Lessons From Google Surviving The Genericide Attack

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 computer-1330162_1920 (2)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,[1] 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.[2] Elliott and Gillespie (collectively “Elliott”) then filed an action in the Arizona district court petitioning to cancel the “Google” trademark[3] under the Lanham Act,[4] 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,[5] 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.[6]

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.”[7] 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[8] 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.”[9]

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.”[10] 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

10 Legal Considerations for Entrepreneurs – Part 1

startup-1018512_1920Becoming an entrepreneur is an exciting endeavor…but being your own boss often requires that you wear many different hats and take responsibility for all of the details involved with operating a business. After you’ve evaluated your business idea and researched the market, and while you’re in the process of creating your business plan and determining startup costs and other essentials to get your business up and running, here are some legal considerations to keep in mind…

1. Hire Professionals.

Attorneys, accountants and other professionals are invaluable resources for a new business owner, as they can help you navigate through the many details and requirements necessary to start and run your business, including those mentioned below. Seek referrals from friends, family, and other business owners. You may want to find professionals who are familiar with your particular industry and/or working with new businesses. Having good professionals on your business team (especially in the beginning) can be one of the best investments you’ll ever make in your business, and, hopefully, you will develop relationships with these advisors that will last for the life of the business (and beyond). It is often much less expensive to hire a professional to do something right the first time than it is to hire a professional to fix a problem after-the-fact. Although a great deal of information, “forms” and resources are available online and can be helpful for educational purposes, relying on the internet to be your lawyer will likely come back to haunt you at some point.

2. Name Your Business (or Product).

Deciding on the name of your business is one of the most important – and sometimes most difficult – aspects of starting a new business. Not only will you want to make sure the name is appealing to customers, but you’ll also want to make sure the name isn’t already being used by a third party providing identical or similar products or services. Before using or registering a business name, you should at least perform a quick “knockout” availability search: (a) check for entity names and state trademark registrations with Secretary of State Offices where business will be done; (b) search the federal U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) trademark database; and (c) perform a Google search to determine whether any third party has common law rights to the name. If you are in a regulated profession or industry, there may be restrictions of what you can and cannot include in your business name. You’ll also want to make sure the domain name is available for your business name.

Once you decide on a name (and type of entity) and are comfortable that it’s available to use, you’ll need to register your name with your Secretary of State’s Office and potentially with your County Clerk’s Office as well.

Please note that registration of a business name with one or more Secretary of State offices does not guarantee that you have exclusive rights to use that name and/or are not infringing another party’s mark. The Secretary of State does not allow registration of identical business names in its state (mostly to avoid internal confusion). However, multiple entities can register identical fictitious, assumed or doing business as (d/b/a) names in the same state.  [For example, if XYZ Company, LLC is already registered with the Texas Secretary of State, another company could register ZYX Products, LLC and then register a fictitious name for XYZ Company…so it would be ZYX Products, LLC, d/b/a XYZ Company.]

Trademarks or service marks, on the other hand, can be used by multiple entities at the same time, so long as they are not used in connection with the same or similar goods or services and customers are not likely to be confused as to whether the goods or services are provided by the same entity. If your entity is also using its business name as a trademark or service mark in connection with its products or services, then it is advisable to have your legal counsel perform a trademark search to be as certain as possible that no other individual or entity is also using the mark for similar goods or services.  Depending on the results of the search, filing a trademark application with the USPTO to obtain a federal trademark registration for the mark (and/or logo) may be advisable.

Click here for more information about selecting and protecting names and marks.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss legal entities, financing your venture, and related matters.

What’s in a (Brand) Name?

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Choosing a name for your company, creative project, product or service is just as important as (and often more difficult than) naming a child or pet. Brands are so important that many big companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and months or even years on research, focus group testing and the like in attempts to find just the right name or logo for a new product or service.

