Descriptive Trademarks

We’ve been down this road before, some themes intersect, and trademark value is filtered out:

The intersecting themes on tap for the day are: Zero, Branding, Trademarks, and Loss of Rights.

ZEROWATER is a perfectly suggestive, inherently distinctive, and federally-registered trademark with “incontestable” status as a source-identifier for “water filtering units for household use.”

Judging from the specimens in the file history at the USPTO, the brand owner appears to have done a nice job leaving consumers to imagine the connection between the mark and the goods.

Branding ZEROWATER with taglines like “For water that’s only water,” “Get more out of your water,”  “If it isn’t zero, zero, zero, it isn’t just water” “If it’s not 000, it’s not ZeroWater,” and “If it’s not all zeros, it’s not ZeroWater,” all help to block Zero from pure and mere descriptiveness:

On the other hand, as the top image of the retail endcap shows (click the image to enlarge), the current packaging and product description adds blunt force to the now obvious meaning of ZERO:


Had this purely descriptive use of ZERO been present at filing, then ZEROWATER easily could have been refused as merely descriptive — why add it now? Especially with this far better existing copy:


While ZEROWATER can no longer be challenged as merely descriptive for “water filtering units for household use,” what about future applications having slightly different descriptions of goods?

Given all that Coca-Cola has done to turn ZERO generic in the soft drink category (meaning ZERO Sugars and/or Calories), shouldn’t ZEROWATER remove virtually all opportunities for genericness?

When a brand owner migrates toward descriptiveness with its copy, leaving the consumer with zero need to exercise any imagination as to meaning, there just might be “nothing” left to protect.

We’ve been writing about the COKE ZERO trademark for nearly a decade now, noting in 2014:

“[I]t will be worth watching to see whether the [TTAB] finds that ‘ZERO’ primarily means Coke or just a soft drink having ‘no calories, you know, a drink about nothing . . . .’”

Turns out, in May 2016, Coke obtained a favorable decision from the TTAB, ruling that ZERO is not generic for a soft drink category, instead it is descriptive and Coke has secondary meaning in it.

With that victory in hand, we then questioned Coke’s thinking in launching obvious generic use of ZERO, welcoming Coke Zero to the Genericide Watch, given this categorical and non-brand use:

Then, two months ago, the CAFC decided — on appeal — that the TTAB got it wrong, ruling it:

“[F]ailed to consider whether consumers would consider the term ZERO to be generic for a subcategory of the claimed genus of beverages – i.e., the subcategory of the claimed beverages encompassing the specialty beverage categories of drinks with few or no calories or few or no carbohydrates.”

We’re now back to the question we asked in 2014: “[I]s ZERO like LIGHT for beer, STONE OVEN for pizza — basically denoting the name of a product category instead of a source identifier?”

As to the next steps, the CAFC sent the case back to the TTAB, instructing it to “examine whether the term ZERO, when appended to a beverage mark, refers to a key aspect of the genus.”

TM types, is Professor McCarthy right that the CAFC ruling makes it too easy to find genericness?

I’m left wondering, given the floodgates that have opened up to other beverage brands also using ZERO as a generic category term for “no calories” or “no sugar” — is fighting for ZERO worth it?





Will Coke continue to fight for ZERO as a trademark? Or, should it make better soda instead?

How can The Coca-Cola Company even keep the trademark pursuit of ZERO going, when it already appears to have made the choice of making a better soda through its independent unit, Honest?

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

No, I’m not talking about Dallas. Nor am I referring to the hip hop rap MC of the same name. I’m talking about Differentiation. If you understand this Big D, then you will have a real key to building your business.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a disciple of Al Ries and Jack Trout. They are true “Marketing Gods” for their work in Positioning and Brand Development. I first read “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind” in the early 80’s and have referred to it regularly since then.

I recently had two very different name development jobs that presented a wide spectrum of name potential. The names have been changed to protect the guilty, but the situations were real.

One client wanted a descriptive name for a product that would exist in a category of descriptive brand names. To exaggerate, the client wanted a “Fast Pain Relief” name in a category with brands like “Ultra Fast Pain Relief,” “Super Fast Pain Relief,” “Faster Than Everyone Else Relief,” etc.

Another client wanted a made up name that had no reference to the product or category. I’m talking about names like “Blue Elephant” for a pain relief product. Sometimes this naming strategy makes sense, but not in his product category. He had a real opportunity to become the market-defining product by choosing a name that helped consumers understand the benefits of using the product.

I always present a wide range of options for names because I want the client to see the possibilities. However, I always recommend an approach based on a strategic examination of the market in which the product competes, and that is where the Big D comes into play.

