May 16, 2007

Syntactic protection against generification

Victor Steinbok wrote to me recently about this not-very-serious post of mine to say I should take a more serious look at INTA's policies. Victor knows something about this topic, and he says that INTA

could not care less if someone uses a trademarked term as a verb or or a noun or any other part of speech. From their perspective, when a company routinely uses a trademark as a verb in their own advertising or correspondence, they open themselves up to the cancellation of the mark for becoming generic (and they even have a verb for that--how does "generification" strike you?). The goal of every trademark holder is to make his trademark ubiquitous but to prevent it from becoming generic.

So he's saying that INTA's unfollowable advice is not aimed at us; far from offering minatory prescriptions concerning our usage while corporations merrily flout the rules, he's saying it is merely legal advice, and the corporations are its only target. When they ignore the advice (as they do in the Zappos ads where they turn Zappos into a verb, apparently meaning "shop on the Internet for shoes or apparel"), they do so at their own peril. He continues:

So, irrespectively of what linguists think about the advice, it does hold legal water. Xerox nearly lost its trademark because of the common use of "xerox" to mean "photocopy" (or, as you might recall, "make a xerographic copy"). Google is actually at the same risk now, although the verb "to google" generally still means "to search using the Google search engine" and not a generic search on the web. When Google is overtaken as the dominant search engine and if the verb is still in use, they may well lose the trademark, adding to their misery. DuPont barely rescued Teflon from the generic heap by starting to send out letters to newspapers and others who used Teflon in the generic sense of "non-stick coating". Note that Teflon is still a trademark even though the patent is long expired and duPont no longer has a monopoly.

Sanka is already a generic term in nearly every common language but English (decaf instant coffee--sometimes even just any instant coffee).

How does a trademark become generic? The strongest evidence comes from the holder's own use of the term in the generic sense in their own correspondence. If they put it in advertising, it becomes even worse. It has nothing to do with what part of speech it actually becomes in the process--it's just that it is much easier to see a verb use of a trademark as generic than either an adjective or a noun.

In your 2004 post, you correctly noted the pervasiveness of noun use--just the opposite of the INTA recommendation. That's because in advertising, trademarks-as-nouns signify the point I tried to make earlier--they are becoming ubiquitous. "I'd rather have a Heineken" sounds very different from "I'd rather have a Heineken beer." But other than literally quoting advertising slogans, the mark holder should refrain from using the mark in the same manner in internal correspondence. That's all.

Some of the rules covered in the trademarks course I just completed last month are just bizarre and counterintuitive, but this one actually makes sense--to a trademark lawyer.

So the way Victor sees it, we are actually dealing with recommendations against company-internal uses of syntactic constructions whose widespread use outside the company might result in generification — not rules of grammar for the rest of us. And all bets are off in advertising slogans: I could have had a V8 is OK because it's in an official slogan for V8 fresh wholesome vegetable juice drinks.

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Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 16, 2007 05:17 PM