Your brand distinguishes your products and services from your competitors’ products and services. But a brand is much more than just a name or logo.  Your brand also serves as a symbol of the quality, value, and reputation which customers and fans expect in products you sell and services you provide…not to mention the emotional connection customers and fans can develop with your brand.  For example, if we’re talking about driving a Beetle or listening to The Beatles, you probably don’t just think “car” or “band.”  Instead, you likely have thoughts and emotions related to your experiences with and perceptions of those brands — whether positive or negative.

With so much at stake, choosing a name that will resonate with your customers and fans and convey information about your product or service is important.  When brainstorming a name for your company, creative project, product or service, remember that not all brands are created equal … particularly when it comes to trademark protection.

Brands — also known as Trademarks (used on products) and Service Marks (used in connection with services) — include any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination of these, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one entity from those sold or provided by others, and to indicate the source of the goods or services. Trademarks can include entity names, product names, logos, domain names, 800 numbers, slogans, phrases and tag lines, character names, band names, jingles, and trade dress, such as product configurations, color, packaging and store designs.  

The best marks are memorable, appealing and elicit desired responses.  The ultimate goal should be to find a mark that is uniquely yours — a mark that is not confusingly similar to an existing mark used for similar products or services (i.e., someone else beat you to the punch), one that suggests some connection with another organization or famous person, or one that consists of a person’s last name.  And it can take a village of marketing, artistic, business and legal types to find that perfect mark.

While searching for that perfect mark, you should keep in mind that some marks are stronger than others…

  • Generic terms are common names for products or services, such as SALT when used in connection with sodium chloride or THE CHOCOLATIER for a store providing chocolate candy.  These terms can never be protected as trademarks.
  • Descriptive marks describe an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the product or service, such as SALTY used in connection with crackers or DALLAS.COM for a website providing tourism information about Dallas.  These marks are not initially protectable unless the owner can show that the mark has gained “secondary meaning” or “acquired distinctiveness” (proof that the mark has become distinctive of the mark owner’s goods or services) in the marketplace over time through extensive and substantially exclusive use.
  • Suggestive marks suggest some characteristic or nature of the product or service and require imagination, thought or perception to reach a conclusion as to the nature of those products or services, such as COPPERTONE for suntan lotion or BLOCKBUSTER for a video rental store. Although there can be a fine line between descriptive and suggestive marks, suggestive marks are automatically protected as trademarks because they are “inherently distinctive.”
  • Arbitrary marks are very strong marks because they have no relation to the product or service, such as APPLE for computers.   However, because these are real words, other companies may have also adopted the words as marks, such as APPLE VACATIONS.
  • Fanciful/coined marks are the strongest marks because they are made up words, such as XEROX for copiers or EXXON for gasoline, and consumers only associate the mark owner with selling that service or product.  

From a trademark protection perspective, fanciful/coined, arbitrary or suggestive marks are preferable to descriptive (protectable with acquired distinctiveness) or generic (never protectable) marks.  Many company, product and service names tend to be descriptive or suggestive because business owners attempt to quickly choose names that help consumers easily identify their products or services.  However, the more creativity you use in the naming process, the stronger the mark and the more likely you are to prevent third parties from being able to use the same or similar mark on similar (or even unrelated) products and services.

Before using or registering a name for your services or products, you should, at the very least, perform a quick “knockout” availability search to see if a third party may already be using the same or similar mark in connection with the same or similar products or services.  You should:

  • Check for entity names and state trademark registrations with Secretary of State Offices where business will be done.
  • Search the U.S. trademark database.
  • Perform a Google search to determine whether third parties have common law rights to the name.
  • Perform a WHOIS search to determine whether domain names are available (as brands typically want a corresponding web presence).

A mark is one of the most important words, phrases or designs you will use to represent your products or services to the world.  Although selecting a name may seem simple, trademark law is very nuanced and is often much more complex than it appears. Therefore, I believe it is a wise investment of resources to engage a trademark attorney to perform more sophisticated searches to determine whether your mark is available and inform you as to the potential risks associated with use and/or registration of your proposed mark.  (Note:  You can save yourself some time and money by performing knockout searches for your potential marks before asking an attorney to search a particular mark more thoroughly.)