To help you in this task, consider using tools that can identify ways to differentiate. I recently discovered this highly visual approach…check it out and see if this could work for you.

Sadly, my story about Differentiation in names has an unhappy ending. Neither of my clients chose to differentiate their products with names that would enable them to stand out in the crowd. “Mr. Descriptive Name” chose a descriptive name for his product, and “Mr. Wild Card” chose a wild card name. As a result, each of their products now has an uphill battle in marketing because the names they chose are not differentiated versus the competition. So choose wisely and think “Differentiation” when branding!

– Draeke Weseman, Weseman Law Office, PLLC

When I think of Twitter, I think of — it’s really hard to define because we’re still coming up with the vocabulary — but I think it’s defined a new behavior that’s very different than what we’ve seen before.

— Jack Dorsey, Twitter Co-Founder in 2009

My, how time flies. Only four years ago, co-founder Jack Dorsey was still trying to figure out how, exactly, to define Twitter. Last week, Twitter filed its Form S-1 — the public prospectus required ahead of an initial public offering — with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In it, Twitter describes itself as “a global platform for public self-expression and conversation in real time” that has “democratized content creation and distribution.” Analysts evaluating Twitter’s S-1 suggest the company is worth $12 billion.

Trademark-types reading news coverage of Twitter’s S-1 discovered something else: Twitter is concerned that its trademarked 140-character messages, called “Tweets,” may become generic. Discussing the risks to its intellectual property assets, Twitter warns potential investors that “there is a risk that the word ‘Tweet’ could become so commonly used that it becomes synonymous with any short comment posted publicly on the Internet, and if this happens, we could lose protection of this trademark.”

For Twitter, such loss would be an unfortunate twist of fate because the brand was so well thought out in the beginning. Reading Jack Dorsey’s explanation of how the name “Twitter” (and from that, “Tweet”) came about provides an enlightening peek at how start-up entrepreneurs think about trademarks:

The working name was just “Status” for a while. It actually didn’t have a name. … So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word “twitch,” because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves [from receiving an SMS message.] But “twitch” is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word “twitter,” and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds.” And that’s exactly what the product was.

. . . So we just fell in love with the word. It was like, “Oh, this is it.” We can use it as a verb, as a noun, it fits with so many other words. If you get too many messages you’re “twitterpated” — the name was just perfect.

Like most start-up entrepreneurs, Jack Dorsey clearly understood the spectrum of trademark distinctiveness and the value of a suggestive name. Yet, a few other important trademark concepts eluded him.

First, he uses the dreaded D-word to tell the story of naming the company. This is a trademark no-no that has been discussed extensively here, here, and here. Second, he announces how versatile the word Twitter is: how it can be a “noun” (presumably generic?), how great it works with other words, and how it will make a great brandverb. Brandverbing – or turning a perfectly good trademark into a verb – is also a very dangerous trademark activity. It ranks right up there with with – I don’t know – tweeting while rollerblading (do that too often, and you’ll need a lot of band-aids.) Third, and perhaps most importantly, he is aware of trademark opportunities from extending the brand and is openly talking about them to the media, but he hasn’t filed an intent-to-use trademark application to protect them.

Case in point: Twitter ran into some trademark problems soon after the interview that produced the above quotes. About a month after the interview, Twitter filed for trademark protection for the word “Tweet” as applied to telecommunication services, blogging, and social networking services. But another company had already registered the trademark “Let your Ad Meet Tweets” for related services (yes, Tweet makes a great noun), and Twitter’s application for “Tweets” was refused. Adding to the refusal were two prior pending applications, one from the company Tweetdeck, Inc. for the trademark “Tweetdeck” (see how great Tweet works with other words?) and another for “Cotweet” filed by Launchability, Inc. (doesn’t Tweet make a great brandverb?). Twitter subsequently acquired all three trademarks, resorting to litigation in federal court for one.

Perhaps for that reason, we saw the following statement from another Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone, in a Twitter blog post just a few months after Jack Dorsey’s interview:

We have applied to trademark Tweet because it is clearly attached to Twitter from a brand perspective but we have no intention of “going after” the wonderful applications and services that use the word in their name when associated with Twitter. In fact, we encourage the use of the word Tweet. However, if we come across a confusing or damaging project, the recourse to act responsibly to protect both users and our brand is important.

In this statement, Twitter acknowledges that it didn’t get its trademark act together quickly enough, but shows a sensitivity to the problem and a recognition that earning the label of a trademark bully would be even worse. When faced with the choice between managing a tribe by giving permission or building a bullet-proof brand by revoking it, Twitter clearly favored the tribe and the freedom to associate. That choice will have a huge payoff for Twitter’s founders in a few months.

