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“Genericide” is a Big Threat to Trademarks


When reading articles or promotional copy about certain brands, the extensive use of footnotes plus “®” designations dangling off of words like ornaments on a tree look clunky and can be a distraction.

But there are important reasons for companies to police and protect their brand equity, of course.  Because if you spend some time thinking about it, you can come up with quite a few words that began life as trademarked terms but became “genericized” over time.

Trademark lawyers refer to this progression as “genericide.”  And there are a surprising number of high-profile examples they can cite.  Here are a few examples of names that have “gone generic”:

Aspirin — Originally registered by German firm Bayer, aspirin’s trademark was confiscated by the U.S. government in the wake of World War I. Considering the massive headache Germany would unleash on the world barely 20 years later, perhaps this aggressive move wasn’t the best course of action!

Dry Ice — This was a trademarked term dating from 1925.  It sounds much better than “solid CO2.”  The clearly preferred “dry ice” descriptor everyone uses is probably why the company lost its trademark by 1932.

Escalator — Registered in 1900 by Otis Elevator, the company lost its trademark when the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office determined that Otis had used it as a descriptive term — even in its own patent applications.

Heroin — This was yet another Bayer trademark.  It seems strange that heroin started out life as an actual branded product.  These days, Bayer is probably happy that its company is no longer associated with such a “problematic” substance.

Laundromat — This started out as a General Electric trademark back in 1940, issued for the first wall-mounted washing machine.  The company failed to renew its registration after the 1950s.

Linoleum — Here’s an example of a brand name that had already entered the generic lexicon before the manufacturing firm even attempted to register it.  Coined in the mid-1860s, the company’s efforts to register the flooring name a decade later were doomed to failure.

Thermos — This trademark was established in the early 1900s as a more pleasing way to describe a “vacuum flask.”  After being way too lax in protecting the trademark, The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office pronounced it genericized in 1963.

Trampoline — It appears that this term, coined by inventors George Nissen and Larry Griswold in 1936, was never officially registered.  The real generic descriptor is “rebound tumbler” … but “trampoline” sounds so much more effective, no doubt leading to its ineligibility for trademark status.

ZIP Code — An acronym for “Zone Improvement System,” the ZIP code began life in the mid-1970s as a service mark of the U.S. Postal Service, but the registration was never renewed.  To some, it seems ironic that the USPTO chose not to notify a sister governmental agency of the need to renew.

These stories remind us how important it is to protect powerful brand names – the very ones that resonate best with the marketplace.  Today, there are dozens of other trademarked terms that may be on life support as proprietary names because of how pervasive they are in everyday language usage – from Adrenalin® (owned by Park-Davis) to Teflon® (DuPont).

Contact Mullin/Ashley

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