Choosing a mark that’s already being used by a third party can result in cease and desist letters and trademark infringement lawsuits…potentially requiring you to abandon use of the mark, destroy all products and materials that depict the mark, and potentially even paying the third party mark owner profits gained from infringing uses of a mark as well as damages the mark owner may have incurred from such infringing use.  The last thing you want to do after spending a bunch of money to print business cards, stationery, packaging, advertising and goodness knows what else emblazoned with your mark is having to scrap everything and start from scratch with another mark.

Hiring a lawyer to guide you during the mark selection process can save you (potentially hundreds of) thousands of dollars and several headaches down the road.

 

Intent to Use Trademark Applications: Reserve Your Brand Today!

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Although actual use of a mark in commerce is usually required to protect a trademark, Intent-to-Use (“ITU”) Trademark Applications extend potential protection to a mark before it is used in interstate commerce.  One of the main benefits is that, once the application matures into a registration, you can claim the filing date as your constructive date of first use of the mark, even though you didn’t actually use the mark until after you filed. (In other words, filing an ITU application provides nationwide priority over others, with the exception of parties who had used the mark before your filing date, parties who had filed before you, or parties who are entitled to an earlier priority filing date based upon the filing of a foreign application). You will also be able to establish some priority in a mark and determine whether your mark is registrable before you invest large sums of money for advertising, printing, etc.

Bona Fide Intent.  Before you file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), you must have a good faith or bona fide intention to use the mark in commerce. I recommend that your intent be bolstered by verifiable documents (corporate minutes, reports, plans, contracts, evidence of R&D, market research, manufacturing activities, steps to acquire distributors or obtain required governmental approval, or other similar activities).

Goods and Services.  A trademark application must list the specific goods/services that will be provided in connection with the mark. (Goods are products; services are activities performed for the benefit of someone else.) The description of goods/services should use clear, concise terms that are easily understood by the general public. Once an application is filed, you can clarify or delete certain goods/services, but you must file a new application to add additional goods/services. As ITU applications are often filed before final decisions have been made, it is usually best to be broad and over-inclusive with respect to the goods/services you reasonably intend to offer.

Allowed Applications. Once your mark clears the initial evaluation and publication process, the USPTO will issue a Notice of Allowance. Your Allowed application will not mature into a Registration unless and until you file an Allegation of Use indicating that you have begun use of the mark in commerce.  You have six (6) months from the date the application is Allowed to file an Allegation of Use. However, you may file up to five (5) six-month Extensions, which allows you to “reserve” the mark for up to three (3) years before actual use of the mark in commerce is required. If an Allegation of Use is not filed within 36 months of the date the application was Allowed, the application will abandon. The USPTO filing fees are currently $150 per Class of goods/services for each Extension, and $100 per Class of goods/services to file an Allegation of Use.

Establishing Use. In order to prepare an Allegation of Use, you will need the following for each Class of goods/services: (1) Date of First Use Anywhere (MM/DD/YY); (2) Date of First Use in Commerce (MM/DD/YY); and (3) a Specimen of Use.

  • Date of First Use Anywhere. The date the mark was first used in commerce anywhere (which may be earlier than, or the same as, the date of the first use of the mark in commerce).
  • Date of First Use in Interstate Commerce. For goods (Classes 1-34), “interstate commerce” involves sending the goods across state (or country) lines with the mark displayed on the goods or packaging for the goods. With services (Classes 35-45), “interstate commerce” involves using or displaying the mark in connection with selling, advertising or offering a service to those in another state (or country) or rendering a service which affects interstate commerce (e.g., restaurants, gas stations, hotels). “Use in commerce” must be bona fide use in the ordinary course of trade, not “token” use simply made to reserve rights in the mark.
  • Specimen of Use. A specimen is a real-world example of how the mark is actually used on the goods or in the offer of services. Specimens for goods (Classes 1-34) may take the form of labels, tags, packaging, or containers for the goods, a display associated with the goods, or a photograph of the goods that shows use of the mark on the goods. Specimens for services (Classes 35-45) should include some reference to the type of services rendered and may take the form of website screenshots, magazine advertisements, brochures, a sign, a business card or stationery, or a photograph showing the mark as used in rendering or advertising the services.

