This past Tuesday, something quite unusual happened: a trademark case was decided at the U.S. Supreme Court. This is rare, only one or two trademark-related cases/year are argued — and in some years, none — and most of these deal with procedural questions, damages, or dilution.The USPTO vs. case, on the other hand, dealt with exactly the kind of issue name owners and creators worry about, that is, the uniqueness, registrability, and defensibility of one’s new company or brand name. Dating to 2011 when the USPTO (United States Patent & Trademark Office) refused to register as a trademark, the case made its way up through multiple courts and appeals over the past 9 years.The basic question was, could a generic term — booking — with the addition of a TLD (Top Level Domain) such as .com, acquire distinctiveness and become a trademark? The USPTO's position was no, that a generic + a TLD was unregistrable, as it was still generic. That view was consistent with the tradition that you can’t take a generic and add “Company" to it, and claim you and only you can use that term. In fact, in their refusal, the USPTO asserted a “sweeping rule” that a generic term + .com is intrinsically generic and not eligible to be a trademark.In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court decided just the opposite. In the majority opinion, Justice Ginsburg laid out the argument that had in fact developed acquired meaning, in that customers recognize it as a brand, not as a generic source of hotel information. functions as the indicator of a specific source of services, the very purpose and definition of a trademark.While meaningful for the trademark-ability of other generic + TLD brands such as or, indeed,, what are the implications here, for new company and brand names? While generic + TLD names may now become more common, it can take years to establish acquired meaning for a generic, and for it to function as a brand. Further, it is unclear how effective many of these names are; there are a number of examples in which a leads to its more branded entity, forwarding to Barnes & Noble, for example, and to 1-800-Flowers. In our view, for name creators and selectors, suggestive names remain preferable to these now-more-possible trademarks. Suggestive (and indeed, arbitrary) names are more ownable, defensible, and memorable; and often avoid the very high cost of acquiring a How many successful recent brands are generic, compared to the plethora of unicorns and high-growth brands with suggestive names: one-word names like Stripe, Lime, Deliveroo, Intercom, and Affirm; and compounds like Robinhood, DoorDash, Transferwise, and Snapchat? Net net, for those of us in a position to create and choose new names, building on the solid foundation of a suggestive name you can own and grow into a powerful brand, without going all the way to the Supreme Court, is a smarter, less fraught approach.
Really interesting case. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Do you have an opinion about whether this "good" vs "bad" in general. Also – I added a link to a Verge article covering the story for context.
I think this is "good" for those brands that have already invested time and money in turning their generic names into brands -- such as or -- but that it points out the weakness of choosing a generic+TLD as a name for a new venture: the time, cost, and potential litigation involved. So potentially "good" for you if this describes your existing brand, but a "bad" approach for anything new.
Thanks for sharing. I think one ramification here could be that well-funded companies could have unfair advantages to file for exclusive use rights of a more generic term if they can withstand the costs and process of repeated prosecution with the USPTO that smaller applicants can’t. All that said, it didn’t seem that the SCOTUS was undermining the requirement that such terms develop secondary meaning vis a vis their modifiers, so it will be interesting to see if this attracts more people to try and choose such generic base names. Also, from a branding perspective, I’d like to think new companies will see value in selecting unique and creative identifiers!
Plus, there is the prospect for increased TM application objections, and litigation on likelihood-of-confusion grounds, between companies with similar generic names -- say a hypothetical objecting to an or a Absolutely agree, a unique and defensible name is a much better choice for anyone who hopes to build a brand.
Thanks for posting this. Very interesting. Our startup faces both the generic name and "it describes the function of the app" - two strikes against us (RSVP). Time will tell if we register with USPTO as a different type of business or end up registering our url ( instead... First, we're hoping that the pandemic gets under control so that the entertainment industry opens up once again. Stay safe and healthy out there everyone!