That choice, however, could also have continuing consequences for Twitter. As trademark-types know, trademark rights are dynamic; and, as Twitter’s S-1 discloses, there is still a real risk that the word “Tweet” could become generic and unprotectable as a trademark. Some of this risk is because of Twitter’s ubqiuity, and some of it is because of Twitter’s early trademark choices. Investors looking at Twitter will have some tough trademark questions to answer.

What do you think, with 100 million daily Twitter users tweeting 500 million Tweets each day, is the word “Tweet” at risk for genericide? Would it matter? Will Twitter need to do an about face from Biz Stone’s permissive statements to prevent genericide, or dilution? Will doing so get Twitter labeled a Trademark Bully? How should Twitter balance these seemingly competing interests?

In the wake of all the discussion and debate over “trademark bullying,” NFIB (National Federation of Independent Businesses), the self-proclaimed Voice of Small Business, recently offered its members and followers “5 Steps to Avoid Corporate Trademark Bullying“:

  1. Do Your Homework;
  2. Choose a Descriptive Business Name;
  3. Use Common Sense;
  4. Consider Buying Intellectual Property Insurance; and
  5. When in Doubt, Consult an Attorney.

I suppose it’s kind of hard to argue, in general, with doing your homework, using common sense, buying insurance, and when in doubt, consulting an attorney, but choosing a descriptive business name to avoid a trademark conflict? That’s taking it a bit too far, don’t you think?

Actually, when you drill down below each step, there is much more to say about each of them, and I’ll make sure to do so later, but for today, I’ll focus on what I call, “dreadful Step Number 2.”

As you know, we don’t like the D-word here, and as you will recall from a couple of years ago in my prior posts, “A Legal Perspective on the Pros and Cons of Name Styles,” and “Staying on the Right Side of the Line: Suggestive v. Descriptive,” we established the strong preference for suggestive as opposed to merely descriptive names and marks, and we addressed the all-important Spectrum of Distinctiveness for trademarks:

Nevertheless, NFIB, in support of mere descriptiveness, indicates:

If you’re deciding what to name your business, you’re more likely to prevent a trademark infringement lawsuit if you pick a general name that describes your business’ services—Plumbing Contractors Inc. or Accounting Services LLC, for example—instead of something more specific. While your business name may overlap with another’s, there is less chance for them to stake a claim on those terms. Just make sure that your business name still stands out.

Putting aside the unanswered question of how a small business may hope to “stand out” if it follows “dreadful Step Number 2,” let us not forget, Subway recently convinced the U.S. Trademark Office it has exclusive rights in the term “footlong” for submarine sandwiches, claiming that it has acquired distinctiveness in the “merely descriptive” term, and is asserting those claimed rights against Casey’s General Store, among others.

If a small business really wants to have a hope for avoiding any and all possible trademark conflicts, it needs to live in the generic category (Dan’s take, here), not the descriptive one (where there is the real potential for the acquisition of exclusive rights by others and where there are naturally more legal claims that actually surprise their targets), but who wants to be generic?

I can’t and don’t embrace the message of waving the white surrender flag, conceding any hope of naming creativity or any hope of clearing and adopting a truly distinctive name or mark. Even small businesses with limited budgets can and should do better.

If a small business uses common sense, does its homework, and consults a competent and experienced trademark attorney, there is no reason to limit itself or place false hope in pursuing “dreadful Step Number 2.”

If nothing else, I think we may have found another D-word.

Hat tip to Mark Prus who flagged this topic for me and even offered up a portion of the title, minus the question mark.

Seth Godin’s recent post entitled Subtlety, deconstructed, struck a chord with me, and should strike a chord with all trademark types and the brand owners they represent. Here is my favorite excerpt:

Subtle design and messaging challenge the user to make her own connections instead of spelling out every detail. Connections we make are more powerful than connections made for us. If Amazon and Zappos had been called "" and "" it might have made some early investors happy, but they would have built little of value.

As you may recall, I have been tough on Seth Godin’s trademark advice in the past, but I couldn’t agree more with his view set forth above on naming and building powerful consumer connections and a resulting asset of significant value, by utilizing subtle design and messaging.

We have spoken and written about not "hitting the consumer over the head" in the context of naming and placement on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness, instead, encouraging the use of suggestive as opposed to descriptive names and marks, but, let us not forget, there is a trademark paradox that does appear to reward use of a blunt instrument, called look-for advertising, at least when it comes to developing trademark rights in certain non-traditional marks.

–Sharon Armstrong, Attorney

I am currently in my home state of California, a place known to some as “the land of fruits and nuts.” (Although, “the Left Coast” is my favorite of these playfully derisive names for California.)

