back in 2012, and other apps like Phraseology have already showcased similar syntax-parsing technology.

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    The trademark databases for the U.S., E.U., and the International Register all come up empty when searching for "Syntax Control." And unfortunately for iA, it’s very unlikely that iA can obtain a trademark registration for "Syntax Control" because the name almost certainly fails to function as a trademark. In the United States and the EU, trademarks must be "distinctive" to be registrable. The words used must not merely describe the attached goods or services. This is why, for example, many companies can use the name "Raisin Bran" for breakfast cereals — the name describes the goods (the cereal) and does not distinguish the goods’ source.

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    iA isn’t out of options. Rights holders are not required to register their trademarks (though there are numerous benefits). In the U.S., iA can obtain what’s known as a "Supplemental Registration" and can eventually claim to have "acquired distinctiveness" in an otherwise-descriptive trademark, but in the U.S. that requires proof that the mark has been used exclusively by iA for five years.

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    Same story with a patent search — application searches in the U.S. and Europe did not show any pending applications from Information Architects or Mr. Reichenstein. iA does have a pending patent application for "Focus Mode,"which was a feature of the original iA Writer. But there’s no evidence that iA has even applied for a patent for Syntax Control aside from a throwaway statement that iA has "obtained patent pending."

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