Google Genericide

In 2012, Chris Gillespie registered 763 domain names that included the word “google.”[1]

A few months later, Google took ownership of all of them using a special rule called “UDRP,” which is available only to registered trademark owners.[2]

Gillespie then tried to deregister two Google trademark registrations, claiming that GOOGLE had become generic.[3]

As we’ve already seen, if your product name becomes the generic word for the product you’re selling, you can lose your rights and your registration: linoleum, yoyo, cellophane.

Gillespie submitted the results of a Thermos survey[4] to show that “a majority of the relevant public uses the word ‘google’ as a verb – i.e. by saying ‘I googled it.’”[5]

The Ninth Circuit looked at the evidence Gillespie provided and asked whether the GOOGLE trademarks had “taken the ‘fateful step’ along the path to genericness.” Was the “primary significance” of Google “the name for a particular type of good or service irrespective of its source.”[6]

The court made it clear that just because someone uses a trademark as a verb, she isn’t necessarily using it a generic word: We have to explore what’s her mind. What does she mean when she says: “I googled adorable cat pictures”?

  • I used Google to search for adorable cat pictures.[7]
  • I used a search engine to search for adorable cat pictures.[8]

If she means the first sentence, she’s not using GOOGLE in a generic way.

The court said that Gillespie’s suit “cannot survive . . . based on ‘sheer quantity’ of irrelevant evidence”[9] showing that people “verb” Google. The surveys needed to be worded in a way that reveals what’s in the speaker’s mind.

So, go ahead and Beeline that trademark. Just be sure and do it at beelinelegal.com.

 

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[1] For example: googledisney.com; googlebarackobama.net; googlenewtvs.com.

[2] The Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy or URDP. You have to own a trademark registration that predates the offending domain name registration in order to use UDRP.

[3] Mr. Gillespie actually joined an existing lawsuit that had already been filed by David Elliot. Both the UDRP proceeding and the lawsuit involved registrations 2884502 and 2806075. Elliot v. Google, Opinion issued May 16, 2017, page 4.

[4] Gillespie’s Thermos survey asked 251 respondents: “’If you were going to ask a friend to search for something on the Internet, what word or phrase would you use to tell him/her what you want him/her to do?’ Over half of the 251 respondents answered this question by using the word ‘google’ as a verb.” Elliot v. Google, Opinion issued May 16, 2017, page 15.

Google used a Teflon survey: “A Teflon survey begins with a brief lesson explaining the difference between brand names and common names. It then asks respondents to classify a series of words, including the trademark at issue, as either brand names or common names. In response to Google’s Teflon survey, a little over 93% of respondents classified ‘Google’ as a brand name. Most respondents also classified ‘Coke,’ ‘Jello,’ ‘Amazon,’ and ‘Yahoo!’ as brand names, and classified ‘Refrigerator,’ ‘Margarine,’ ‘Browser,’ and ‘Website’ as common names. Unlike [the] Thermos survey, Google’s Teflon survey offers comparative evidence as to how consumers primarily understand the word ‘google’ irrespective of its grammatical function.” Elliot v. Google, Opinion issued May 16, 2017, page 16. Internal citations omitted.

[5] Elliot v. Google, Opinion issued May 16, 2017, page 5.

[6] Elliot v. Google, Opinion issued May 16, 2017, page 7. Emphasis added.

[7] This is called a “discriminate verb.”

[8] You guessed it: This is called an “indiscriminate verb.”

[9] Elliot v. Google, Opinion issued May 16, 2017, page 20.

“Happy Talk” Law is Dead!

Today Simon Tam of The Slants won a tremendous victory for free speech.

If you’re feeling despondent about the state of the world, if you’re in need of a booster shot for enlightenment thinking, if you long to have the government bitch-slapped for stepping on civil rights, if you want to laugh out loud, read on.

The U.S. Supreme Court vehemently rejected all of the government’s arguments for preserving the “disparagement clause” that allows the Trademark Office to refuse to register trademarks that may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute any persons, living or dead.[1]

Although the justices[2] supported different reasons for their judgment, all of them agreed that the provision is total BS, constitutionality-wise.

