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Brand names in everyday use: When do trademarks become just words?

As every business owner, marketing expert and "Mad Men" fan knows, a lot goes into building a successful brand. There's the name, imagery, typography, colors, symbols, taglines - all of which work together to (ideally) make the brand instantly recognizable.

Trademarks are designed to protect these unique representations that set brands apart. In light of the time, money and effort that go into making a memorable brand, it's well worth the investment for businesses to safeguard this valuable intellectual property by registering their trademarks.

But what if a brand name becomes too successful? Can that success backfire?

The sometimes blurry line between brand names and generic descriptors

This issue recently came up in a domain name dispute involving one of the world's most recognizable trademarks - Google. One of the litigants, who was cybersquatting on more than 700 domain names containing the word, argued that "Google" has become a generic term for searching the web. He claimed it therefore lost its trademarked status. Fortunately for Google, the court rejected this argument.

From a linguistic standpoint, many trademarks eventually turn into everyday words you'd find in the dictionary. Examples include:

  • Aspirin
  • Laundromat
  • Teleprompter
  • Escalator
  • Cellophane
  • Thermos
  • Trampoline

However, many other words that we now find commonplace are actually legally protected trademarks, including:

  • Band-Aid
  • Kleenex
  • Jet Ski
  • Q-tips
  • Onesies
  • Taser
  • Popsicle
  • Rollerblade
  • Velcro
  • Frisbee
  • Coke

The difference, in many of these cases, is that the trademark owners in the second list took vigorous steps to protect their rights and keep their brand names proprietary.

Keeping trademarks distinct

When trademarked brands become generic terms, they run the risk of losing legal protection. Competitors can start to encroach on the term and even seek to cancel the trademark on grounds of abandonment via "genericide."

To maintain the distinctiveness of their trademarks, businesses should stay vigilant about preventing their unauthorized use. This means:

  • Setting clear guidelines to keep the trademark consistent in all of its uses
  • Taking legal action to prevent misuse and enforce trademark rights
  • Educating consumers about the brand's distinctiveness
  • Using generic terms to refer to other products that aren't the same brand

These efforts are essential for dispelling the threat of "genericization" - and ensuring that success in achieving brand recognition doesn't backfire.

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