TMEP 1209.01: Distinctiveness/Descriptiveness Continuum

This is the October 2015 Edition of the TMEP

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1209.01    Distinctiveness/Descriptiveness Continuum

With regard to trademark significance, matter may be categorized along a continuum, ranging from marks that are highly distinctive to matter that is a generic name for the goods or services. The degree of distinctiveness – or, on the other hand, descriptiveness – of a designation can be determined only by considering it in relation to the specific goods or services. Remington Products, Inc. v. N. Am. Philips Corp., 892 F.2d 1576, 1580, 13 USPQ2d 1444, 1448 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (the mark must be considered in context, i.e., in connection with the goods).

At one extreme are marks that, when used in relation to the goods or services, are completely arbitrary or fanciful. Next on the continuum are suggestive marks, followed by merely descriptive matter. Finally, generic terms for the goods or services are at the opposite end of the continuum from arbitrary or fanciful marks. As stated in H. Marvin Ginn Corp. v. Int'l Ass'n of Fire Chiefs, Inc., 782 F.2d 987, 989, 228 USPQ 528, 530 (Fed. Cir. 1986), quoting Weiss Noodle Co. v. Golden Cracknel & Specialty Co., 290 F.2d 845, 847, 129 USPQ 411, 413 (C.C.P.A. 1961), “[t]he name of a thing is in fact the ultimate in descriptiveness.”

Fanciful, arbitrary, and suggestive marks, often referred to as “inherently distinctive” marks, are registrable on the Principal Register without proof of acquired distinctiveness. See TMEP §1209.01(a).

Marks that are merely descriptive of the goods or services may not be registered on the Principal Register absent a showing of acquired distinctiveness under 15 U.S.C. §1052(f). See TMEP §1209.01(b) regarding merely descriptive marks, and TMEP §§1212–1212.10 regarding acquired distinctiveness. Merely descriptive marks may be registrable on the Supplemental Register in applications under §1 or §44 of the Trademark Act. 15 U.S.C. §1091.

Matter that is generic for the goods or services is not registrable on either the Principal or the Supplemental Register under any circumstances. See TMEP §§1209.01(c)–(c)(iii).