Government Speech Schmovernment Speech

The court starting by rejecting the government’s argument that trademark registration is “government speech,” a category of speech not subject to First Amendment protection.[3] Here’s the court explaining why government speech is not protected:

“During the Second World War, the Federal Government produced and distributed millions of posters to promote the war effort. There were posters urging enlistment, the purchase of war bonds, and the conservation of scarce resources. These posters expressed a viewpoint, but the First Amendment did not demand that the Government balance the message of these posters by producing and distributing posters encouraging Americans to refrain from engaging in these activities.”[4]

The Court then hits the government upside the head with a baseball bat for its attempt to expand what’s included in “government speech.”

“But while the government-speech doctrine is important—indeed, essential—it is a doctrine that is susceptible to dangerous misuse. If private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints. For this reason, we must exercise great caution before extending our government-speech precedents.”[5]

Then, just in case the government didn’t feel the baseball-bat love tap, the Court took out the big ammo and blasted away.

“If the federal registration of a trademark makes the mark government speech, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently. It is saying many unseemly things. It is expressing contradictory views. It is unashamedly endorsing a vast array of commercial products and services. And it is providing Delphic advice to the consuming public.

“For example, if trademarks represent government speech, what does the Government have in mind when it advises Americans to ‘make.believe’ (Sony), ‘Think different’ (Apple), ‘Just do it’ (Nike), or ‘Have it your way’ (Burger King)? Was the Government warning about a coming disaster when it registered the mark ‘EndTime Ministries’?”[6]

Not Even if It’s Commercial Speech

 The Court next considered whether trademark registration is merely “commercial speech,” which is subject to a lesser level of First Amendment protection than non-commercial speech. The Court chose “not to resolve” the debate about whether or not it’s commercial speech “because the disparagement clause cannot withstand even the lower level of review for commercial speech.”[7]

“A simple answer to this argument is that the disparagement clause is not ‘narrowly drawn’ to drive out trademarks that support invidious discrimination. The clause reaches any trademark that disparages any person, group, or institution. It applies to trademarks like the following: ‘Down with racists,’ ‘Down with sexists,’ ‘Down with homophobes.’ It is not an anti-discrimination clause; it is a happy-talk clause. In this way, it goes much further than is necessary to serve the interest asserted.”[8]

In his opinion, Justice Kennedy sums it all up beautifully:

“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society. ”[9]

Rock on, SLANTS. Rock on SCOTUS. Rock on RIGHTS.

 

 

[1] 15 U. S. C. §1052(a)

[2] C.J. Roberts, J. Alito, J. Thomas, J. Breyer, J. Kennedy, J Ginsburg, J. Sotomayor, and J. Kagan. J. Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

[3] The Court also rejected various related arguments about lesser levels of government involvement in speech. Read the full opinion for details.

[4] Slip Opinion at p 13.

[5] Slip Opinion at p 13-14. Emphasis added.

[6] Slip Opinion at pp 14-15. Emphasis added. Citations omitted.

[7] Slip Opinion at p 24.

[8] Slip Opinion at p. 25. Emphasis added.

[9] Opinion of J. Kennedy’s at p 8. Emphasis added.

Prada Place

Do you think I should be allowed to create a housing development with street names based on luxury brands?

  • Maserati Drive
  • Prada Place
  • Armani Avenue
  • Tiffany Circle
  • Rolex Road

Here’s what the law says: “Any person who . . . [uses] any word . . . which is likely to cause confusion . . . as to the affiliation or association of such person with another person “[1] is infringing.

It sounds like I could use those street names because no one buying a lot from me would be confused into thinking that my development is affiliated with those famous luxury brands, but . . .

If you still think this is somehow wrong, you’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t be allowed to get the benefit of the luxurious feeling these brands convey in order to sell dirt in my housing development.

In fact, there’s a separate section of the law that allows the owner of a famous trademark to get an injunction against someone like me who uses their trademark in a way that “is likely to cause dilution[2] . . . of the famous mark, regardless of the presence or absence of actual or likely confusion . . ..”[3]

Famous trademarks have special rights that other trademarks don’t have and this story explains why. Even though everyone knows that Prada isn’t associated with my housing development, people would rather buy (and would probably be willing to pay more for) a lot on Prada Place rather than Peppermint Place. I would be taking unfair advantage of someone else’s valuable asset and that’s not OK.

 

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[1] 15 US Code Section 1125(a)(1)

[2] There are two kinds of “dilution”. “Dilution by blurring” happens pretty much whenever someone uses of a famous brand to promote or sell something without permission from the owner. “Dilution by tarnishment” happens when they use the famous brand to sell something that is kind of crappy. For example, if the housing development were a mobile home park.

[3] 15 US Code Section 1125(c)