In November 2009, as PublicEarth was opening for the public, we needed a better way to describe the part of our website where users saved the places that were important to them. We thought of it first as a “Rolodex” of Places, but PlaceDex was actually already being used, and was a little cryptic (not to mention Rolodex is a registered trademark). A better way to visualize this collection was as a “book of places”, and we thought a Place Book (or PlaceBook) was a good metaphor. PublicEarth debuted the “PlaceBook” feature on Dec 2 at the Boulder Tech Meetup. (That’s me, at left, giving a demonstration.)
Rapidly, the PlaceBook aspect of the site grew in importance, and as location became a strong organizing principle, we explored the ways the book made it easy for our users to manage what usually was complicated. By 2010 we were developing a full site dedicated to the concept of the PlaceBook: a website full of books about location — there were EcoBooks and TravelBooks and Fitness Books, Address Books, Scrapbooks… they could be “linking” books like in Myst. I always loved Myst…
From an intellectual property standpoint, we weren’t sure we could trademark the name: it was already being used across a range of small blogs and websites, most noteably Placebook Scotland, a travel site which used the word “placebook” for twitter and other locales. Our sense was it was a “common” term already, admittedly not used frequently, but still starting to be used as a generic descriptor for saved sets of locations. But the domain was available; it was first registered with ICANN in September of 2000, and now, in December 2009, we purchased it.
The name clearly felt familiar – two common words put together; so much better than the impossible-to-spell domain names that start-ups are forced to use today. Sure, it rhymed with other words, most notably “Facebook” — but we didn’t believe anyone could own the word “book” apart from “face” – we knew of a number of websites that had similar names that were clearly not copying Facebook: Cookbook, Blackbook, eBook, RunBook, AddressBook, RedBook, JokeBook, Comfibook, Blue Book… and so on. (For that matter, there is also Facetime, FaceMe…) And as for the rhyme? Racebook, Casebook, Tastebook… Clearly, rhyming alone wasn’t a dealbreaker.
Certainly there were websites that had other agendas in mind; sites that not only used a similar ‘book’ name but had logos, formats and services that were somehow derivative of Facebook. In those cases, the name was being used somewhat frivolously and had little to do with the website and more to do with Facebook. Sites like Vetbook and Doctorbook were social networks designed to be niche versions of Facebook, and we presumed they wouldn’t last long. They didn’t.
But PlaceBook is a very appropriate descriptor of our business and website. Our UX is about books. You book travel. You can make photobooks of your trips. We tried to make sure that no one would mistake our site for Facebook — we would write the name as two words, in camelcase; we’d use distinctive colors. By the time we filed for a trademark on the term “placebook” we were 5 days late: Where.com had registered the term days before us (even though they began using the term a few months after we started). We were pretty sure our legal issues would be in confronting Where.com…
But in May we were contacted that Facebook found our use unacceptable and would litigate to stop us from using it. They argued that the name was too close and that even if we had NO social component to our site, we could not use the word “book” as a suffix. Facebook was drawing a line in the sand that we were on the wrong side of: words in common use before there was a Facebook (e.g. “cookbook” “blackbook”) were somewhat permissible, and words that came after (e.g. “tastebook” “tracebook” “comfibook”) were not. In an ever evolving language, is this a fair division? The beauty of the English language is the way new words come into use. Put two common words together and make a new word! Regardless, as a start-up we were in no position to fight. So we changed our name. Still, we still think of ourselves as PlaceBook (or, if you chose to pronounce it differently so it doesn’t rhyme: PlacéBoök), but with the launch of our new site, we have adopted a fine name – TripTrace.
“PlacéBoök: I love it!”