Navigating the world of generic trademarks

Alex Bigman

At 99designs, we tend to define the “original” relative to its opposite — the much maligned “copy.” Somewhere in between these two poles, though, exists a no man’s land known as the “generic.”

Any designer who’s brushed up against our originality policy or read our article about overused logo designs knows how crucial this third concept is in determining a design’s originality. While maybe not that exciting, generic designs are fair game. But what exactly do we mean by it?

Photo: Ghostshad0w (via Flickr)

Chances are that you deal in the generic more than you know — with the world of generic trademarks. Throughout this post we’ve included images of once trademarked brand names that have become generic, either officially or in practice.

Like logos, brand names are unique signs (only linguistic instead of visual) meant to stand for a specific product. Companies trademark them to legally protect their uniqueness. Once trademarked, other companies cannot use them.

Photo: RahelSharon (via Flickr)

However, sometimes the power of the masses overrules the power of law. Take the word “escalator,” a brand name originally trademarked by the Otis Elevator Company. Soon, people started using the word “escalator” to refer to all moving stairs, not just Escalator-brand moving stairs.

This improper usage eventually became so common that the U.S. court declared the term “generic.” Now, any company that produces moving stairs may call their product an “escalator.”

In summary, the more widely entrenched a word becomes in the common vocabulary, the harder it is to legally claim it as ones own property.

Photo: anna gutermuth (via Flickr)

The same occurs, again and again, in graphic design. For example, placing a speech bubble in a social networking-oriented website’s logo, though perhaps original at one point, has since become such a common part of our “visual vocabulary,” it is now considered generic.

If a brief involves networking, then, speech bubbles are open for anyone to use. The same goes for leaves in environmentally-oriented company logos, simple abstract geometries, the fusion of a company name’s initial letters and a vast array of other such endlessly re-used concepts.

Photo: Robert S. Donovan (via Flickr)

Throughout this post we’ve included images of generic trademarks, either officially or in practice, that were once protected brand names. Did you recognize any of them? The Yo-Yo, the Escalator, the Zipper, the Band-Aid and the Kleenex have all gone the way of the generic.

Can you think of any other generic trademarks? Post them in the comments!

Featured image: JD Hancock (via Flickr)

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