When a trademark becomes so popular that it enters mainstream speech, the business that owns the mark can find themselves losing their IP rights entirely. This is known as a generic trademark, or “genericide”, and poses a genuine risk for highly successful brands.
In this article, we’ll provide a definition for genericide, look at why genericide can occur, provide some real-world case examples, and give advice for brands on how to avoid it happening to them.
What Is Genericide?
Generic trademark, often informally referred to as “genericide” is a phenomenon where a business's trademark becomes so commonly used that it transforms into a generic term for a particular product or service. This can result in the loss of IP rights for the business if they fail to protect and enforce the distinctiveness of their mark.
Genericide exists due to the very purpose of trademark law. Marks exist to identify a particular business as the owner or producer of a product or service, which allows customers to make informed decisions for their purchases.
When a trademarked name is used as a catch-all word not just for a particular business’s product or service, but for all similar products, it no longer informs customers about its origin.
Companies That Lost Trademarks to Genericide
There are many cases of businesses whose products became so popular in mainstream culture that they were forced to fight against their mark becoming generic.
While some were proactive and savvy enough to save their IP rights, at least in certain countries, plenty others have lost their mark permanently.
- Dry Ice
Many former trademarks have become embedded into common speech so deeply that most people aren’t aware that they were even protected brand names to begin with.
Each of these was once the branded name of a highly successful product. In some cases, the business does still own the trademark in certain countries, but has lost their IP rights in other key regions. Bayer still owns the trademark to Aspirin in many countries, but has lost their vital IP protection for the name in the United States.
How to Avoid Losing Your Trademark to Genericide
The risk of a trademark-protected brand name falling victim to genericide is a result of its common usage among the public. Once the word fully enters a ubiquitous public vernacular, it’s game over.
There are a number of strategies that brands can use to avoid this outcome, but the ones which have proven successful time and again are establishing clear messaging guidelines, conducting customer education, and ensuring proper trademark registration in key regions.
Creating Guidelines for Talking about Your Trademarks
As a brand, you need to be unfalteringly clear and consistent with how you use your own trademark. This particularly includes your messaging to the public in your marketing activities, press releases, and public relations.
Casually using your brand name as a verb or a noun, especially if it’s not used with a capitalized first letter, will give the green light to users and journalists to follow your lead. So take time to create a robust internal policy of how your trademark can be used, and stick to it diligently at all times.
It’s also very beneficial to use the registered trademark symbol, “®”. This symbol is totally optional, and its use doesn’t directly affect the status of your trademark. However, it can be a very useful tool to stave off genericide. It means whenever your trademarked name is being used, anyone seeing it is reminded that it’s a current trademark.
Educate the Public
Providing clear guidelines on proper usage of your branded name in everyday speech is essential in avoiding trademark genericide.
Companies have approached consumer education in a number of different ways:
- Advertising campaigns
- Written online content
These campaigns are all aimed at clarifying how to refer to their business, products and services, and everything that bears the business’s trademarks.
Registering Trademarks Internationally
It should go without saying that registering your trademark will help your business retain rights to IP. For avoiding genericide, it's especially important to register your trademark internationally.
Many businesses, in particular younger ones, will have a strategy of registering their intellectual property solely within their own country. However, the world is far too interconnected now to rely only on domestic registration. The way people speak about your business and use your branded names can have an impact on your IP, even if those people are not in your home country. So, if using your branded name as a commonplace word catches on in another country, it can quickly spread everywhere as common speech.
Real-world Examples of Genericide-prevention Campaigns
Let’s look into some well-known examples of businesses that have faced the threat of genericide and acted prudently to avoid losing the mark entirely, namely Xerox and Google.
Xerox is one of the most famous examples of a business that risked losing their trademarks to genericide. The company introduced the first plain paper photocopier in the early 1960s, after the machine’s invention by Xerox co-founder in 1938. The business found incredible success with their photocopiers starting in the 60s, which continues to this day.
The term "Xerox" quickly gained popularity and became synonymous with photocopying, leading people to use "xerox" as a verb for making copies on any photocopier.
e.g. “Could you please xerox this document for me?”
In response, Xerox launched educational campaigns, urging people to use "copy" or "photocopy" instead of "Xerox" when referring to the action of making copies. As a result of these long-term educational campaigns, Xerox has been able to hold onto Xerox as a protected trademark.
Google faced similar challenges in the early 2000s, when they stood out as the world’s premier search engine, beating out Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and other competitors. The ironic consequence of this success was people using “Google” as a verb in place of “perform a search online”. The latter phrase is significantly less catchy than simply referring to “Googling” something, and so the risk of the Google mark becoming generic set in.
To combat this trend, Google clarified the issue in a 2006 blog post, ‘Do you “Google”’, as seen below. The post educated their users on the risk of the trademark slipping into common usage, encouraging them to simply use the word “search”.
Google’s timely and clear communication to users has helped to prevent their trademark from slipping into a generic status. They now have a brand name that is not only well-protected, but most of the most valuable in the world.
Takeaways for Brands
Genericide poses an existential threat to a business’s intellectual property rights. It truly can’t be ignored as a genuine risk, and early warning signs need to be taken seriously.
Listening to your customers consistently should already be part of your business operations. So, taking note of how they refer to your marks should be part of this listening.
Any casual use of your trademarked name as a verb or a catch-all noun should raise red flags. If it starts happening regularly, then it’s time to assemble a strategy to clarify how your name is being used.
There are a range of services to track how your trademarked name is being used online. Social listening tools range from Google Alerts at the simplest to services like BuzzSumo for something a bit more robust.
At the far end of the spectrum lies MARQ Commerce, which uses AI to scan social media channels, online marketplaces, and even rogue sites for improper use of protected trademarks, and enforces brands’ rights against infringements.
For more information about how we can keep your brand under control don't hesitate to reach out for a demo of MARQ Commerce.