05 December, 2014

Words in Action - Trademarks as Verbs

This writer, for one, will fully admit to often using very well-known brands as the descriptive term for all such items, for example calling all plasters Band-Aids and all cotton-tipped plastic cleaning things (a technical term, undoubtedly) as Q-Tips, regardless of all of those terms having been, or still being, registered trademarks. While my misstep in potentially diluting these valuable brands in using them in this way can be seen as a small error, or even wholly unnoticeable in the grand scheme of things, it still brings light to an issue all trademark holders face; the potential of losing your mark to genericization. While this topic has been discussed on this very blog before quite extensively, the use of trademarks as verbs specifically has been left a bit in the dark, yet is illustrative of a newer problem technology companies especially will face. Who hasn't said they will 'Google' something, or if they will 'Facebook' their aunt Mary; a grave threat the holders of those particular marks will lose sleep over. One such giant facing a recent challenge to its widely recognized trademark is Google, which posed an interesting question to all trademark holders.

The case in question is Elliot v Google Inc, where the claimant, David Elliot, registered over 760 different domain names combining the word 'Google' and another brand or a famous person, for example googledisney.com, or with generic terms such as googletvnews.com. As you might have guessed, Google has trademarked the term 'Google' in a number of variants; two of which were at issue in the case: US trademark 2884502 and 2806075. These two marks encompass the word 'Google' in several categories, such as web indexes and computer software - promptly leading to Google pursuing the domain names through the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Process (UDRP). In his defense Mr. Elliot asserted that the term 'Google' had become generic and could therefore be used by him (and others) without infringing on Google's marks. The domain names Mr. Elliot had registered were transferred to Google in the UDRP, which prompted Mr. Elliot to pursue the matter further in the US District Court of Arizona.

What Mr. Elliot's argument largely states, and what the court had to assess, was whether the term 'Google' had effectively become ubiquitous with the verb 'googling' - defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "[s]earch[ing] for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google" - rendering it generic rather than distinctive as to Google and/or Google's services. As trademarks need to specifically distinguish the origin of goods or services, becoming a generic verb can be the mark's end.

Stacy was unnerved after 'googling' herself
What the court had to determine was whether the mark's "...primary significance" was that of distinguishing the goods or services from other similar ones. The test was phrased well by Justice Brandeis in Kellogg v National Biscuit: "...the primary significance of the term in the minds of the consuming public is not the product but the producer". This is highly important, as if a product is named as the major brand (i.e. if you refer to all plasters as 'Band-Aids') in general terms, the mark loses its status as the seal of origin for that brand, or as stated by Justice O'Scannlain in Filipino Yellow Pages: "...if the primary significance of the trademark is to describe the type of product rather than the producer, the trademark is a generic term and cannot be a valid trademark".

Using a trademark as a verb does not automatically change the primary significance of that mark, and a mark, such as 'Google', can be used for both the designation of an origin for goods and services and as a term describing the searching of information via the search engine - noted by the court in the case. This synecdochian dual-functionality of a mark is wholly valid; however, should the perception of the public change drastically as to the meaning of the word, i.e. if most people would believe and/or use the term "to google" to mean using any search engine online to seek information, then the mark can be determined to be compromised, even with this accepted dual-functionality. This was phrased well by Justice McNamee (the name seems more than appropriate considering the case's subject matter): "It is thus contrary to both the letter and spirit of trademark law to strip a mark of legal protection solely because the mark—cultivated by diligent marketing, enforcement, and quality control—has become so strong and widespread that the public adopts the mark to describe that act of using the class of products or services to which the mark belongs". Arguably this argument holds well, and this writer for one agrees wholeheartedly with the court's view, as the stripping of a mark's distinctive nature the moment it becomes even partially descriptive of a class of products or services would run contrary to the value given by trademarks to brands and their place in a given class.

In the end the action failed, as Mr. Elliot failed to demonstrate how the mark 'Google' had turned generic, as the public still strongly perceived it as part and parcel to the company, not just internet search engines or internet searching at large. The case does bring light an important issue, and often something that the general public will not think about; how our daily use of terminology, especially trademarks, can alter their value. Some examples include 'Xerox' (become a term for all photocopying) and 'Thermos' (used as a term for all heat-retaining drinks containers), which have become generic due to their use as the identifying term in a given class. Due to this the International Trademark Association has even issued guidelines on the proper use of trademarks, which most of us will find potentially excessive, yet is quite important. As can be seen, trademarks are a dangerous beast, especially when they become famous to the point of ubiquity; however for most this risk is quite worth it.

Source: JDSupra

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