First, let us kick off this article by saying happy birthday to the Family Computer! Released in July 1983, (July 15th, to be exact) the 8-bit warhorse is turning 35 years old this year. That's quite a milestone for even long forgotten hardware, but Famicom/NES games still live on today, either as part of the Classic Mini line or as enhanced updates on Nintendo's forthcoming Switch Online service. Congratulations are in order!
But hold up a second. Why do we all call the machine 'Famicom' yet, Nintendo still sticks with the clunky name 'Family Computer?' The terms are pretty much interchangeable, yet for the 8-bit line, you rarely see it used. True, it does appear in a few games now and then, most recently Famicom Remix.
A few years ago, the inventor of the Famicom Masayuki Uemura spoke out about how the machine got its name. He coined the term “Family Computer” to imitate the IBM Personal Computer. When he told his wife, she suggested it be shortened to “Famicom”. Despite this, the hardware casing, manuals and all advertising used the longer Family Computer moniker.
Kind of strange, don’t you think? Well, there's a specific reason behind it. Nintendo didn’t hold the trademark to the word Famicom for a few years until after the machine was already released and in homes. How did that happen, you may ask? The truth is that a different Famicom was trademarked before Nintendo even released its console.
In 1979, Sharp Corporation had released a grill oven range called the Family Convection Oven or “Famicon” for short. In Japanese that’s written as ファミコン which is exactly how Famicom with an “M” at the end is written, as well.
In Japanese, these two would be pronounced the same, despite English spelling differences. The trademark law in Japan does allow for the same term to be trademarked more than once, but the products must fall under separate classifications. By the time 1983 rolled around, everything should have been fine. Except the Sharp Famicon was classified as a “consumer electronic device” - a term which broadly covering practically anything used in homes. Nintendo was locked out, and was forced to go with the term "Family Computer" instead - although fans called it Famicom from day one.
Thankfully, the dispute ended amicably. There wasn’t any court case, likely because Nintendo didn’t have much standing at the time. According to a Japanese book called “Strange Trademarks”, the trademark was officially transferred on 17th October 1985. Because Sharp already had the rights to the term Famicom, Nintendo licensed out the use of Family Computer hardware to Sharp, which resulted in a few products, such as the Famicom Titler, Famicom TV and Twin Famicom - all of which are branded by Sharp and use the word Famicom prominently. While Nintendo now owns the right to use the word Famicom, later hardware models still say Family Computer, keeping things uniform. The machine's successor, the Super Famicom, didn't suffer from this headache.
To learn more about this quirk in Nintendo’s history and see some images of the Sharp Famicon, check out the video below.