How to Protect Titles of Creative Works

Although movies, TV shows, art, books, musibooks-498422_1280c, lyrics and recordings are protected by copyright, the titles, names and tag lines associated with these types of creative works do not qualify for copyright protection. However, in certain instances, titles of creative works may be protectable as trademarks.

For example, you cannot register a trademark for the title, or a portion of a title, of a single creative work (such as a book, a television episode, a film, a live theatre production, or a phonograph record).  [NOTE: Computer software and computer games are not treated as single creative works.]

However, if the title has been (or will be) used in connection with a series of creative works (e.g., a series of books, the second edition of a book with significant changes, a periodically issued magazine, a television or movie series, a series of live performances [such as by a musical artist], educational seminars, or a continuing radio program), it may constitute a mark for either entertainment or educational services.

For more information about how to protect titles, here’s an article I wrote entitled A Different Kind of Title Insurance: How to Protect Titles of Creative Works that was published in Bloomberg BNA’s Patent, Trademark and Copyright Journal.

 

Trademark Notices

Use of the ™ or SM Symbols. Unless and until you obtain a federal trademark registration for your mark(s), you can (and should) use the ™ or SM (for trademark and service mark, respectively) symbol in connection with your marks to indicate to others that you claim rights in the marks.

You do not need to have filed a state or federal trademark application or obtained a trademark registration to use the ™ or SM symbol, as common law trademark protection subsists from the time a mark is first used in commerce…although there are several benefits to registration.

You may also want to include a trademark notice on your documents and website.

 Example: I’M WITH THE B(R)AND SM is a service mark of Danica L. Mathes. registered-98574_1280

Use of the Federal Registration Symbol ®.  You cannot use the federal registration symbol ® until you receive a federal registration certificate from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Even if you have a pending trademark application, the registration symbol may not be used before the mark has actually registered. The federal registration symbol should only be used on goods or services that are the subject of the federal trademark registration.

You may also want to include a trademark notice on your documents and website.

Example: CAST A BIG SHADOW.® is a registered service mark of Bell Nunnally & Martin LLP.

NOTE:  JUST BECAUSE A MARK IS REGISTERED FOR ONE ITEM DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN USE THE ® FOR OTHER ITEMS.  If a specific product or service is not listed in the identification of goods/services for a registered mark, then ™ or SM would be the correct notice to use in that case.

Trademark Notices in Other Countries. Some countries have severe civil and criminal penalties for improper use of trademark registration symbols.  Therefore, you should not use ® in countries where your marks have not been registered.  If you are unsure if a trademark is registered in a particular country, you should use the ™ or SM symbol.

Use of Third Party Marks.  You should observe the trademark ownership of others by including the following:

“[Enter trademark name here] is a [registered] trademark of [enter trademark owner’s name].”

If the trademark owner information is unknown, you may want to include the following:

“All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. [Company Name or Your Name] is in no way endorsed, sponsored, approved by, or otherwise affiliated with the owners of such trademarks.”

NOTE: IN MANY INSTANCES, YOU WILL LIKELY NEED PERMISSION FROM THE OWNER OF A MARK IN ORDER TO USE THAT PARTY’S MARK…especially if use of a third party mark is likely to lead consumers to believe that there is an affiliation, connection or association with the third party mark or that the owner of the third party mark sponsors, approves or originates your products, services or commercial activities.