Meta Data, meta-data, metadata?

Subject: Meta Data, meta-data, metadata?
From: skocher -at- mindspring -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 10 Nov 2000 10:24:16 -0500

Hi all,
Just to take your minds off poor ballot design and election frustrations for a moment. This is an issue I am dealing with that is causing a lot of strife among writers, editors and developers in my workplace. The question is whether to continue using the term metadata in our documentation and in component names, or to switch to meta data (generic) and Meta Data (as part of a proper noun). The latter would have huge repercussions on our future doc, legacy doc, and software interface. We're talking about a lot of changes, thousands in the doc and a few in the product interfaces--and I for one don't want to be too hasty about it in case we decide later it was a premature decision and then have to go back and change everything again!

At issue is the trademark claim to the term Metadata by a company in California called Metadata Company. Web site here:
Apparently they have sent legal letters to both Microsoft and to the Metadata Coalition--now the Meta Data Coalition. You can see from more recent web pages from both these entities that they are taking the legal letters seriously.

More Background:
Most of us have seen the term "metadata" in use everywhere, lowercased when referring to the generic sense of the term, and with an initial cap with incorporated into product and component names. Dictionaries such as ZDWebopedia define it like this:

metadata: Data about data. Metadata describes how and when and by whom a particular set of data was collected, and how the data is formatted. Metadata is essential for understanding information stored in data warehouses.

But FOLDOC buys into a different definition:
Metadata (Note: One unhyphenated word with initial capital; contrast meta data) A word coined by Jack E. Myers to represent current and future lines of products implementing the concepts of his MetaModel, and also to designate his company The Metadata Company that would develop and market those products.

A data and publication search performed when Myers coined the term, early in the summer of 1969, did not discover any use either of the word "metadata" or "meta data". Myers used the term in a 1973 product brochure and it is an Incontestable registered U.S. Trademark.

meta-data or meta data: Data about data. In data processing, meta-data is definitional data that provides information about or documentation of other data managed within an application or environment.

Legal resources say it's not a big risk and we (software developers vs. doc developers) are making too much ado about nothing. It is also not clear whether the trademark claims can be applied only to proper nouns or to the generic lowercased "metadata" as well. Microsoft and Meta Data Coalition appear to be applying the two-word standard across the board, if not for legal reasons, then for consistency. It's all a bummer, of course, because meta is a prefix, not a word, and it looks pretty ridiculous to split the word. It also looks stupid to hyphenate it, as some are doing.

Me, I would compromise if necessary by continuing to refer to generic metadata, and changing proper nouns to two words, OK as long as we apply that rule consistently. One is generic, the other is a name. Others (not involved in documentation, not understanding what such a change would entail, and perhaps assuming that our concerns are trivial and anal retentive) argue that it should be two words everywhere, from now on--leaving legacy doc as it is (and of course creating consistency issues also).

One reason I am not eager to endorse the change is that I understand a trademark owner has to prove that it seriously and consistently fought to protect its trademark--failure to do so has cost companies like Kleenex and Band-Aid their right to sole use of their trademark. And Metadata Co. appears to have started defending their TM only in the past couple of years, though the trademark has been in place for 9 years and in use by them for longer.

I wonder if they would lose in court to a serious challenge--but it seems Microsoft and others choose not to fight it and now have silly looking and inconsistent use of the term in their doc.

What do you all think? Have any of you run across this issue?


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