By Tim Carvell

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Imagine FORTUNE's surprise when it recently received a sternly worded letter from the estimable law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges. The problem? As the letter put it, "FORTUNE Magazine published an article in its Dec. 20, 1999, issue entitled 'What's That Bad Odor at Innovation Skunkworks' that made several generic references to the term 'skunkworks.' Lockheed Martin requests that should any future article in FORTUNE refer to the term 'skunk works,' the article acknowledge that such term is a registered service mark of Lockheed Martin."

We were, needless to say, shocked. Shocked and ashamed. We felt like thieves, or vandals, or maybe loiterers. No, not loiterers. In any case, we were eager to find out why Lockheed was so protective about "skunk works," a term that, when used generically, refers to a clandestine division within a company. (Lockheed trademarked "skunk works" as two words; most dictionaries list the term as one word.) As the letter explained, the term was a bastardization of "skonk works," the secret distillery in Al Capp's Li'l Abner strip; it was first used by a Lockheed engineer as code for the company's secret division for producing planes during World War II. But the code name became so valuable that Lockheed had registered it and was mailing letters asserting its rights to it. This, to us, seemed odd.

So FORTUNE called the Quinn Emanuel lawyer who'd written the three-page, often rambling letter, one David Quinto, who helpfully explained that Lockheed's aim was to prevent the term from becoming generic. In addition to writing letters to magazines, the firm corresponds with dictionaries, attempting to persuade them to acknowledge Lockheed's rights to the name. The firm also tangled with Al Capp's estate a few years back in order to secure the rights to the name. How much did it cost? "The settlement was quick and amiable," Quinto said. Oh.

Why go to so much trouble? It is a corporation's nightmare that its brand name is so successful that it becomes synonymous with its product: corn flakes, aspirin, and the yellow pages all started out as proprietary names that eventually became part of the public domain. Xerox often sends out letters and takes out ads imploring people not to refer to photocopies as "xeroxes." "People use these terms without realizing that they're using registered marks," Quinto said, "so we have to go after them."

Ah. "Go after them." What, exactly, does that mean? And, more to the point, does it mean we can be sued? What FORTUNE did--though irksome to Lockheed Martin--is not, Quinto said, actionable, "because it's not a crime to misuse words." Thus, we would be safe from a lawsuit, "unless FORTUNE were to start taking out ads referring to its own skunkworks," Quinto said. "But if FORTUNE says, 'This is the latest from Ford's skunkworks,' all we can do is complain." Note to Lockheed: We'll have our skunkworks discuss it and get back to you.

--Tim Carvell