My buddy Stephen Nipper wrote this very useful piece about trademarks for Think Vitamin.
“Trademark Tips for Your Web App”
Choosing a good name for your web app is one of the most important things to get right. But without an understanding of the way that trademark regulations work, you could fall at the first hurdle. Brush up on the basics with this expert guide.
Trademarks and names
Whether it’s Whistler or Longhorn, product codenames eventually get replaced with a formal product name. Determining what final name to use is a delicate balance of marketing (including domain name availability) and trademark rights. Just because a name would be a strong trademark doesn’t mean it is appealing from a marketing perspective, and vice versa.
A general understanding of how trademark strength is determined should aid in helping you choose a name for your web app, service or product, which will maximize its trademark potential.
What is a trademark? In legal terminology, a trademark is an “indicator of source.” While legal definitions have never been accused of being easily understandable, what “indicator of source” really means is that the trademark is a virtual arrow that points to a single business (or other entity). For instance, when you see the word FLICKR, you automatically think of a web app, now owned by Yahoo!
If a trademark “points’ to a single source of goods, then it is “distinctive.” Distinctive trademarks are protectable, those that lack distinctiveness are not protectable. Thus, not all names are created equal.
Traditionally, trademarks can be classified into five different categories: generic (generically descriptive) trademarks, merely descriptive trademarks, suggestive trademarks, arbitrary trademarks and coined trademarks.
Generic trademarks are trademarks consisting of the generic name of the goods or services (hereafter just “goods”).
Example: Company X releases a new web-based spreadsheet application under the trademark SPREADSHEET.
In such a case, it is impossible for the trademark SPREADSHEET to indicate source because a consumer will always view the word ”spreadsheet’ as generically describing the goods (a spreadsheet) rather than serving as a trademark (pointing to a single source of goods). Generic trademarks are never protectable and should be avoided like the plague.
b. Merely descriptive
Merely descriptive trademarks aren’t the generic name of the goods, but instead they describe them.
Example: Company X releases a new web-based spreadsheet application under the trademark of FAST.
While FAST isn’t the generic name for a spreadsheet, it does (presumably) describe Company X’s spreadsheet. A consumer seeing the word FAST on a spreadsheet would not view the usage as a trademark (pointing to a single source of goods) but would instead view it as merely being a description of the goods themselves (that they are fast). Thus, Company X’s FAST trademark fails to function as a trademark (it doesn’t distinguish over the goods of its competitors) and is therefore not protectable.
Of course, if a trademark owner’s use of a merely descriptive trademark over an extended period of time results in consumers actually viewing the term as an indicator of source and not as being merely descriptive of the goods, then at that point the trademark has “acquired distinctiveness’ (secondary meaning) and is protectable. Acquired distinctiveness can be difficult to prove and as such it is typically best to avoid adopting merely descriptive trademarks.
A suggestive trademark does not merely describe (or generically describe) the goods, but instead suggests a feature or quality of them.
Example: Company X releases a new web-based spreadsheet application called CONFIDENCE.
While the term “confidence” may suggest that you can trust the spreadsheet, it does not merely or generically describe the spreadsheet. Suggestive trademarks are by definition distinctive and are protectable.
So, where is the dividing line between “distinctiveness” and “suggestivity?” Judging whether a term is properly classified as descriptive or suggestive depends on several factors. Generally speaking, suggestive trademarks are those which need imagination, thought or perception to decide what the goods actually are. Descriptive marks, on the other hand, immediately describe something about the goods with which the mark is associated. So, if the words in the mark describe the goods connected with the mark, then the mark is descriptive. If, however, a consumer must make a leap of imagination to understand why the trademark was selected, then the mark is suggestive. All clear?
An arbitrary trademark is one whose use is arbitrary…having no connection with the goods.
Example: Company X releases a new web-based spreadsheet application called ICECUBE.
The word icecube has no relationship to spreadsheet applications. Its use is completely arbitrary. Arbitrary trademarks are, by definition, distinctive and protectable.
A coined trademark is a trademark that was coined or made up.
Example: Company X releases a new web-based spreadsheet application called XYROTHAN.
The word xyrothan has no meaning in English or any other known language. Coined trademarks are likewise, by definition, distinctive and protectable.
Generic trademarks should never be used. Merely descriptive trademarks should be avoided because to be protectable you have to prove that the public has come to recognize the trademark as an indicator of source and not as merely being a description of the goods. Suggestive, arbitrary and coined terms are therefore desirable from a strength standpoint.
This is a hard lesson for many entrepreneurs to learn. Most want to use a product name that enables aperson viewing the trademark to immediately know what the product is. The problem is that because a merely descriptive trademark uses descriptive terms, every knock-off application that surfaces will likely use one or more of the same descriptive terms in naming their product. When that happens, consumers are easily confused into which product to download/use. Thus, it is imperative that you pick stronger trademarks to use with your goods.
Provided that your trademark is not generic or merely descriptive (unless secondary meaning exists), it may be worth your while exploring the benefits of trademark registration.
Note: trademark rights vary from country to country. The following briefly explains the benefits of Federal (US) registration for trademarks used in the United States. If you reside in another country, you’ll want to discuss these matters with local counsel.
