New Jersey residents may not be aware that the names of many common household items were once fiercely protected intellectual property. Thermos, cellophane and aspirin are all used generically today to refer to a broad range of goods, but they were once trademarks associated with specific products. Legislators addressed the issue of genericized trademarks with the passage of the Langham Act in 1946, but the law does not make clear how trademarks should be treated when they become commonly used as verbs rather than nouns.
This legal question was put before the courts in 2012 when an entrepreneur sued Google after the Mountain View company attempted to prevent him from registering hundreds of domain names. The domains all used the word “google” as a verb, and the businessman claimed that the term should no longer be protected intellectual property because it was commonly used by internet users to refer to searching for information online. However, a district court judge disagreed, and his decision was upheld on May 16 by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th District.
The panel of federal appeals judges agreed with the district court determination that the word “google” is used to describe a specific internet service even when it is being used as a verb. Essentially, all of the judges to hear the case have ruled that people may use google as a verb, but they only google on Google. Attorneys representing the businessman are said to be considering appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.
Genericized trademarks usually indicate that companies have made very good products and marketed them effectively, but they can also damage brand identities and diminish corporate reputations. Attorneys with trademark law experience may help their clients to avoid this pitfall by encouraging them to make sure that extremely popular products are marketed in ways that strongly associate them with their manufacturers.