The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently affirmed a federal district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Google Inc. in connection with an attempt to cancel the “Google” trademark registrations under the theory that the mark has become a generic term used by the public for searching on the internet. The ruling is a victory for brand owners, especially those who risk genericness challenges because of the success of their products or services and the widespread (mis)use of their marks by the public.
Overview of the Google Case
In 2012, Chris Gillespie and David Elliott registered 763 domain names that included the word “google” and an additional term identifying a specific brand, person, product, location or event such as googledisneyworld.com, googledallascowboys.com and googledonaldtrump.com. Google filed a cybersquatting compliant under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, claiming that the domain names were confusingly similar to the “Google” trademark and were registered in bad faith. The complaint was filed with the National Arbitration Forum (“NAF”), and the NAF found in favor of Google and transferred the domain names to Google. Elliott and Gillespie (collectively “Elliott”) then filed an action in the Arizona district court petitioning to cancel the “Google” trademark under the Lanham Act, arguing that the word “google” is primarily understood as a generic term universally used to describe the act of internet searching.
The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, with Elliott arguing that (1) it is an indisputable fact that a majority of the relevant public uses the word “google” as a verb (e.g., “I googled it”), and (2) verb use constitutes generic use as a matter of law, and Google arguing that verb use does not automatically constitute generic use and that Elliott failed to present sufficient evidence to support a jury finding that the relevant public primary understands the word “google” as a generic name for internet search engines. The Arizona district court found in favor of Google, and ruled that, even if the term “google” has become known — and is used as a verb — for searching the internet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the primary significance of the term “google” to the relevant public is as a generic name for internet search engines generally instead of as a mark identifying the Google search engine in particular. On May 16, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.
Before we discuss the court’s decision in more detail, let’s review some of the concepts framing the issues raised in the Google case.
The Spectrum of Distinctiveness — Weak vs. Strong Marks
Not all marks are created equal, and some terms can never be marks. The generally recognized categories of types of terms on the “spectrum of distinctiveness” or “distinctiveness/descriptiveness continuum” (which roughly reflects their eligibility to obtain trademark status and the degree of protection accorded from weakest to strongest) are (1) generic, (2) descriptive, (3) suggestive, and (4) arbitrary or fanciful terms. Generic terms are terms that the public understands primarily as the common name for the goods or services, such as “Salt” when used in connection with sodium chloride or “The Chocolatier” for a store providing chocolate candy. “Generic terms, by definition incapable of indicating source, are the antithesis of trademarks, and can never attain trademark status.” In other words, because generic terms identify the product or service and not the source of the product or service, generic terms are not protectable. On the other end of the spectrum are arbitrary and fanciful terms. Arbitrary marks are common words that are used in a unique way such that the words have no relationship to the product or service, such as “Apple” for computers. Fanciful marks are terms that have been invented or “coined” for the sole purpose of functioning as a trademark, such as the term “Google” for an internet search engine or “Xerox” for copiers. Arbitrary or fanciful marks are “automatically entitled to protection because they naturally serve to identify a particular source of a product.”
However, even a strong arbitrary or fanciful mark has the potential to lose its trademark significance and become generic.
Genericide — When Good Marks Go Bad
The Lanham Act allows cancellation of a registered trademark if it is primarily understood as a “generic name for the goods and services, or a portion thereof, for which it is registered.” This phenomenon has become known as “genericide” — when the public appropriates a trademark and uses it as a generic name for a particular type of goods or services, irrespective of the source of those goods or services. Once a mark becomes generic, it is no longer subject to trademark protection — and “linoleum,” “thermos” and “videotape” are some well-known victims. As McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition describes, genericide can occur for a variety of reasons: Continue reading