language corner

On Your Mark

Trademarks that no one treats as such
June 14, 2010

When you have a cold, you use a lot of kleenex. When you cut yourself, you put on a band-aid. You tweet your latest story, about the cops who tasered the guy who was rollerblading down the sidewalk, xerox the clip and fedex it to your mom. Then you google yourself to see how many hits you get.

How many trademark infringements were committed in the previous paragraph? Enough to keep a few lawyers busy.

Many reporters have received at least one letter warning about trademark infringement. Among the most active (vigilant?) complainers are Wham-O (“Frisbee” is a brand of “plastic flying disc”) and Xerox. And what reporter hasn’t had a complaint from a realtor remonstrating that not every real estate salesperson is a Realtor?

Who cares? The trademark holders do. (Sometimes they care too much, as Chevrolet’s misfire against the use of Chevy proves.) Here’s Google’s take: “If trademarks are not used properly, they may be lost and one of the company’s most important assets may lose all of its value. Rights may be lost not only because of a trademark owner’s improper use of the mark, but through improper use of the trademark by the public.” (“The public” includes journalists.)

“Aspirin” used to be a trademark, and still is in many countries. Ditto “heroin.” CompuServe claimed “Email” as a trademark in 1983, but abandoned it in 1984.

“Taser” is still a trademark. Its Web site says: “The TASER trademark pays homage to Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, a childhood inspiration of John H. “Jack” Cover, inventor of early ECDs.” An “ECD” is an “electronic control device,” which is the generic name the company wants you to use. (You don’t have to, any more than you have to all-cap TASER or need to respect Research in Motion’s request to call more than one of their products “BlackBerry devices.”) “Jetway” is a trademark, too; you can call them “jet bridges,” and hope no one thinks you’ve misspoken an actor’s name.

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Sometimes not using a trademark is easy: You blow your nose with a “tissue,” patch your boo-boo with a “bandage,” make a “copy,” and “overnight” it. But avoiding a trademark can also tie you up in knots. (See “ECD,” above.) If you’re not sure they’re Rollerblades, you have to call them “inline skates” or “in-line roller skates.” A Jet Ski that’s not a Kawasaki is a “personal watercraft,” a jargony term if ever there was one. (Sorry: “WaveRunner” is Yamaha’s trademark.)

Which brings us to “google” and “tweet.” Google’s Web site, like many, says to use its name “only as an adjective, never as a noun or verb, and never in the plural or possessive form.” That seems to eliminate “google” as a verb. Yet many dictionaries have endorsed “google” as a generic verb for an Internet search. Can this trademark be saved?

Twitter, on the other hand, is an open source business. Its Web site endorses many variations of its trademark, nearly all of them lowercase. It says: “If ‘tweet’ is hard for you to use with a straight face in a business context, try ‘twittering’ as a verb instead.”

The New York Times caused a kerfuffle recently when its standards editor advised against the use of “tweet” except “occasionally for special effect.” The Associated Press Stylebook, however, wholeheartedly endorses it: “The verb is to tweet, tweeted. A Twitter message is known as a tweet.”

So, wrap that trademark in “cellophane” and put it in your “thermos” to protect it.*


*lost trademarks

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.