How trademarks become generic...

A generic trademark (sometimes called a genericised trademark or proprietary eponym) is a brand name that becomes so synonymous with a particular item that it effectively ‘becomes’ that item.

09/10/20

Paul Francis

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Thermos flasks

The best examples of generic trademarking (in the UK) are Hoover and Sellotape. Hoover, in particular, is the most generic term for a vacuum cleaner in the United Kingdom. So much so that, when I worked for a high street electronics retailer, customers would come in and ask for a ‘Dyson Hoover’ or ‘LG Hoover’. 


This can be both a blessing and a curse. It's nice to think that your brand or product is so synonymous with a particular item that people don't refer to it any other way; however, it can mean losing legal trademarking and protection over that name. 


Sellotape’, owned by a company in Winsford, Cheshire, is a generic term for adhesive tape. ‘Trampoline’ is originally a trademark of the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Company. Both companies have lost any legal protection against their brand names being used as generic terms for the items they’re associated with. 


Many companies today will seek any means necessary to stop their trademarks and products becoming generic. The biggest of these is Google. 


Google have actively discouraged various publications from referring to web searches as ‘googling’, to avoid their brand becoming a generic trademark. In fact, both the UK’s Oxford English Dictionary and the US’s Websters Dictionary define google (all lower case) as a verb with the meaning ‘to use the Google search engine to obtain information on the Internet.’


Some companies have fallen foul of their own hubris on certain products. The Otis Elevator Company lost both trademarks for ‘elevator’ and ‘escalator’ because they excessively used the terms in their own advertising campaigns. This saw the public use the term whenever they referred to a ‘vertical cable transport machine’ or ‘motor driven staircase’. When Westing House Electric Corporation made their own escalators, the courts and trademark office concluded that, as Otis had used its own trademarks in a generic way, the terms would be subject to genericisation, which allowed Westing House and anyone so inclined to use the names freely.


Generic terms can be country- and even age-based. My daughter, who’s thirteen, turned to me recently and asked for a ‘band-aid’ to cover a blister. I would have asked for a ‘plaster’, a word derived from the company name Elastoplast, which is the biggest seller of adhesive bandages in the UK. My daughter, however, watches a lot of US television and (with my approval) some American YouTube channels; these use the term ‘band-aid’ to describe adhesive bandages. 


Below are more generic trademarks, some of which may surprise you:


Aspirin

Still trademarked in several countries, but it’s now a generic term for basic pain relief tablets. 


Airfix

Used in the UK to describe plastic scale model kits that are put together by hand. 


Astroturf

Artificial grass, trademarked by Monsanto Company.


Biro

Used commonly in the UK to describe a ballpoint pen. Owned by Societe Bic.


Bubble wrap

Common term for inflated/cushioned packaging-type material. Trademark owned by the Sealed Air company.


Cashpoint

A common way to describe cash machines; this trademark is owned by Lloyds Bank.


ChapStick

Lip balm brand owned by Pfizer.


Comic Con

A shortened term used for comic book conventions, this is actually a trademark owned by San Diego Comic-con international. 


Dictaphone

Used to describe a dictation machine trademarked by Nuance Communications. 


Ditto

This was initially used to describe the Spirit Duplicator, which was manufactured by the Ditto Corporation of Illinois. It was initially a term for ‘copying’.


Filofax

Term used to describe a personal organiser, the trademark was originally owned by the Letts Filofax Group. 


Frisbee

A flying disc toy initially created by Wham-O.


Hoover

Widely used as a noun and verb for a vacuum cleaner. 


Hula Hoop

Another trademark by Wham-O.


Jacuzzi

Referring to a hot tub or whirlpool bath created by the Jacuzzi company.


JCB

Commonly used in the UK to refer to an excavator with both a front loader and backhoe. Owned by J. C. Bamford.


Lava lamp

Refers to a liquid motion lamp made by Mathmos. 


Mace

Term used for pepper spray.


Memory stick

Owned by the Sony corporation, it’s typically used to refer to all USB flash drives.


Nintendo

Used mainly in the 1980s and early 90s to refer to a Video Games Console. ‘He’s been playing Nintendo,’ was a common phrase. 


Onesies

Used to describe an adult bodysuit and was initially trademarked by the Gerber Products company.


Photoshop

Photoshop is a software program owned by Adobe, though it’s often used a term for any software that edits photos.


Ping Pong

Trademarked by Jaques and Son and later passed to Parker Bros, who still try to enforce the trademark in the US.


Plasticine

Modelling clay that has a putty-like substance to it. Often used for clay animation. 


Powerpoint

Slide show presentation software owned by the Microsoft corporation. Used commonly to refer to all presentations. 


Pritt Stick

Owned by Henkel, it’s common in the UK to be as a generic term for any glue stick.


Rollerblade

A specific type of inline skate made by Nordica. 


Scalextric

Generic term, mainly in the UK, to describe slot car races. Owned by the Hornby Railway company.


Stanley Knife

A utility knife popularised by Stanley Works in the UK.


Styrofoam

The common term for polystyrene foam. Incorrectly used in the US for disposable cups plates and coolers, which are actually made from a different type of polystyrene. 


Super Glue

A name for the Cyanoacrylate adhesive made by the Super Glue Corporation, the term is interchangeable for all brands of glue.


Tannoy

Commonly used in the UK for any Public Address (or PA) system. Tannoy was a British manufacturer of loudspeakers and PA systems.


Tarmac

Used to describe asphalt road surfaces. Surprisingly, the trademark is owned by the Tarmac company.


Thermos

A vacuum-insulated flask initially trademarked by Thermos GmbH.


Tipp-Ex

Common in the UK to refer to any brand of white correction fluid. Owned by Tipp-Ex GmbH & Co.


Tupperware

Trademarked by Earl Tupper after they made plastic storage containers popular in the 1940s. 


Uber

A relatively new term for any online taxi service. 


Vaseline

Often used by consumers as a generic term for petroleum jelly. Owned by Unilever.


Velcro

Still trademarked by Velcro Companies, this has become a verb for a hook-and-loop fastening.


Walkman

Sony Corporation lost the use of this trademark in Austria in 2002, as it was deemed to have passed into common use. Used to describe a personal stereo player (usually, the cassette variant). 


Zeppelin

This is a common term used to describe a rigid airship that was initially developed by German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. The company is still in operation today with over 7000 employees. 


Zimmer Frame

Many walking frames are referred to as Zimmer Frames, the trademark for which is owned by Zimmer Holdings. 


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