Sometimes, we hurt the ones we love. Which is why even if we didn’t mean to be so harsh, many products we use every day have become the victims of trademark genericization, meaning they’ve morphed from a single product identified under a name to an entire product category. And when courts get involved it becomes “genericide,” which sounds even more murderous. Can’t you just imagine Law & Order: Genericized Trademarks? [dun dun]
While some of the 15 products below are truly victims of genericide, having had their trademarks canceled in a court, others simply failed to register as trademarks at all, or in some cases, weren’t renewed or were abandoned for other reasons. Which means now you can have your own escalator company or sell flooring and call it linoleum. Wouldn’t suggest setting up your own heroin company, however.
15 GENERICIZED TRADEMARKS
1. Aspirin: Formally known as acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin was created in 1897 and originally trademarked by Bayer AG. The name means “pain relief, speed, reliability and tolerability,” according to Bayer. Aspirin comes from “acetyl” and Spirsäure, a German name for salicylic acid. Its time as a trademarked word would be short — in 1917 many of Bayer’s U.S. assets were confiscated as a result of World War 1, including its patents and trademarks.
2. Heroin: Speaking of losing trademarks, heroin was also stripped from Bayer in 1917. The drug derived from morphine was named trademarked by the company in 1898 based on the German word heroisch, which means “heroic, strong.” Couldn’t find mention of its heroin history on Bayer, which is unsurprising.
3. Cellophane: Cellophane gets its name from regenerated cellulose (the stuff that makes up much of plant’s cell walls) and diaphane, or transparent. It was created by Swiss chemist Jacques E. Brandenberger and patented in 1912. In 1923, DuPont chemists created a moisture-proof system for cellophane. It has since become genericized in the U.S., though still trademarked in other countries. Plastic wrap isn’t cellophane, by the way — it’s polyvinyl chloride.
4. Escalator [PDF]: First coined by Charles Seeberger of Otis Elevator Co. in 1900 when he debuted his device. The word comes from the roof the word scala for “steps” in Latin, with “E” as the prefix, and a suffix of “Tor.” Roughly, that means “traversing from.” It was also supposed to be pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable — es-CA-lator. Otis lost the trademark when the U.S. Patent Office ruled that even Otis had used escalator as a generic descriptive term in its own patents. It was officially genericized.
5. Trampoline: The first modern trampoline was built by George Nissen and Larry Griswold in 1936, and comes from the Spanish for “diving board” – trampolin. The generic term for it before was actually the “rebound tumbler.” It’s unclear when it lost its trademark, but anyone can now sell a trampoline.
6. Thermos: The predecessor to the thermos was Sir James Dewar’s “vacuum flask,” invented in 1892. The Thermos first hit the market in 1904 for commercial use, named as such by German glass blowers who held a contest to name the product. A Munich resident suggested Thermos from the Greek Therme for “heat.” Thermos GmbH sold trademark rights to three independent companies in 1907, who then began producing it and selling it around the world. It was named a generalized trademark in the U.S. in 1963, but remains a registered trademark in some other countries.
7. Dry Ice: Trademarked in 1925 by the DryIce Corporation, dry ice is solid CO2. It lost its trademark in 1932.
8. Kerosene: Abraham Gesner registered a trademark for combustible hydrocarbon liquid, derived from the Greek “kerns” for wax, in 1854. The North American Gas Light Company and the Downer Company were the only ones allowed to use the term for some years, until it eventually became genericized.
9. Laundromat: Named by George Edward Pendray, Westinghouse Electric introduced the Laundromat in 1940, the first automatic washing machine that could be wall-mounted. It was last registered to Westinghouse in 1952, and has since expired as a trademark, according to USPTO.gov. Westinghouse Nuclear still maintains a history page for the original company.
10. Linoleum: While Linoleum — from the Latin linum for “flax” and oeum, “oil” — was considered to be the first term to become generic, it was never trademarked by its English inventor, Frederick Walton. He established the Linoleum Manufacturing Company Ltd in 1864, but apparently never trademarked the term in the first place. That fact came to light when Walton was facing competitors in court in the late 1870s. By that time, the generalization had already happened, and it was too late.
12. Yo-Yo: Trademarked in the U.S. in 1932 by entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan, his company lost a case brought by ac competitor in 1965, when a federal appeals court ruled that the trademark was improperly registered and therefore invalid.
13. ZIP code: Otherwise known as the Zone Improvement System, the ZIP code was originally registered as a servicemark by the United States Postal Service in 1976 but has since expired due to non renewal.
