Taking Another Bite Out of the Apple

I was just sitting down to work on a white paper discussing the application of corpus linguistics to the field of legal interpretation when this news item appeared in my inbox:

Microsoft, Nokia Fight Apple ‘App Store’ Trademark

The purpose of the white paper I’m working on is to show how linguistic methodologies can bring more rigor to the ‘definition competition’ commonly waged between textualists and internationalists. That is, how can we ensure that the contested meanings of words are subject only to empirical scrutiny and not the fancy of limitless semantic possibilities?

The issue in this particular case between Apple and Microsoft and Nokia is whether or not in common usage and understanding the compound noun “app store” is indeed a proper noun tied to Apple, or whether it’s more of a collective noun referring to all stores in which apps are sold.

Here’s what Apple had to say in response to the suit filed by Microsoft:

“Microsoft, missing the forest for the trees, does not base its motion on a comprehensive evaluation of how the relevant public understands the term APP STORE as a whole. What it offers instead are out-of-context and misleading snippets of material printed by its outside counsel from the Internet and allegations regarding how the public allegedly interprets the constituent parts of the term APP STORE, i.e. ‘app’ and ‘store’.”

What we can do here is dig a little deeper into “how the relevant public understands the term APP STORE as a whole” by examining the context-bound usage of APP STORE in, as a starting place, American English.

What we we’ll use for our investigation is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which contains 425 million words drawn from spoken and written sources between 1990 and 2011. Granted, it is not the most user-friendly or comprehensive corpus available, but its a good resource for a quick and dirty analysis.

Here’s what I found:

– 48 total occurrences of the compound noun APP STORE
– 1 occurrence in spoken discourse (from an interview on NPR Science)
– 27 occurrences in magazine articles
– 20 occurrences in newspaper articles

The good news for Apple: Approximately 94% of the occurrences of APP STORE were tied to Apple, referring to Apple’s application store. In other words, in the majority of instances, the writers/speakers were talking about Apple when they used the term APP STORE.

The bad news for Apple: In all occurrences, the term APP STORE was used with other descriptors to indicate that the speaker/writer — and the term APP STORE itself — was referencing Apple or another company such as Microsoft or Google. In other words, even though the writers/speakers were usually talking about Apple when they used the term APP STORE, they needed to do additional linguistic work to clarify that they were talking about Apple:

"…Apple's online app store…"
"…with its app store, Apple…"
"…the Mac app store…"
"…the Microsoft app store…"
Notice that the term APP STORE is never used without clarification of whose app store is being discussed, illustrating that the term APP STORE is not singularly tied to Apple but is rather a generic term indicating the broad category of online stores that sell applications for mobile technologies.

The verdict: The term APP STORE was not (and cannot) be used as a standalone reference to Apple or any other company. In every instance, the usage required additional qualification to indicate whose APP STORE was being discussed. What this illustrates is that the “relevant public,” which surely includes writers from PCWorld and TechReview, among other techie and popular publications, DO NOT as a whole understand the term APP STORE to refer exclusively to Apple products and services. Rather, the term APP STORE is used at the basic level of cognitive categorization to indicate stores — presumably online — that sell applications (…for mobile technology, not jobs! Just to be clear.) (And that’s jobs, as in employment. Not Steve Jobs. Just to be clear.)

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