Ninth Circuit: Using a Trademark as a Verb Is Not Automatically Generic Use

By Marie-Andrée Weiss

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on 16 May 2016 that ‘google’ is not a generic term for a search engine, and thus the famous California company did not suffer the costly indignity of having its trademarks cancelled through genericide. The case is Elliott v. Google, 2:12-cv-01072.

Plaintiffs had registered 763 domain names, each incorporating the word ‘google’ along with the name of a another brand (googledisney.com), of a person (googlebarackobama.net) or a place (googlemexicocity.com). This business plan did not fare well with the famous search engine company, which successfully asked the National Arbitration Forum to transfer all these domain names to Google.

Plaintiffs then filed a suit in the United States District of Arizona claiming that ‘Google’ “is, or has become, a generic term universally used to describe the action of internet searching with any search engines” (Complaint, p. 2), and asked the court to cancel Google’s trademarks. Indeed, the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1064(3), provides the right to petition for the cancellation of mark if it “becomes the generic name for the goods or services, or a portion thereof, for which it is registered.”

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether the GOOGLE marks were generic: while Plaintiffs claimed that Google is a generic term because a majority of the public use it as a verb, Google argued that use of a trademark as a verb use is not automatically generic use. On 11 September  2014, the United States District of Arizona granted summary judgment for Google. Plaintiffs appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed.

 

The Google trademarks

As mentioned in the original complaint, ‘Google’ comes from the term ‘googol,’ meaning a 1 followed by 100 zeros. Google holds a trademark registration for GOOGLE in class 9 for “computer hardware; computer software for creating indexes of information, indexes of web sites and indexes of other information resources” and another one in class 38 for  “[p]roviding electronic mail and workgroup communications services over computer networks; providing multiple user access to proprietary collections of information by means of global computer information networks.”

 

Generic trademark and genericide

Needless to say, if a mark becomes generic, it is quite costly for the company that invested a lot in developing goodwill towards its brand.  A generic term cannot serve as a trademark because it cannot serve as identifying the source of a product or service. Several famous marks, among them aspirin, cellophane, and thermos, fell victim of their success and became generic because they were used by the general public to designate the genus of their product, not just a particular brand. This is ‘genericide’.

 

The primary significance test

Plaintiffs had the burden of proving the genericide since they applied for the cancellation of the GOOGLE trademarks, and a registered trademark is presumed to be valid. They argued on appeal that the district court had misapplied the primary significance test, which was coined by the Supreme Court in its 1938 Kellog Co. v. National Biscuit Co. case:  a mark is not generic if “the primary significance of the term in the minds of the consuming public is not the product but the producer.” As noted by the Ninth Circuit, quoting Ty Inc. v. Sofbelly’s Inc., “a trademark only becomes generic when the “primary significance of the registered mark to the relevant public” is as the name for a particular type of good or service irrespective of its source.”

Plaintiffs argued that the district court had framed the inquiry as to whether the primary significance of ‘google’ to the consuming public is a generic name for search engines, whereas it should have inquired whether the public primarily uses ‘google’ as a verb. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with this argument for two reasons: genericide always relates to a particular good or service and using a trademark as a verb is not automatically generic use.

 

Genericide always relates to a particular good or service

For the Ninth Circuit, the District Court “properly recognized the necessary and inherent link between a claim of genericide and a particular good or service” (p. 9). The Court reasoned that failing to consider this would prevent some arbitrary marks to be protectable, giving as example IVORY which is arbitrary as applied to soaps, but would not be so for product made from the tusks of elephants.

The Ninth Circuit found that Plaintiffs’ “evidence was “’largely inapposite to the relevant inquiry under the primary significance test because [the Plaintiffs] ignor[e] the fact that a claim of genericide must relate to a particular type of goods or service’” (p. 13).

 

Using a trademark as a verb is not automatically generic use

Also, “verb use does not automatically constitute generic use” (p. 10). Plaintiffs had argued that a word can only be used as a trademark if it is used as an adjective. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, noting that it had found in Coca-Cola Co. v. Overland, Inc. that the mere fact that customers ordered “a coke” did not prove what they were thinking, a mark or a cola beverage, and more evidence was required about the customer’s inner thought process. Therefore, the use of a trademark as a noun may or may not be using it as a trademark (p. 11).

The primary significance test directed plaintiffs to provide evidence that that the primary significance of the GOOGLE trademarks is a general name for search engines, not a trademark identifying a particular search engine. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court which had found that, while the verb ‘google’ is indeed used to refer to searching on the internet, regardless of the search engine used, this fact alone cannot support a jury finding of genericide under the primary significance test, as it does not prove “how the public primarily understands the word itself, irrespective of its grammatical function, with regard to internet search engines” (p. 14).

 

How to prove that a mark has become generic

Plaintiffs also argued on appeal that the district court impermissibly weighted the evidence presented by Plaintiffs when granting summary judgment to Google. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, because, while Plaintiffs’ had presented admissible evidence that the majority of the public used ‘google’ as a verb, this was not enough to survive summary judgment, as it cannot alone prove genericide.

Plaintiffs had presented three surveys as evidence. Two were excluded by the district court because they had been conducted by Plaintiffs’ counsel, and “a valid survey design typically requires graduate training or professional experience in survey research” (p. 15). The third survey was a “Thermos survey,” that is a survey using open-ended questions, in our case, asking respondents how they would ask a friend to search something on the internet. The majority answered by using ‘google’ as a verb, and the survey was admitted as evidence that a majority of the public uses google as a verb meaning searching the internet.

Plaintiffs also gave examples of alleged generic use of ‘google’ by media and consumers, but they failed to convince both the district court and the Ninth Circuit, because Plaintiffs did not provide evidence that the use was indeed generic in the mind of the media and the consumers.

Plaintiffs had also offered expert testimony by three experts who all were of the opinion that ‘google’ is generic when used as a verb. However, this finding alone is not enough to prove genericide. Plaintiffs’ dictionary evidence did not prove either that ‘google’ is a generic name for internet search engines, only proving it is generic when used as a verb.

Plaintiffs also tried to prove that Google itself was using ‘google’ in a generic sense, presenting as evidence an email from Google cofounder Larry Page encouraging its recipients to “keep googling!” Generic use of a mark by its holder can support a finding a genericide, but the email was found by the court to be yet another example of the use of ‘google’ as a verb and did not prove that Larry Page had a particular search engine in mind (p. 19).

Finally, Plaintiff claimed that there was no efficient alternative for ‘google’ as a name for the act of searching the internet, but the Ninth Circuit drily noted that Google’s competitors do not use ‘google’ to refer to their own services (p.20).

‘Google’ may have become a verb, but this alone does not prove that GOOGLE is a generic mark. Keep googling.

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