L.A. TECH & MEDIA LAW FIRM – Intellectual Property & Technology Law

The Art of Trademark Distinctiveness: How to Avoid Generic Trademarks

Los Angeles Arbitrary Trademarks - Santa monica startup attorney

In the competitive landscape of business branding, the creation of a distinctive trademark is paramount. A trademark serves as the identity of a brand, distinguishing it from the competition. However, not all trademarks are created equal. The journey from a generic term to a distinctive trademark is fraught with legal nuances and strategic decisions. This blog explores the spectrum of trademark distinctiveness, offering insights into how entrepreneurs can avoid generic trademarks and secure a strong, protectable brand identity.

Understanding Trademark Distinctiveness: Trademark distinctiveness is the legal standard used to evaluate the ability of a mark to stand out among the goods or services it represents. This distinctiveness is categorized along a spectrum, ranging from highly distinctive to generic. The categories, in descending order of strength, are fanciful, arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive, and generic.

Fanciful Marks: The Pinnacle of Protection Fanciful marks are coined terms with no inherent meaning outside of their role as a trademark. These marks are the gold standard in trademark law, offering the highest level of protection due to their inherent uniqueness. Examples include “EXXON,” “KODAK,” and “XEROX.” For startups, creating a fanciful mark can be a powerful way to ensure a unique brand presence.

Arbitrary Marks: Common Words, Uncommon Context Arbitrary marks consist of common words applied in an unrelated context, such as “APPLE” for computers. These marks are strong because they do not directly describe the goods or services they represent, allowing them to stand out in the marketplace.

Suggestive Marks: The Power of Imagination Suggestive marks require a leap of imagination to connect the mark with the goods or services, such as “NETSCAPE” for internet browsing software. While not as inherently distinctive as fanciful or arbitrary marks, suggestive marks still offer significant protection due to their indirect reference to the product.

Los Angeles Arbitrary Trademarks - Santa monica startup attorneyDescriptive Marks: The Challenge of Secondary Meaning Descriptive marks directly describe a characteristic or quality of the product, such as “LIGHT” for portable computers. These marks are not inherently protectable unless they acquire a secondary meaning in the minds of consumers. Achieving secondary meaning requires extensive use and marketing to associate the descriptive term uniquely with the brand.

Generic “Marks”: The Point of No Return Generic terms directly name the product and cannot function as trademarks. Examples include “beer” for beer and “coffee” for coffee. A mark that becomes generic, a process known as “genericide,” loses its trademark protection entirely. Famous cases of genericide include “ASPIRIN” and “CELLOPHANE.”

Avoiding Generic Trademarks: Strategies for Success To avoid the pitfalls of generic trademarks, entrepreneurs should aim for marks that fall within the fanciful, arbitrary, or suggestive categories. Here are key strategies:

  1. Invent New Words: Creating a new, fanciful term can ensure the highest level of distinctiveness and trademark protection.
  2. Repurpose Existing Words: Selecting an arbitrary mark involves using a common word in an unrelated context, creating a strong and protectable brand identity.
  3. Employ Suggestive Terms Wisely: Choose suggestive marks that require imagination to connect with the product, balancing distinctiveness with marketing appeal.
  4. Educate the Public: To prevent a descriptive or suggestive mark from becoming generic, educate consumers on the proper use of the trademark, emphasizing its status as a brand name rather than a generic term.
  5. Consult a Trademark Professional: Engaging with a trademark attorney can provide invaluable guidance in selecting a mark that is both distinctive and legally protectable.

The creation of a distinctive trademark is a critical step in establishing a strong brand identity. By understanding the spectrum of trademark distinctiveness and employing strategic measures to avoid generic trademarks, entrepreneurs can protect their brand and ensure its longevity in the marketplace. Remember, the strength of a trademark lies not just in its creativity but in its legal protectability and ability to distinguish your goods and services from those of others. For entrepreneurs and technology startups that are in the process of brand name selection and adoption, consultation with an experienced trademark attorney is strongly recommended.

Picture of David N. Sharifi, Esq.
David N. Sharifi, Esq.

David N. Sharifi, Esq. is a Los Angeles based intellectual property attorney and technology startup consultant with focuses in entertainment law, emerging technologies, trademark protection, and “the internet of things”. David was recognized as one of the Top 30 Most Influential Attorneys in Digital Media and E-Commerce Law by the Los Angeles Business Journal.
Office: Ph: 310-751-0181; david@latml.com.

Disclaimer: The content above is a discussion of legal issues and general information; it does not constitute legal advice and should not be used as such without seeking professional legal counsel. Reading the content above does not create an attorney-client relationship. All trademarks are the property of L.A. Tech & Media Law Firm or their respective owners. Copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

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