Dear Giant Alibaba: Let My People TAO!

Note: this has been cross-posted at our new TAO of Journalism blog, see taoofjournalism.org/blog.

Forget David vs. Goliath. Try John vs. Godzilla. Seriously.

I’m stuck in an ongoing, multi-year, quasi-legal battle with Alibaba, http://news.alibaba.com/specials/aboutalibaba/aligroup/index.html the Chinese e-commerce company that is now the world’s largest online retail giant. They just reported a 66% jump in revenues to $3.06 billion, and are about to submit an IPO (Initial Public Offering) that could raise $15 billion. They’re huge!

I run a little NPO (Non-Profit Organization) called the Washington News Council. We have only about $5,000 in the bank and we’re closing our office on May 31 after 15 years, although we’ll keep our 501(c)(3) status and continue a few projects online, such as our “TAO of Journalism” pledge and seal.

That’s what the flap is about: A few years ago, we originated the “TAO of Journalism – Transparent, Accountable and Open” concept. It’s a voluntary pledge that anyone practicing any kind of journalism can take. It’s a promise to be Transparent about who you are, Accountable if you make mistakes, and Open to other points of view. That’s a pretty low bar. Your audience holds you to it.

We designed a TAO seal using the yin-yang symbol and applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) so we’d have some say over those who chose to use it. We consider it our intellectual property. Any journalist, blogger, website, social-media user, newspaper, magazine, TV/radio station, or newsletter can take the TAO Pledge and post the TAO seal in print or online. It’s a simple way to help earn credibility and win trust.

To promote the idea and have some fun, we also made TAO of Journalism T-shirts, a TAO poster, TAO coffee tumblers, TAO nylon flyers and even stick-on TAOttoos. The idea has slowly spread nationally and even globally. It’s especially popular among student journalists. The national Journalism Education Association endorsed it and has sponsored three nation-wide TAO Pledge Days when high-school newspaper staffers all over the U.S. took the TAO pledge and sent us photos.

Journalism students at Whitney High School (CA) take the TAO of Journalism Pledge.

Journalism students at Whitney High School (CA) take the TAO of Journalism Pledge.

So what’s our beef with Alibaba? One day a couple of years ago the USPTO sent us a letter saying that our trademark application was “on hold” because Alibaba wants to trademark the word “tao.” Really?

“Tao” means “the path” or “the way” in Mandarin Chinese, and has been used for centuries by millions of people. The word is common in book titles, products, restaurants, websites, etc. There are books on The Tao of Business, The Tao of Politics and The Tao of Teaching. I own The Tao of Travel, The Tao of Pooh, and the Tao of Cow. There’s a Tao of Badass book that gives men dating advice and another on The Tao of Sex (I don’t own either of those). There’s a Tao Restaurant in New York and a Tao Beach nightclub in Las Vegas. Tao is totaolly ubiquitaous!

So how could Alibaba possibly trademark “tao”? It would be kind of like trademarking “the” or “and.”

I asked a member of my WNC Board of Directors, who just happens to be former chief counsel to the former Governor of Washington (who just happens to be former U.S. Ambassador to China), what to do. Keep using the TAO of Journalism, he advised, but notify Alibaba. He helped me get some pro bono legal help from attorneys with a respected trademark and patent law firm. They wrote letters to Alibaba. No response.

Our attorneys drafted an agreement and sent it to Alibaba saying that we would not challenge their trademark if it is approved by the USPTO, if they would agree not to challenge our use of the word TAO as an acronym. Seemed reasonable, right? No response.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing to promote our TAO of Journalism pledge and seal. It’s spreading slowly but steadily around the world. We have TAO pledgers in India, Belgium, Spain, New Zealand, Colombia, including individual journalists and media organizations. Hundreds of high-school students all over the U.S. have taken the TAO pledge. We did a 3-part series explaining the TAO of Journalism that ran in The Seattle Times last year.

Can Alibaba possibly trademark the word “tao” and get all those who have used it to stop? Not likely, but who knows?

We’ll keep promoting the TAO of Journalism nationwide and globally. We’ll send posters, nylon flyers and “TAOttoos” to all who take the pledge. It’s free to student publications, but we ask for a $25 annual donation from individual journalists and $50 from media organizations, to help cover our costs of website maintenance, mailings, products, etc. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to Alibaba’s budget. Heck, it’s a drop in the Pacific Ocean!

If Alibaba decides to challenge us, what are they going to do? Seize our assets? Hack into our computers? Take us to court?

Dear Giant Alibaba: Let my people TAO!

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About John Hamer
JOHN HAMER is President of the Washington News Council, an independent forum for media fairness that he co-founded in 1998. Hamer was formerly Associate Editorial-Page Editor at The Seattle Times and previously Associate Editor with Congressional Quarterly/Editorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C. Read more about John or read John's blog posts.