Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Trademark Battles

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Are you up for a little quiz? Tell me what's wrong with the following paragraph:

Bobby's mother was busy with the white-out, trying to fix a mistake on the manuscript before she xeroxed it. Meanwhile, Bobby had finished crying, threw away his soggy kleenex, checked the new band-aid on his knee, and ran back outside to continue rollerblading with his pals.

Welcome to the wonderful world of trademarks. Technically, of course, "white-out" should have been "Wite-Out brand correction product;" "kleenex" should have been "Kleenex tissue;" "band-aid" should have been "Band-Aid brand adhesive bandage;" and "rollerblading" should have been "in-line skating." The jury is still out on whether you need to capitalize xerox anymore.

A friend of mine recently gave me a copy of Writer's Magazine (probably figuring that I could use some help), and in it I found huge full-page and half-page ads from the companies in question, imploring - and sometimes threatening - budding writers to use trademarks appropriately.

The Velcro people bought an ad to remind writers that "Velcro" always needs to be capitalized and should never be used as a verb. "We work hard to protect our good name from those dastardly types who'd mistreat or usurp our registered trademark," the ad says, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek.The Rollerbade people compared misusing their trademark name to incest. Xerox, Kleenex, Gore-Tex, and Weight Watchers also had similar ads.

This represents more than mere nicety or a compulsion to be correct. The loss of a treasured (and heavily-advertized) trademark to general usage is a serious blow to any company.

It happened years ago to Aspirin. Before World War I, Aspirin used to be a trademark, like, say, Xerox - the property of one company - capitalized and everything. Only the Aspirin people didn't protect their trademark. Soon folks started calling most any brand of acetylsalicylic acid "aspirin," and it eventually lost its status as a capitalized trademark and drifted into general usage. Now, of course, anyone can produce and sell aspirin - it's become a generic name.

In fact, that's what's happening to Xerox right now. The company maintains that the word is a protected trademark, and in older dictionaries, it's listed as such - always spelled with a capital letter and always identified as a trademark. But recently some dictionaries - trying to keep track of how people actually use the language - have started listing "xerox" as a verb - and with no capital letter. This drives the Xerox Corporation nuts, and they even sometimes try to sue to keep their trademark out of dictionaries as a plain old verb. Visions of Aspirin dance in their heads, as it were.

This less about Xerox and Aspirin and even linguistics than it is about advertising.

As much as advertisers try to make their product name a household word, if they succeed too well, they'll lose their trademark.

So although the Band-Aid or Xerox or Jello folks want you to think of their product as the only one of its kind, if you actually start using the word as a generic term, they're sunk. If you call any bandage a "band-aid" or any flavored gelatin "jello," you're being both a loyal consumer and one who is contributing to the possible loss of the brand name you're supporting. English teachers call this ironic. Thus the ads in Writer's magazine trying to get budding writers, proofreaders, and editors to use the terms correctly.

Even the threat of legal action won't have any measurable effect, I suspect, and I think that's a good thing.

The English language is a living, constantly-changing entity. New words and new meanings for established words appear nearly every day. Remember when "gay" meant "happy," or when a "joint" was a saloon? Although this may be a boon to the dictionary-makers (who roll out a new edition every year or so) and a headache for trademark lawyers (who need to take out ads in magazines to get writers not to use product names as verbs), it's evidence that our communication is constantly changing.

And sometimes it's the words themselves that change, as well as the medium in which they're embedded. Any attempt to freeze words or even to own them is doomed to failure in a vibrant language.

Besides, it's hard for me to feel sorry for the companies who seem to be a victim of their own success. Although I can certainly appreciate the irony that making something a household word is both a wonderful testament to the power of advertising and at the same time threat to a company's trademark, I am unwilling to turn control of the language over to corporations, courts and lawyers.

So I'll still do my xeroxing on a Savin machine, thank you very much. And eat generic jello. I may not go rollerblading, but I will use kleenex (even if it's not made by Kimberly-Clark).

Maybe it's that rebellious streak I have. I'm just trying to do my bit to retain control of the language for the people who use it - us.