On May 16, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that widespread use of the word “google” as a verb for “searching the internet” – as opposed to use as an adjective for a brand of internet search engine – was insufficient to establish that GOOGLE ceased to function as a trademark. Elliott v. Google, Inc., No 15-15809, slip op. (9th Cir. May 16, 2017). As a result, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of defendant Google, Inc. on the plaintiffs’ Lanham Act claim seeking cancellation of the GOOGLE trademark on the ground that it had become generic.
Generic terms are words that are the commonly accepted identification of a type of goods or services. By way of example, “automobile” and “chair” are generic terms when used in connection with their dictionary meanings. Under federal law, generic terms are not protectable as trademarks. Trademarks can become generic over time if they are used as the name for a category of goods or services instead of as a brand name or source identifier. This is commonly known in trademark law as “genericide.” Examples of terms that have lost federal trademark protection due to genericide include “aspirin,” “escalator,” and “thermos,” each of which was once a protectable trademark. A registered trademark may be cancelled if it loses its source-identifying significance by becoming the generic name of a particular type of good or service. 15 U.S.C. §1064(3); Elliott, slip op. at 6.
The question before the Ninth Circuit was “whether the primary significance of the word ‘google’ to the relevant public is as a generic name for internet search engines or as a mark identifying the GOOGLE search engine in particular.” Elliott, slip op. at 12. The plaintiffs argued that the word “google” is primarily understood as “a generic term universally used to describe the act of internet searching.” In support, the plaintiffs presented consumer survey evidence showing that a majority of consumers used the term “google” as a verb for the act of searching the internet.
The Ninth Circuit rejected plaintiffs’ claim as a matter of law for two reasons. First, the court clarified that “a claim of genericide or genericness must be made with regard to a particular type of good or service.” Elliott, slip op. at 8 (emphasis added). Thus, surviving summary judgment would have required plaintiffs to present evidence that the term “google” is generic specifically with regard to internet search engines. Second, the court concluded that “verb use does not automatically constitute generic use,” thus rejecting plaintiffs’ grammatical argument that a word can only be protectable as a trademark when used as an adjective. Elliott, slip op. at 10. The court noted that the part of speech is not dispositive of the genericide issue, as it is well-established that “a speaker might use a trademark as a noun and still use the term in a source-identifying trademark sense.” Elliott, slip op. at 10-11. For example, a restaurant customer might order “a coke,” using the mark as a noun, while still having a particular source of cola beverages – the Coca-Cola Company – in mind. Id. at 11. As a result, plaintiffs’ consumer survey evidence that the public uses the term “google” as a verb was insufficient as a matter of law, because such evidence did not reveal consumers’ thoughts regarding use of the term with respect to internet search engines. Without more evidence, it was not possible to ascertain whether the survey respondents were using the verb “google” in an indiscriminate sense, with no particular internet search engine in mind; or in a discriminate sense, with the Google search engine in mind.
In light of Elliott, a party claiming that a mark has become generic would be wise to present consumer surveys in which respondents indicate whether they believe a term is a brand name or a common name for a particular good or service, regardless of grammatical function. Any consumer survey submitted should be conducted by qualified experts according to accepted principles. As an example, in Elliott, Google offered a survey in support of its position that the GOOGLE mark is not generic, which began by providing a brief overview of the difference between brand names and common names, then asked respondents to classify various words – such as “Coke,” “Jello,” “Amazon,” “Refrigerator,” “Browser,” and “Website” – as either brand names or common names. Id. at 16. Approximately 93% of respondents described “Google” as a brand name. Unlike plaintiffs’ survey, the Ninth Circuit viewed the results of Google’s survey as evidencing consumers’ primary understanding of the word “google” as it related to search engines.
This case contravenes the conventional guidance to always use trademarks as adjectives that modify a descriptive or generic term. Although the Elliott court acknowledged that using a trademark as an adjective makes it easier to prove the source-identifying function of the mark, this holding makes clear that widespread use of trademarks as nouns and verbs does not make them generic, absent significant evidence of indiscriminate consumer use of the mark to refer to any brand of a particular good or service.