Legal Terms in Real Life: Genericide (Or: The Death of Google)

This series explains legal terms in plain language and gives examples from everyday life.

Today’s Legal Word of the Day is “genericide,” from trademark law. Genericide has been in the news recently because of Arizona resident David Elliott’s lawsuit to cancel two of Google’s trademark registrations for the term “GOOGLE” (Reg. Nos. 2,806,075 and 2,884,502). Black’s Law Dictionary (8th Ed.) defines “genericide” as: “The loss or cancellation of a trademark that no longer distinguishes the owner’s product from others’ products.”

Trademarks are words, symbols, or other source indicators (even colors, sounds, or scents) that help a consumer distinguish the products or services of one company from those of another. When a consumer is in the store, he or she can choose to purchase toothpaste labeled Crest, Arm & Hammer, Colgate, or any of a number of other toothpaste brands. The name on the box helps the consumer distinguish one from another. Trademark law is, at its heart, a form of consumer protection, although businesses, not consumers, must spend their time, energy, and money on building up and protecting trademarks as source identifiers.

As you know from our previous Legal Word of the Day, distinctiveness, there is a continuum of trademark strength, from fanciful to generic. Trademarks can move along this continuum. A mark that starts out as descriptive can become distinctive through long use and/or an advertising blitz, so that consumers associate what would be a descriptive name exclusively with a single product. For example, the clothing store The Children’s Place has at least arguably acquired distinctiveness as to its THE CHILDREN’S PLACE trademark.

Conversely, trademarks can move in the opposite direction along this continuum. A mark that starts out as fanciful or arbitrary may become the generic term for a product if consumers begin to believe that the trademark is the name of the product. This is genericide. Examples of marks that have been killed through genericide include ASPIRIN and THERMOS. Examples of marks that have at one time or another become endangered include BAND-AID, VELCRO, and TEFLON.

Whether Mr. Elliott successfully has Google’s GOOGLE trademark canceled will depend on whether he can show that the term has become so ubiquitous as a word meaning “to search” that consumers no longer associate the term with any particular search engine. He has several examples showing that the mark is often used as a verb meaning “to conduct an internet search”; however, he may have to show that consumers use the word to signify searching on any search engine, not only on Google’s search engine. This may prove difficult for him; I was unable to locate serious examples of people referring to “googling on Bing,” though parodies do exist.

Genericide is a fairly ironic death for a trademark; it signals that a company has become so successful at making its mark so well-known that the general public can no longer distinguish the trademark from the product. Genericide is death by success.

How Do I Protect My Idea? Patents Revisited

Protect My Idea

You have a brilliant idea. With all your might, you are making it grow. You nurture it with your time, your energy, your hopes, your sweat, your dollars and your dreams.

This idea? Its time has arrived.

When you have put so much creativity, time and energy into something, you want to know that it is as well-protected as possible. My job as your attorney is to help you with the “how.” Sometimes, you know what kind of protection will work best for your idea. Sometimes, you don’t, or you aren’t sure which of your options is the best. This four-part series is a brief introduction to the various types of intellectual property. This is an updated version of the Patents post.

Patents are perhaps the most often-requested type of intellectual property protection; ironically, they can also be the least practical for many creators. Patents protect only a very limited scope of intellectual property:

Inventions and discoveries that are: 1) novel; 2) non-obvious; and 3) useful.

The only way to obtain patent protection is to apply for federal registration. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) will examine your patent application, and if it is found lacking in any of the three factors listed above, it will not register. Each of the three factors is a term of art. Although you may represent yourself in applying for a patent, an attorney’s guidance is often helpful in determining whether your invention or discovery meets the three-part test. Only a registered patent attorney or patent agent may act on your behalf in applying for a patent. Obtaining patent protection can be expensive, generally in the neighborhood of $10,000 between PTO fees and attorney fees, and after that, you have to make regular payments to the PTO to maintain it. If you have the right kind of invention or discovery, though, it can be worth every penny to get that registration.

Individuals considering patent protection should generally avoid sharing the invention or discovery with anyone, at least without a non-disclosure agreement in place. Publicly disclosing a patentable idea can destroy the chances of obtaining a patent in many foreign jurisdictions; and in the United States, it starts a one-year clock ticking on filing a patent application. After that one year is up, it will no longer be possible to obtain U.S. patent protection. In general, it is a good idea to keep an invention under wraps until you have had an opportunity to consult with an attorney about how best to protect it.

