Grow or Go to Zero

What business doesn’t want its assets to grow over time?

The choice you make at the start can have a huge impact on whether the value of your trademark will grow or wither.

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If you start with a wonderful trademark like Nest®, Staples®, Google® or Moo®, the sky is the limit for trademark value. Whether the mark actually attains that value depends on lots of things, but at least there’s nothing about the trademark itself that will hold you back.

If you start with a trademark that:

  • Consists of words that everyone and her brother are using, like Office Depot® or United®; or
  • Merely describes what you sell, like Radio Shack® or Century Theatres®; or
  • Is already owned by someone else;

then you’re starting with two strikes against you. Your trademark will be at best neutral and at worst a liability.

Coming up with a clever trademark is hard. Coming up with a trademark that is clever and that no one else is using is even harder but, isn’t it worth it so you don’t have to worry about its holding you back? Isn’t it worth the effort and the cost to get this one thing right at the beginning?

 

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What’s in a Corporate Name?

In October 2015, the company that owns GOOGLE® changed its name from Google Inc. to Alphabet Inc. Recently, Coach, Inc. announced it was changing its corporate name to Tapestry, Inc. I overheard some people chatting and it was clear they thought Coach was changing the brand instead of just the name of the corporation.

The name of a corporation is NOT a trademark.

I have bought and will continue to buy COACH® brand handbags. As a consumer, I neither know nor care what the name of the corporation is. I look for the brand because it means stylish, high quality, and functional.

I use GOOGLE® brand internet search services. I don’t care what the name of the corporation is. I use GOOGLE® brand search services for extraordinary search algorithms, an uncluttered user interface, and solid results.

It’s possible for a corporate name to include a trademark. NIKE® happens to be owned by Nike, Inc. That doesn’t make “Nike, Inc.” a trademark. If Nike, Inc. changed its name to Wangadoodle Inc. it wouldn’t affect the trademark NIKE®.

Trademarks are shorthand for how you like your stuff.

Think of it this way. A mom sends her kid to the store. “Max,” she says, “Run down to HOME DEPOT® and pick me up a BLACK + DECKER® drill.” She doesn’t have to describe the quality she wants or rely on little Max to be able to know a good drill from a bad one.

The mark is all she needs.

 

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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.