Geek Trivia: Tools of the trade(mark)

What popular linguistic authority -- which presides over the evolution of the English language and is occasionally cited in legal discussions regarding genericized trademarks -- has itself been a victim of genericide?

Today's vocabulary word, boys and girls, is genericide. Don't bother heading to the dictionary to find it, as it's not an officially recognized term in linguistic circles, which is in some measure ironic. Instead, break out some legal texts, as genericide is lawyer-slang for the "death" suffered by a trademark that has become so popular it can't be legally protected anymore.

More specifically, genericide refers to the creation of a genericized trademark, as in a trademark that has become so synonymous with a product or service with which it is associated that the trademark becomes interchangeable with the generic term. The classic example is the trademark Aspirin, which was originally just one particular brand -- held by Bayer -- of the drug acetylsalicylic acid. Today, however, you'll find several brands of aspirin (note the lowercase, a sure sign that the trademark is lost), of which Bayer is just one. (Bayer's relinquishing of its aspirin trademark came under unusual circumstances, but is nonetheless a cogent example of genericide.)

The first known use of genericide to describe the genericization of a trademark was in the March 7, 1983 issue of Legal Times, which included the article "Court Rules that 'Monopoly' Has Suffered Genericide." The article covered a rather headline-grabbing U.S. trademark law case involving the famous board game Monopoly, which had become so popular that its manufacturer, Parker Brothers, could no longer legally fend off the creation of derivative or imitative games that invoked the name Monopoly.

For the past 25 years, trademark enforcement has enjoyed the use of the (ostensibly un-trademarked) term genericide to describe the many brands that have been so saturated into the public consciousness as to defy usefulness to the trademark holder. While trademark law varies from country to country, genericide is the acknowledged English-speaker's term of art for the creation of a genericized trademark.

The antidote to genericide is vigilant and vigorous trademark enforcement, some of which borders on the absurd. Sony went so far with its defense of the Walkman trademark as to ban unapproved plural uses of the word. Trademarks, you see, are by and large proper adjectives, which describe more general product types. This can be a problem for inventors who create new product types, and thus not only must invent a brand, but also its generic product family to enforce copyright. Ironically, one of the very same authorities that preside over the process of genericide -- an authority on language -- has become a victim of genericide itself.


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