A trademark user acquires rights in a trademark by using the trademark in commerce, not by registering it. The value of Federal (US) Registration is that it provides a registrant with broad nationwide coverage for the trademark upon the cited goods. Prior users, if any, typically can only cut snippets from this broad blanket of coverage. Federal Registration also puts others on notice as to the registrant’s use, thereby preventing future conflicts by warning off potential users of the same or similar trademarks. An additional benefit is the possibility that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) would prevent later filed trademark applications from registering that are likely to cause confusion with your trademark.
Because US Federal and state trademarks can be infringed, and common law/state unfair competition actions also come into play, a proper trademark search of Federal (US), state (all fifty states if the trademark will be used in interstate commerce), common law, and international trademarks should be made before settling upon a product name. Such a search should be performed regardless of whether or not a trademark application will be filed.
If a potential issue exists with respect to your proposed trademark being likely to cause confusion with a third party’s trademark, knowing that fact before expending thousands/hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising and branding will oftentimes prevent a tremendous amount of grief.
While an intellectual property attorney’s services are typically needed to perform thorough trademark searches and the interpretation of the results, a cursory search of the Internet for related products, as well as searches of the USPTO trademark databases: www.uspto.gov can be made as you narrow your list of product names to have your intellectual property attorney review.
Consideration of these points should help increase the protectability and ultimate strength of the trademarks you use.
The Cranky Product Manager adores Guy Kawasaki and pin-ups of him cover her office wall. To this post, she says “Amen, brothah” but adds one meager suggestion: That you should also avoid TRENDY naming tactics because, well, when the trend passes then the name seems out of step, perhaps antique or corny.
Examples of naming trends that have thankfully nearly left us: dot-com suffixes, exclamation points, “My…” prefixes, and “e-” or “i-” prefixes (a la eWeek, ILOG, …).
Great! This naming thing is the driving me nuts at the moment. I am working on a web app idea involving advertising jobs. It’s my opinion that the name is probably the least important aspect of the whole thing, BUT it is still important and I can’t come up with anything that me and my partners love yet. Thanks for the ideas!
Great article. I was getting into a trademark discussion last week at this site:
and now I have posted some questions to Stephen Nipper and hoping he can help me clarify them.
4realz is mine! A coined trademark! (now where does WordPress hide the TM symbol?)
Thanks a lot! Of course trademark rights are different in the Counter-country, but your post gave me much understanding on how to choose the proper one, no matter what specific regulations I must obbey.
Guy, from personal experience, I have to add something here. Just because you did a good search and found valid examples of trademarks that should enable you to corner a particular type of phrase, the trademark office is stupidly inconsistent.
I have a file open there right now, and had them reject (or demand to change/agree to release exclusive claim to) a set of words that NO ONE else is using in their marks AND the USPTO has issued similar TYPES of phrase for others.
e.g. I wanted “Secretary On Demand”, for my NETretary.com service, they refused, but ONLY cited magazine articles citing words like “outsourced help when needed”, “help available on demand” etc.
Despite my insistence, the examiner who called me was unable to give an answer for why they had no problem issuing “FUEL ON DEMAND” as a trademark (and many other such examples)! Isn’t EVERY gas station in the world providing fuel on demand? She could not answer that. Doh.
Inconsistency, thy name is USPTO.
Great article, I am in the the trademark process now.
Guy, how does having a trademarked name help me in getting the url? Example: If you trademark TEST does this increase my ability of obtaining the url TEST.com ?
This whole URL scarcity thing is just ridiculous. How have we let this happen, allowing aggregators to corner, and create a market for something that should not be a scarce commodity? I can’t even tell who actually governs this, but even if it where the USPTO, it would be better than what we have now.
Why not dot whatever? .inc, .llc, .co, .etc
And, just as in trademark law, used in trade trumps ownership without use in trade. I’ll never pay an aggregator for a domain name.
This is a great and succinct article about trade names but, I am sooo tired of hearing “it better be available as a url.” Stupid.
I think that the name itself is the least important factor of the whole enterprise equation. It is what the name stands for that matters, such as Amazon, del.icio.us, Razr, Gillette, Humphrey Bogart … I would never hire a name firm to create a name nor would I fork out money to buy an existing domain. I am also not sure of the benefits a trademark.
What if I had invented the Flickr name and registered the Flickr.com domain. What would registering the trademark get me? I don’t think anyone can take the domain off me (as I was the guy who registered it first) or stop me using the name, even if they registered it as a trademark (as I had invented it first). Am I right or am I completely wrong?
This blog post by Guy Kawasaki is geared towards trademarks for web applications because technology is his realm but the advice is good for any other type of product / service trademark. Advice applies to general marketing as well as…
The whole trademark (Add-on, addition to a product) idea is like washing your car. Just like your car looks better washed, so does your logo or whatever name you have looks with a ™ or a (r) next to it. Just like the wheels on a car that shine tend speak to lookers, so does the mark of trade. Before the Internet it seemed like trademarks where one word only for the most part. Then the Internet broke the laws of the English lanuage and permitted multiple words to be butted up to each other. This allowed a person to imagine something as simple as F1 Key and trademark it. F1Key.com and F1-Key.com is the hottest mark in the world as we all use it, unless we’re mouse users and then we access the help system by point and click. Trademarks are like a clean car and some people notice them.
Guy, guys and gals, here’s something I wrote to follow up to this topic and my earlier comment.