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Reviews153 Random House Webster's College Dictionary. 1991. Ed. Robert B. Costello , and others. New York: Random House, xxxii + 1568 pp. Thumb indexed. $20.00 U.S. When the 1991 edition appeared ofwhat had been called the Random House College Dictionary (RHCD), the most obvious new wrinkle was the title change to Random House Webster's College Dictionary (RHWCD). The addition of Webster's, that "time-honored designation," to the title, was said by the editor-in-chief to affirm "quality in dictionary making." These phrases (from the preface) are quite odd on several grounds. First, as lexicographers (at least) are well aware, the name Webster's on a dictionary affirms nothing about quality of content. It is merely a marketing gimmick. The name Webster, associated with dictionaries by the American book-buying public, is a distinguished designation ofsorts, evoking images of the famed Noah, and perhaps of his lexicographic descendants, toiling to preserve and set down the stately English lexicon. But it is a fact that Webster is, byjudicial determination, in the public domain, and has appeared in the titles of scores of different dictionaries , from vest-pocket size to unabridged. Essentially the designation has no meaning, however time-honored it may be, and, despite its presumed advantages in marketing, it is certainly no indicator ofquality. The editors and marketing specialists at Random House are doubtless aware of this too. So statements in the preface of the RHWCD are simply another indication that the dictionary shopper should be wary ofunsubstantiated statements in dustjacket copy, prefaces, and even titles. "Trade Dress" and the Merriam Lawsuit Despite the public-domain status of the term Webster, the august dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, Inc. (formerly G. & C. Merriam Co.) had a quite different view ofwhat was going on at Random House. Merriam sued. On 22 October 1991 a six-person jury in federal district court in New York City decided the case in favor of Merriam-Webster and ordered Random House to pay $1 ,774,713 in lost profits and $500,000 in punitive damages to Merriam. (On 27 December 1991, federal judge Lawrence M. McKenna upped the amount to $4 million.) Interestingly, the decision turned not on the addition of the name Webster to the tide (a point the Merriam lawyers pressed unsuccessfully), but on the "trade dress" or appearance of the product marketed by Random House. The new RHWCD sported a dustjacket that featured the word Webster's, in large white letters, running down the spine, remarkably similar to the design of the Merriam dust jacket. On the top of the dust jacket of the Random House book, the words Random House appear in smaller black letters, far less noticeable, and not clearly associated with the dominating word Webster's. The court ruled that the Merriam trade dress had 154Reviews been unfairly copied by Random House, to the detriment of Merriam's profitability . Random House is said to be preparing an appeal. While it will be difficult for any but the management of the two competing firms to know for certain, it is likely that the court case, reported widely in the media, may actually have a positive effect on sales, not only for the rivals in the suit, but for the other two U.S. publishers of college dictionaries . With public awareness raised, dictionaries may be more sought out and noticed in the stores. The four major competing books are so similar—in trim size, heft, thickness, entry count, price, and color (only the American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition [AHD2], published by Houghton Mifflin , has a blue dustjacket, although it does publish another modestly different edition with a red dust jacket, called, appropriately, "Webster's II")—that only the most discerning buyers could possibly detect a difference, if they even care about it. In this exceedingly competitive (and profitable) market, subtle differences can significantly affect sales. With a potential annual market numbering several hundred thousand copies overall, slight percentage changes in market share make a great deal of difference. Paper and Binding If subtle changes of title or trade dress may boost sales, so too may even fractionally lower production costs markedly improve the bottom line when many teñí of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 153-172
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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