Did Google Profit From “Googol”?

Back in the 1930’s, Columbia University mathematician and professor Edward Kasner apparently asked his young nephew for a term to describe a large number, in this case, 10 to the 100th power (1 followed by 100 zeros). The name “googol” stuck, and in 1940 the professor published a book containing the concept. Now the Baltimore Sun reports that relatives of Professor Kasner are considering legal action because “they believe Google has gained financially at their expense.”

My initial reaction to this story was that they are grasping at straws to get in on the potential financial windfall of Google’s upcoming IPO, but after reading the interview with Peri Fleisher, Kasner’s great-niece, I think that they may have a case, albeit a long shot:

I [Fleisher] see some hypocrisy there. They [Google] have ignored us. Other than changing a couple of letters on the name, they are capitalizing on it. This is a business. These guys are going to make billions of dollars. It’s not a cute little thing.

Ethically, they could have been more giving. If nothing else, they should have given us the opportunity to operate as insiders for the IPO.

In the back of my mind, when I started using Google back in 1998 (not 1988, as the article erroneously asserts) I recognized the reference and wondered about it, but I never imagined that the relatives of the inventor would come forth in this manner. Of course, I also never imagined that a fledgling test search engine would eclipse every other one the way it did. IANAL, but I’d be surprised if they got anywere, as I doubt “googol” has any sort of trademark associated with it, and even if it did, proving that Google benefitted from its use may be difficult. Can’t hurt to try, I guess…

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