Companies don’t want their brands to become verbs. When a product becomes so ubiquitous that its name becomes the generic term for something, as “google” has for searching the internet, it threatens the company’s ability to hold onto its trademark.
Consider the zipper, the trampoline, the elevator, and the hoover. They all used to be brands, but they became so successful that their names fell into common use to describe the things they do, and they lost their respective trademarks as a result. The uncontrollable process in which popular usage converts a proper noun into a generic noun or verb is known, dramatically, as genericide.
Last week, a petition was filed to the US Supreme Court, asserting that the common use of “google” as a verb should put the word into the public domain, and that Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc should lose its trademark on it.
The petition certainly isn’t a surprise to the company. In 2006, after “google” was added as a verb to the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries, a Googler wrote a blog post saying the additions were “simultaneously highly flattering and faintly unsettling.” The post offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestions on how to refer to Google:
Usage: ‘Google’ as verb referring to searching for information via any conduit other than Google.
Example: “I googled him on Yahoo and he seems pretty interesting.”
Our lawyers say: Bad. Very, very bad. You can only “Google” on the Google search engine. If you absolutely must use one of our competitors, please feel free to “search” on Yahoo or any other search engine.
Adobe has long fought the same fight over Photoshop, its popular image-editing software. On the company’s web page describing its trademarks, it too offers some examples, in a more earnest fashion than on the Google blog post:
Trademarks are not verbs.
Correct: The image was enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software.
Incorrect: The image was photoshopped.
Trademarks are not nouns.
Correct: The image pokes fun at the Senator
Incorrect: The photoshop pokes fun at the Senator.
Trademark law in the United States says that a petition to cancel a registered trademark can be filed “by any person who believes that he is or will be damaged” by the trademark, as long as it meets certain criteria, including instances where “the registered mark becomes the generic name for the goods or services, or a portion thereof, for which it is registered, or is functional.”
The first petition to kill Google’s trademark on “google” came in 2012 after the search giant filed a complaint against a man who had registered 763 domain names with the word “google” in them. All of the domains, which included googlehonda.com, googlegayfacebook.com, and googlekellyclarkson.com, redirected to an adult website. The complaint was filed to ICANN, the nonprofit group that regulates domain names, which ruled in Google’s favor and turned the 763 domains over to the company.
The original owner of the domains, Chris Gillespie, then filed a complaint with a federal court in Arizona, claiming “google” is “universally used to describe the act of internet searching.” The court ruled against Gillespie last May, saying Google does more than just search, and “the mere fact that the public sometimes uses a trademark as the name for a unique product does not immediately render the mark generic.”
Gillespie has now filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which will decide whether to hear the case over the next several months.