California is indeed the fruit basket of the United States, producing 51% of the nation’s fruit. And amongst the growing and harvesting and selling of fruit, California farmers are busy creating the next generation of fruit hybrids among some of the state’s largest crops.

The creation of new fruit varieties is interesting stuff, but a recent article in the Los Angeles Times addressed an ancillary concern about the results: creating new fruits “opens up a promising range of possibilities for growers and consumers, but what to call the resulting fruits? No one really knows.” Would it surprise you to know that Pluot is a registered trademark of XX for a hybrid of plum and apricot fruit?

This issue is indicative of a larger branding problem that many innovators and inventors of cutting-edge technology face – how to choose and publicize a protectable brand name for their technology while also presenting enough information to the public to communicate what the new technology actually is or does. Although descriptive marks are tempting to use, due to their very descriptive nature, use of such marks is generally ill-advised. At the same time, the use of even arbitrary and fanciful marks can backfire. Remember Xerox, Yo-Yo, and Aspirin?

There is no easy solution, but some of the best weapons in this situation include clear-cut and consistent trademark use guidelines (conduct a search for any popular software program, such as Adobe®, and you’ll see what I mean) and a hawk-like enforcement program to ensure that third-parties use the mark as an adjective for the new technology, and not as a noun.

–Dan Kelly, Attorney

Here is a brand baiting gem spotted yesterday at a website called Daily Checkout:

Unremarkable?  A deal, you say?  Well, the following disclaimer appears twice in the sidebar adjacent to this deal:

And here is another feature pulled from the sidebar:

Greeaat . . . an MP3 player that won’t work with iTunes.  Seriously?

In [weak] defense of Daily Checkout and/or its source for this product, Apple does not appear to have registered trademark rights in the U.S. for SHUFFLE, standing alone.  That aside, Apple does own a U.S. trademark registration for IPOD SHUFFLE for use in connection with “Portable and handheld digital electronic devices for recording, organizing, transmitting, manipulating, and reviewing text, data, and audio files,” and these products look exactly like Apple’s iPod shuffle products, potentially implicating product configuration trade dress rights.

In my assessment, the fact that Apple does not have a registration for SHUFFLE by itself is probably not a strong defense (presuming wrongdoing–see below).  There is an argument to be made that “shuffle” is merely descriptive for use in connection with digital media players, but it is not a strong argument, especially when Internet search engines return Apple’s iPod shuffle landing page as the first organic hit in searches for “shuffle” by itself.  Further, arguing that “shuffle” is a generic term for a digital media player is even weaker–at least it is not a definition listed in this online dictionary.

I can think of only two possibilities here.  These are either blatant knock-offs, or these are some sort of consignment, reject, overstock, etc. of genuine iPod shuffles, and in exchange for being able to sell them at a discount, the seller was required to disclaim that they were made, sponsored, or endorsed by Apple.  If the latter, one wonders whether any contract governing the deal covered all of the appropriate trademark bases.

H/T to Randall Hull at The Br@nd Ranch.

–Dan Kelly, Attorney

A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court that had held that the federally registered trademark “WOULD YOU RATHER . . . ?” was merely descriptive as applied to books and games.  (PDF of appellate opinion here.)  Briefly, the facts are that Falls Media owns the aforementioned trademark registration, which has priority to July 1997, and Zobmondo Entertainment, who publishes books and games under the identical mark as a subtitle, has challenged Falls Media’s trademark rights in court.  The appellate opinion gives a fairly succinct overview of the sordid details — it sounds like these parties have been feuding in one way or another about this trademark for more than ten years — almost as long as Falls Media’s rights in the mark.  Identical marks and goods usually makes for good spectating.

This case fascinates me for a few reasons.  First, the appellate opinion is quite good, and treats well issues related to the fuzzy border between descriptive and suggestive trademarks, particularly in the context of the sometimes nerdy procedural legal issue of summary judgment.  It also contains some excellent evidentiary analysis.  Second, there is something morbidly interesting about parties that have been feuding for more than ten years.  This is like the Hatfields and McCoys.  Third, and perhaps most interesting, is that the entire dispute centers around two parties that are both experiencing commercial success exploiting a game that I think has existed as some form of a parlor or car game since long before 1997.  Calls to mind a trite phrase about the rate at which suckers are born.

For now, the WOULD YOU RATHER . . . ? trademark has survived its first challenge, but the case now returns to the District Court for further proceedings, or maybe settlement, if the parties would rather . . . but probably not.

P.S.  On an unrelated note, does the Zobmondo “Would Your Rather” game box remind you of anything?  My answer after the jump . . .

Continue Reading Which “Would You Rather” Would You Rather Play?