The major benefit of obtaining patent registration is that it grants you a monopoly on “making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the patented item for twenty years, even for personal use and even if the other party independently created it. That is a greater degree of protection, though a much shorter duration, than any other type of intellectual property.

The major drawback of obtaining patent registration is that you must publish your patent, so when your monopoly ends at the 20-year mark, everyone else knows how to make your formerly-patented item. If the patented material is still commercially viable at that point, you will have a lot of competition, though you will have a substantial head-start in the marketplace. If your branding is good, you may be able to continue to dominate for years to come. For further information, check out another kind of intellectual property, trademarks.

Further Reading

Patent section of the PTO website: http://www.uspto.gov/patents/index.jsp

How Do I Get a Copyright?

Intellectual Property - Copyright

I have had several people ask me recently how they can get a copyright in their works. There is good news: contrary to some rumors, you don’t have to do anything to get a copyright! If your work is copyrightable, copyright exists in that work at the moment of creation. But what kinds of works are copyrightable?

Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that if you have created something, it needs to be original to be eligible for copyright protection. Originality in copyright law means that a work has to both be independently created and have a minimum degree of creativity. If it lacks either of these factors, it is not eligible for copyright; courts have held that works like databases are not eligible for copyright protection because they lack the requisite creativity. A work must also be fixed to be eligible for copyright protection. If a particular creative work was not recorded in any way, it is not protected by copyright—legally, it has not yet been created. Merely fixed in memory does not count; the fixation must occur in a tangible medium of expression such that it is possible to reproduce it—this means that 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive do count as fixation, as ephemeral as they may seem at first blush.

So if copyright exists at the moment of creation, what do people mean when they say they “have a copyright” or “want to get a copyright”? In the United States, they are generally referring to copyright registration, the process of entering a creative work into the U.S. Copyright Office’s database of copyrighted works. Registration offers several benefits to copyright holders, including:

  • Establishing a public record of the copyright claim.
  • Allowing copyright holders to file infringement suits in court.
  • Owners of a registration can collect statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in a court action, if the registration is made within three months after publication of a work or prior to an infringement. Otherwise, the owner of the unregistered copyrighted work must prove actual damages in order to collect in court.
  • Registration establishes prima facie evidence (that is, evidence that will be accepted as establishing facts unless the other side can present evidence showing that it is not true) of the validity of the copyright and any facts stated in the registration certificate, if the registration is made within five years of publication.
  • Once a work is registered, the owner of a copyright can record the work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service for protection against importation of infringing copies.

Because of the many benefits of protection, many copyright holders choose to register their copyrighted works. The Copyright Office has different rules and procedures for registration of different types of works, all of which are outlined on the Copyright Office website.

Interested in registering your copyrightable works but unsure how to go about it? The Law Office of Kelcey Patrick-Ferree offers copyright registration training and copyright registration services. Contact me for more detail.

Pinterest Copyright Questions and Concerns

Pinterest for Business

The Social Networking Nanny, Lanae, and I co-wrote a blog post over at Lanae’s blog:
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“The last few months have been a whirlwind here at Pinterest. It’s hard to explain how it feels to go from a small group of people working on a virtually unknown website, to a slightly bigger team of people working on a service that millions of people use every day.” (Pinterest spokesperson to CBS’s WCCO)

Isn’t that statement the truth! In a busy, busy world who doesn’t love a fast and easy way to share ideas, recipes, fashion and more…hello Pinterest! It sparked our interest, 12 million of us have flocked to it, and for many of us it became an immediate addiction. And then the “fine print” was made bold to us. … Nobody likes reading the fine print, but interpreting this was scary. Could we possibly be violating people’s Copyrights? … Read more

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Legal Issues Around Pinterest

Pinterest for Business

Arik Hanson of ACH Communications interviewed me about Pinterest:

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A few weeks ago, I was at an event that focused on, you guessed it, Pinterest. Great, I thought. We’ll hopefully hear about some of legal issues swirling around Pinterest for brands right now. It was just that week before that legal concerns had broke–and one attorney/photog had taken down her Pinterest board as a result. But, unfortunately, we didn’t get to discuss those legal concerns at this event–even though there was an attorney at the event who just so happened to specialize in social media.

So, I thought I’d take this chance to approach said attorney to answer some of the questions I have about Pinterest and brand usage (as I’m sure many others do at this point) and open up the discussion a bit…. Read more

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