THE ANNALS OF TRADEMARK NUMBER 3 « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Selecting a Trademark Part 2 Distinctiveness

In our last trademark blog, we described steps for a prudent business owner to take in choosing a mark that will avoid conflict with existing marks. The second critical consideration is choosing a mark sufficiently “distinctive” from your product or service to permit its registration or protection.

An understandable tendency is to prefer a mark that will describe the nature or quality of that product or service. However, the closer a mark is to an actual description, i.e., the more indistinguishable it is from the product or service, the less likely it is to be accepted for registration or recognized as legally enforceable. While perhaps counterintuitive, a stronger, legally viable mark is one not ordinarily associated with the product or service you are going to provide, i.e., clearly distinct from that item.

Practitioners, as well as federal and state regulatory agencies, scale the degree of “distinctiveness” by categories:

Arbitrary and Fanciful Marks

The best marks are arbitrary or fanciful.

An “arbitrary” mark is a real word used to describe something that is normally unrelated to that word. A prominent example is the use of a fruit – Apple – to identify a company that makes computers and other electronics. Almost certainly, that company would not have been able to register its name as a sufficiently distinct trademark if its founders had called it “Computers, Inc.”

A “fanciful” mark is a made-up word or expression that does not have any actual previous meaning. They can also easily be registered and protected most of the time. EXXON and XEROX are famous examples, created words that have become widely associated with the products they brand. The danger is a unique mark that becomes so tightly associated as to become synonymous with the product. When XEROX used to describe only photocopiers, it came perilously close to being declared generic and thus unprotected (see below) because the public widely regarded the term for any brand of photocopier or even for just the act of making a photocopy. Xerox Corporation has had to take strong measures to prevent this, promoting the term for a host of other products as well.

Suggestive Marks

Suggestive marks reside lower down the scale. These are words or expressions that, when you hear or see them, suggest, in an indirect way, some quality or attribute of the product or service in question. Q-tips (for cotton swabs) and Greyhound (for bus transportation) are suggestive.

Descriptive Marks

A term that too directly portrays a quality of what you are attempting to identify becomes “descriptive” and thus further down the strong-to-weak scale. For example, “Chewy” would be descriptive of caramel candies. Federal or state trademark agencies would be unlikely to accept it for registration as a mark for use in branding caramel candies unless the applicant could show it was already using that name for some time and a significant portion of the public currently identified “Chewy” as a distinct brand of such candies.

Generic Marks

Generic terms are the lowest on the scale, carrying virtually no distinction from the products or services they identify. No applicant could likely register “CAR” as a trademark for an automobile manufacturer.

Thus, while a first instinct might well be choosing a mark that will swiftly identify or characterize a product or service, the law more readily recognizes and better protects marks with no or little logical connection to the item in question.

Our Of Counsel attorney, Helena Kobrin can help in the often high stakes process of choosing or defending a protectable mark.