TMEP 1209.01(c)(ii): Terminology

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1209.01(c)(ii)    Terminology

As specifically amended by the Trademark Law Revision Act of 1988, §14 of the Trademark Act provides for the cancellation of a registration of a mark at any time if the mark "becomes the generic name for the goods or services, or a portion thereof, for which it is registered...." 15 U.S.C. §1064(3). Previously, that provision had pertained to a mark that "becomes the common descriptive name of an article or substance...." Cases previously distinguished between generic names and "apt or common descriptive names," which referred to matter that, while not characterized as "generic," had become so associated with the product that it was recognized in the applicable trade as another name for the product, serving as a term of art for all goods of that description offered by different manufacturers rather than identifying the goods of any one producer. See Questor Corp. v. Dan Robbins & Assocs., Inc., 199 USPQ 358, 364 (TTAB 1978), aff’d, 599 F.2d 1009, 202 USPQ 100 (C.C.P.A. 1979). In addition, the Trademark Law Revision Act of 1988 amended §15 of the Trademark Act to adopt the term "generic name" to refer to generic designations.15 U.S.C. §1065(4). In view of the amendment of §§14 and 15, a distinction between "generic" names and "apt or common descriptive" names is inappropriate. Rather, the terminology of the Act must be consistently used, e.g., in refusals to register matter that is a generic name for the goods or services, or a portion thereof. See In re K-T Zoe Furniture Inc., 16 F.3d 390, 29 USPQ2d 1787 (Fed. Cir. 1994).

Similarly, cases have distinguished between "generic" terms and terms that were deemed "so highly descriptive as to be incapable of exclusive appropriation as a trademark." See In re Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 222 USPQ 820 (TTAB 1984) (LAW & BUSINESS held so highly descriptive as to be incapable of distinguishing applicant’s services of arranging and conducting seminars in the field of business law); In re Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc., 224 USPQ 309 (TTAB 1984) (INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS COUNSELORS, INC. held an apt name or so highly descriptive of educational services in the industrial relations field that it is incapable of exclusive appropriation and registration, notwithstanding de facto source recognition capacity). Regarding the terminology used in refusing registration of such matter, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board noted as follows in In re Women’s Publ'g Co. Inc., 23 USPQ2d 1876, 1877 n.2 (TTAB 1992):

The Examining Attorney’s refusal that applicant’s mark is "so highly descriptive that it is incapable of acting as a trademark" is not technically a statutory ground of refusal. Where an applicant seeks registration on the Principal Register, the Examining Attorney may refuse registration... on the basis that the mark sought to be registered is generic.

In essence, the Board was merely emphasizing the need to use precise statutory language in stating grounds for refusal. While the decision does not explicitly bar the use of the terminology "so highly descriptive that it is incapable of acting as a trademark" under all circumstances, the case illustrates that the use of this terminology may lead to confusion and should be avoided. It is particularly important in this context to use the precise statutory language to avoid doctrinal confusion. See generally Linda McLeod, The Status of So Highly Descriptive and Acquired Distinctiveness, 82 Trademark Rep. 607 (1992). Therefore, examining attorneys must not state that a mark is "so highly descriptive that it is incapable of acting as a trademark" in issuing refusals. Rather, in view of the amendments of the Trademark Act noted above, the terminology "generic name for the goods or services" must be used in appropriate refusals, and use of the terminology "so highly descriptive" must be discontinued when referring to incapable matter.

This does not mean that designations that might formerly have been categorized as "so highly descriptive" should not be regarded as incapable. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has specifically stated that "a phrase or slogan can be so highly laudatory and descriptive as to be incapable of acquiring distinctiveness as a trademark." In re Boston Beer Co. L.P., 198 F.3d 1370, 1373, 53 USPQ2d 1056, 1058 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (THE BEST BEER IN AMERICA for beer and ale held to be "so highly laudatory and descriptive of the qualities of [applicant’s] product that the slogan does not and could not function as a trademark to distinguish Boston Beer’s goods and serve as an indication of origin").

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has also stated that "[t]he critical issue in genericness cases is whether members of the relevant public primarily use or understand the term sought to be registered to refer to the genus of goods or services in question." H. Marvin Ginn Corp. v. Int'l Ass’n of Fire Chiefs, Inc., 782 F.2d 987, 989–90, 228 USPQ 528, 530 (Fed. Cir. 1986). Also, note that it is entirely appropriate to consider whether a particular designation is "highly descriptive" in evaluating registrability under §2(f), or in similar circumstances.

The expression "generic name for the goods or services" is not limited to noun forms but also includes "generic adjectives," that is, adjectives that refer to a genus, species, category, or class of goods or services. See Sheetz of Del., Inc. v. Doctor’s Assocs. Inc., 108 USPQ2d 1341 (TTAB 2013) (holding FOOTLONG generic for sandwiches, excluding hot dogs); In re Reckitt & Colman, N. Am. Inc., 18 USPQ2d 1389 (TTAB 1991) (holding PERMA PRESS generic for soil and stain removers for use on permanent press products). Similarly, evidence showing that a term in singular form is generic typically will suffice to show that the plural also is generic. See In re Cordua Rests., Inc., 823 F.3d 594, 603, 118 USPQ2d 1632, 1637 (Fed. Cir. 2016) ("While each trademark must always be evaluated individually, pluralization commonly does not alter the meaning of a mark."); In re, L.P., 573 F.3d 1300, 91 USPQ2d 1532, 1535 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (dictionary and other evidence of meaning of "hotel" sufficed to show that the plural form in HOTELS.COM was generic for the information and reservation services at issue).