Google Faces Risk of Trademark Genericide
What term do you use when you ask someone to, ‘search the Internet,’? Did you say Google? Well, that’s exactly what a petition to the Supreme Court states in a case of trademarks. But then, does it make it OK for someone to use Google as part of their domain name, blog or personal property? Is the term Google too generic and therefore cannot be trademarked? That’s a case the US Supreme Court will have to ponder over.
What Does Google Stand For?
Originally, it stands for nothing. It was derived from the word, ‘Googol,’ which stands for a number invented by Milon Sirotta but a mistake in alphabets led the guys at Googol stick with Google. Today, Google along with being the name of a company, literally means to, ‘search for information on the internet.’
What’s the Case About?
Back in 2012, a guy named Chris Gillespie registered 763 domain names that combined the word, ‘google,’ with other words and phrases such as, ‘googledonaldtrump.com.’ Google filed a complaint against the man under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy and cited the situation as trademark infringement. The arbitration channel sided with Google and asked for a forfeiture of the domains. That should have been the end of the matter, but Gillespie counter-sued Google, trying to invalidate the trademark. The case went on for quite some time, and the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Google’s favor citing that it could keep the trademark even if the term is a generic word used to describe an action. The reason is that Google is an actual company and isn’t just a search engine.
The San-Francisco based court states, “Even if we assume that the public uses the verb ‘google’ in a generic and indiscriminate sense, this tells us nothing about how the public primarily understands the word itself, irrespective of its grammatical function, with regard to Internet search engines.”
This explanation didn’t suffice for Gillespie who apparently has now appealed to the US high court and filed the said petition for the Supreme Court to review. If the Supreme Court decides against the judgment of the other courts, Google may risk having the public use its name freely.
Is this a Case of Genericide?
Genericide is when a company name loses its originality and becomes a generic word used by the public as a household term to identify an action relevant to the term. Like, ‘taking an aspirin,’ would mean taking a pain-killer but Aspirin was an actual product name. Similarly, words like videotape, sellotape, escalator, etc. were once original trademarks of companies. Google faces the same problem today as people use the term, ‘google,’ as a verb indicating searching the internet for information. This means Google has become a generic word hence it is assumed to be at risk for a genericide. If the Supreme Court does consider this as a genericide, Google would be forced to give up their trademark, similar to the German pharmaceutical firm Bayer which was forced to give up its rights to the Aspirin trademark.
This would be the most consequential trademark case, but it would take months before the case could be resolved.