14. Zipper: The word zip was already around as a noun and a verb, referring to sound it makes when you make the motion that accompanies that kind of noise. You zip and it goes “zip!” It was first registered as a trademark in 1925 by B.F. Goodrich for overshoes with fasteners invented by Gideon Sundback. An executive is said to have slid the fastened up and down saying, “zip ‘er up,” thus, Zipper. The company sued to protect the trademark in 1930 but only got to keep the rights to Zipper Boots, as zipper had entered the common lexicon by then as a generic term.
15. TV Dinner: C.A. Swanson & Sons developed the pre-packaged, frozen dinner meal in 1953 and trademarked it as TV Brand Frozen Dinner, but stopped using TV Dinner in 1962. Today, any kind of frozen meal you can eat in front of a screen could be called a TV dinner.
SO WHO’S NEXT?
The below names are still protected by trademarks so they can’t be used by competitors without possibly facing trademark infringement lawsuits. They could be in danger of genericide, however, as with a recent trademark dispute between Skee-Ball and Brewskee-Ball shows — the trademark name for the game could be up close to genericide.
Some you might know and use full well knowing it’s a brand name — how often do you tell someone to just “rip the Band-Aid off”? But what about cooking something in the Crock-Pot, or perhaps calling a Realtor — who knew?
42 TRADEMARKS WHO NEED TO WATCH THEIR BACKS
Generic name: Epinephrine
Owned by: Parke-Davis
Generic name: Artificial Turf
Owned by: Monsanto
Generic name: Adhesive bandage
Owned by: Johnson & Johnson
4. Bubble Wrap
Generic name: Inflated cushioning
Owned by: Sealed Air
5. Bubbler (only included because I’m from Wisconsin, if I haven’t mentioned)
Generic name: Drinking fountain
Owned by: Kohler Company
Generic name: Lip balm
Owned by: Wyeth Consumer Healthcare
Generic name: Slow cooker
Owned by: Sunbeam products
Generic name: Front loader waste container
Owned by: Dempster Brothers, Inc.
9. Fiberglas, Fiberglass
Generic name: Glass wool
Owned by: Owens Corning
Generic name: Wood or plastic laminate
Owned by: Formica Corporation
Generic name: Flying disc
Owned by: Wham-O
12. Hackey Sack
Generic name: Footbag
Owned by: Wham-O
13. Hula Hoop
Generic name: Toy hoop
Owned by: Wham-O
Generic name: Hot tub or whirlpool
Owned by: Jacuzzi
15. Jet Ski
Generic name: Stand-up personal watercraft
Owned by: Kawasaki
Generic name: Facial tissue
Owned by: Kimberly-Clark
17. Lava lamp
Generic name: Liquid motion lamp
Owned by: Mathmos
Generic name: Pepper spray
Owned by: Mace Security International
19. Memory Stick
Generic name: Flash memory storage device
Owned by: Sony
Generic name: Elevator music, background music
Owned by: Muzak Holdings
Generic name: Infant/adult bodysuit
Owned by: Gerber Products Company
22. Ping Pong
Generic name: Table tennis
Owned by: Parker Brothers
23. Plexiglas, Plexiglass
Generic name: Acrylic glass
Owned by: Altuglas Internaional, Rohm & Haas
Generic name: Ice Pop
Owned by: Good Humor-Breyers
25. Putt-Putt Golf
Generic name: Miniature golf
Owned by: Putt-Putt Fun Center
Generic name: Cotton swabs
Owned by: Unilever
Generic name: Real estate agent
Owned by: National Association of Realtors
28. Saran Wrap
Generic name: Plastic wrap, cling wrap
Owned by: S.C Johnson & Son, Asahi Kasei
29. Scotch tape
Generic name: Clear adhesive tape
Owned by: 3M
Generic name: Permanent marker
Owned by: Sanford L.P., owned by Newell Rubbermaid
Generic name: Cowboy hat
Owned by: John B. Stetson Company
Generic name: Extruded polystyrene foam
Owned by: Dow Chemical Company
34. Super Glue
Generic name: Cyanoacrylate adhesive
Owned by: Super Glue Corporation
35. Super Heroes
Generic name: Superhero
Owned by: DC Comics, Marvel Comics
Generic name: Asphalt road surface
Owned by: Tarmac
Generic name: Electroshock weapon, stun gun
Owned by: Taser Systems
Generic name: Polytetrafluoroethylene
Owned by: DuPont
Generic name: Facsimile machine
Owned by: Xerox
Generic name: Plastic storage containers
Owned by: Earl Tupper
Generic name: Hook-and-loop fastener
Owned by: Velcro company
Generic name: Photocopier to make a photocoyp
Owned by: Xerox
For more on genericide and genericized trademarks, check out these articles:
Genericide: Cancellation of a Registered Trademark by Jacqueline Stern in the 1982 Fordham Law Review [PDF]
The Genericide of Trademarks by John Dwight Ingram [PDF]