Trademarks an important way for businesses to market their goods to consumers, but sometimes it can be difficult to know whose intellectual property toes you’re treading on. Here are six terms and concepts that companies claim to own, and some of them might surprise you.
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Trademarks aren’t copyrights. Unlike copyrights, they don’t come with an expiration date; rather, they have a “use it or lose it” provision. As long as you are using the trademark in association with your products and services, it’s yours forever. The catch is that you have to enforce your trademark or risk losing it to another company or genericization. That’s why Kimberly-Clark would really like you to stop using the word “kleenex” when you mean “facial tissue” and Adobe wishes you would stop using “photoshop” as a generic verb. Also, you can’t use your trademark to suppress non-commercial speech. When various public interest groups began referring to the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative as the “star wars” program, for example, Lucasfilm sued for trademark infringement. The US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Lucasfilm could not control the use of the phrase in a non-commercial context and couldn’t prevent it from entering into the common parlance.
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Ownership Claimed by: DC Comics and Marvel Comics
Jointly registered trademarks are rare (since generally trademarks indicate a single source of goods), but they’re not unheard of, and DC and Marvel, after separately filing for trademarks, were jointly awarded registered trademarks on the phrases “super hero” and “super heroes.” (They also share a trademark on the word “super-villains.”) So what exactly does it mean that these two companies own the term “super hero,” which is part of our common language and is actually a genre unto itself? It means that you can’t market materials using the term “super hero.” You can’t title your comic book “Superhero Man” – in fact, Marvel and DC forced the publisher GeekPunk to change its flagship comic title from Super Hero Happy Hour to just Hero Happy Hour. You can’t call your spandex-wearing toys “superhero action figures.” You can, however, use the word “superhero” in a non-marketing context.
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Ownership Claimed by: Lucasfilm
If you’ve ever looked closely at the bottom of a Motorola Droid ad, you’ll notice this fine print at the bottom, “DROID is a trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. and its related companies. Used under license.” Lucasfilm holds the registered trademark on the word “Droid,” not to mention trademarks on the phrases “Battle Droid” and “Destroyer Droid.” What makes the “Droid” trademark so odd is that the word is just a shortened form of word “android,” a term first used in the 18th century. It’s not that you can’t trademark ordinary words, but it’s more difficult to protect descriptive and impossible to protect generic trademarks. (That’s part of why the Sci-Fi Channel changed its name to Syfy.) To the best of my knowledge, no judge has ever ruled on the viability of or limitations on the Droid trademark, but Lucasfilm has been vigilant in enforcing it. (And it probably doesn’t hurt that the word “Droids” frequently comes up in the Star Wars quote, “These are not the Droids you’re looking for.” Even when Pixar made The Incredibles, they asked for Lucasfilm’s permission to name their robot the “Omnidroid,” as a courtesy to Lucas.
Link to the rest at io9 and thanks to Gordon for the tip.