It sounds like something you might put on your lawn to kill weeds. But in the world of brands and marketing, genericide is a killer of trademarks. It is what happens when a trademark becomes the common (generic) word for a product or service itself and is no longer protectable under trademark law.
Countless articles tell the stories of how trademarks lost their ability to distinguish the source of goods because they became generic. Examples include CELLOPHANE, LANOLIN, ESCALATOR, THERMOS, and ASPIRIN. See INTA’s Practical Tips on Avoiding Genericide.
Genericide is one reason companies police how others use their trademarks. It is also a reason that companies create branding and trademark usage guidelines, like these for Intel, Apple, and Symantec. See also, A Guide to Proper Trademark Use.
Some guidelines, like those of Symantec, go beyond what to do, and explain why:
Proper usage aids consumers who depend upon Symantec’s goods and services and helps prevent Symantec Trademarks from losing their distinctiveness and becoming generic.
They may even explain what not to do:
Trademarks are adjectives and should be followed by the generic term they modify, such as “software” or “product”. Never use a trademark as a noun, a verb, or in the possessive form.
With all of this focus on how marks lose their distinctiveness by becoming generic, you may be thinking:
What is the deal with GOOGLE?
People seldom say, “Try searching for [whatever] using the Google search engine.” People instinctively shorten things and say, “Try googling it.” But shouldn’t that lead to Google becoming generic and incapable of serving as a trademark?
Not necessarily, said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in Elliott v. Google, Inc., No. 15-15809, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 8583 (9th Cir. May 16, 2017). There is more to it. You have to ask the right question, and that is the TAKE-AWAY at the end of this article.
Initially, explained the court, the mere fact that the public sometimes uses a trademark as the name for a unique product does not immediately render the mark generic. Rather, a trademark only becomes generic when the “primary significance of the registered mark to the relevant public” is as the name for a particular type of good or service irrespective of its source.
Courts make that determination by applying the “who-are-you/what-are-you” test:
If the relevant public primarily understands a mark as describing “who” a particular good or service is, or where it comes from, then the mark is still valid. But if the relevant public primarily understands a mark as describing “what” the particular good or service is, then the mark has become generic. In sum, we ask whether “the primary significance of the term in the minds of the consuming public is [now] the product [and not] the producer.”
In Elliott v. Google, seeking show that Google had become generic, Elliott focused on how google often is used as a verb. [Well-known dictionaries define google as a verb.] The Ninth Circuit court, however, found Elliott’s claim to be flawed for two reasons: (1) a claim of genericide must always relate to a particular type of good or service; and (2) use as a verb does not automatically constitute generic use.
Genericide Must Relate to a Particular Type of Good or Service
Relation to a particular type of good or service, the court said, is infused throughout several sections of the Lanham Act (federal trademark law). A mark can be canceled if it “becomes the generic name for the goods or services . . . for which it is registered.” “If the registered mark becomes the generic name for less than all of the goods or services for which it is registered, a petition to cancel the registration for only those goods or services may be filed.” The relevant question under the primary significance test is “whether the registered mark has become the generic name of [certain] goods or services.” 15 U.S.C. § 1064(3).
The court then added that such a relation requirement is necessary to maintain the viability of arbitrary marks as a protectable trademark category. In other words:
If there were no requirement that a claim of genericide relate to a particular type of good, then a mark like IVORY, which is “arbitrary as applied to soap,” could be cancelled outright because it is “generic when used to describe a product made from the tusks of elephants.”
Trademark law recognizes that a term may be unprotectable with regard to one type of good, and protectable with regard to another type of good. Thus, the court said the very existence of arbitrary marks as a valid trademark category supports the conclusion that a claim of genericide must relate to a particular type of good or service.
Use as a Verb Does Not Automatically Constitute Generic Use
Moving to the second point, the court said a trademark may be used as a verb, or even as a noun, without becoming generic. In connection with Lanham Act amendments, the court noted the following from a Senate Report:
A trademark can serve a dual function—that of [naming] a product while at the same time indicating its source. Admittedly, if a product is unique, it is more likely that the trademark adopted and used to identify that product will be used as if it were the identifying name of that product. But this is not conclusive of whether the mark is generic.
In this way, the court said Congress has “instructed us that a speaker might use a trademark as a noun and still use the term in a source-identifying trademark sense.” That was the case in Coca-Cola Co. v. Overland, Inc., 692 F.2d 1250 (9th Cir. 1982), where Coca-Cola had sued a restaurant (Overland) for trademark infringement, and Overland countered that COKE was generic, claiming that customers ordered “coke” only in a generic (“soda”) sense. The court rejected that argument, noting that the mere fact customers ordered “a coke,” i.e., used the mark as a noun, failed to show “what . . . customers [were] thinking,” or whether they had a particular source in mind.
To accept Elliott’s argument, the court said, would require “evidence regarding the customers’ inner thought processes.” The court explained further in a footnote:
We acknowledge that if a trademark is used as an adjective, it will typically be easier to prove that the trademark is performing a source-identifying function. If a speaker asks for “a Kleenex tissue,” it is quite clear that the speaker has a particular brand in mind. But we will not assume that a speaker has no brand in mind simply because he or she uses the trademark as a noun and asks for “a Kleenex.” Instead, the party bearing the burden of proof must offer evidence to support a finding of generic use.
Relating it to Google, the court said that just as a customer might use the noun “coke” with no particular cola beverage in mind, or with a Coca-Cola beverage in mind, an internet user might use the verb “google” with no particular search engine in mind, or with the Google search engine in mind.
While Elliott had amassed a mountain of evidence ranging from expert surveys to dictionaries, it all focused on the public using “google” as a verb, and did not show evidence of “google” being a generic name for internet search engines.
Elliott also argued there is no efficient alternative for the word “google” as a name for “the act” of searching the internet regardless of the search engine used. But the court convincingly disposed of that argument:
Elliott must show that there is no way to describe “internet search engines” without calling them “googles.” Because not a single competitor calls its search engine “a google,” and because members of the consuming public recognize and refer to different “internet search engines,” Elliott has not shown that there is no available substitute for the word “google” as a generic term.
Ultimately, Elliott lost by focusing on the wrong question. Elliott focused on whether the relevant public primarily uses the word “google” as a verb, when the real question was:
…whether the primary significance of the word “google” to the relevant public is as a generic name for internet search engines or as a mark identifying the Google search engine in particular.
BONUS TIP FOR IP LITIGATORS
The opinion includes analysis of several consumer surveys offered by Elliott. The court noted that consumer surveys may be used to support a claim of genericide “so long as they are conducted according to accepted principles.”
Two of Elliott’s consumer surveys, however, were excluded because they were not conducted according to accepted principles:
Specifically, these surveys were designed and conducted by Elliott’s counsel, who is not qualified to design or interpret surveys… [and, even] if the surveys were admitted, Elliott’s counsel would need to withdraw in order to offer testimony on the survey results.
For the latter point, the court cited Ariz. R. Sup. Ct. 42, E.R. 3.7 (“A lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness . . . .”); see also Model Rules of Professional Conduct 3.7.
In California, see Rule of Professional Conduct 5-210 Member as Witness; but also see proposed California Rule 3.7 Lawyer as Witness (On March 30, 2017, the State Bar submitted the proposed rules to the California Supreme Court).