A Thermos Full of Aspirin For the Headache of Trademarked Words Acceptable In Scrabble

A Law of Language

Language is interesting for 3 reasons: It’s neither as stable nor unstable as we believe it is, it’s more important than we think it is, it’s the primary means of human minds interacting and yet it’s not clear what it is or how it works. A human mind exploring language is something like traversing a museum of optical illusions that is constantly reconstructing itself based on the exploration.

I think this is part of why I love trademarks. Trademarks are one of the places where boring, unimaginative people (who care only about money and the weather, but only sincerely about the first) are given an example of why it’s ok for me to care about interesting, abstract ideas like language. Trademarks (especially word marks) are about the use of language to describe and define the business world. However, law wants to be stable and static, and language sometimes wants to be fluid and miasmic. Because law is made of language, there are some challenges that come from language in every field of law- but trademark law is almost made of language puzzles.

Scrabble: A Classic Language Word Game

Sometimes I get salty when I play Scrabble. Not because I lose a lot (though… that too), but because I see dictionaries as valuable tools for describing and explaining language.

I don’t think Scrabble is actually a game about language. It is about words. Some words, at least: sequences of letters that are on an approved list. The question that underpins my frustration is “How do we decide which sequences of letters make it on that list?” I think that question is really about the difference between words and language. Words are just strings of characters that we can list. Language is a complex network of decisions about communication. The flexibility and organic nature of language is the foremost challenge in determining the official list of proper and acceptable words.  The Great Scrabble Tradition (and probably also some rules) holds that “foreign words” and “proper nouns” are not permitted. Depending on the house rules, this usually includes company names, brand names, and product names.

I recently had the opportunity to play the word “thermos.” I stopped myself- I knew the word was trademarked over a hundred years ago, which would make it an ineligible word for play. I later looked the word up, unsure if there was some “definition 2” trick that I didn’t know about. I was surprised that the word was acceptable for play in Scrabble. I leapt into research and found out that the thermos trademark was actually cancelled in 1963 as a result of a Federal Circuit ruling that the word had become generic! I was so excited to learn about a trademark cancellation by a court that I didn’t even remember to be salty that I could have won that game if I’d known I could play that word. A court ruling like that is pretty rare, so this was a very exciting find.

Genericized Trademarks: A Vibrant Afterlife for Intellectual Property

Not a lot of words have the distinction of being introduced to the world as a label with a business goal in mind, and then transform into a piece of common parlance. But when they do, it is often because the business was too successful.

In copyright, works automatically become part of the public domain after a fixed number of years (realistically, whatever time Disney tells Congress to choose, but at least Congress writes down the most recent number of years in the latest copyright law amendment). Patents expire automatically after a fixed number of years (20 years for a utility patent, 14 for design). Trademarks don’t have a built-in expiration date- they’re generally just valid until they’re no longer used in commerce. But on rare occasions, the word can become generic over time. As more people get familiar with a product, they use the special name of the product as meaning the general name of the product. In my own lifetime, “Google” has changed from one of several search engines to the verb for general online research. Google fights this, a little, but they’re going to lose. It’s a little like when people try to control  copyright violations in the context of the internet. It’s very hard to stop people from singing and drawing what they want to, even if you can curb some of their publications. But if that is hard, it’s nigh impossible to stop people from using language the way they want to.

Conclusion: Trademark Law is For Consumers as well as Business

I love the poetic irony in trademark law: when you dominate the market too completely, you lose something about what made you special. When Aspirin was introduced by Bayer to American doctors, “Bayer listed ASA with an intentionally convoluted generic name (monoacetic acid ester of salicylic acid) to discourage doctors referring to anything but Aspirin.” This somewhat underhanded marketing move contributed to a 1921 court decision that effectively cancelled Bayer’s trademark.

Trademark law is made for a thriving, competitive marketplace. Its purpose is to help consumers navigate a busy and crowded marketplace accurately, and without being deceived. When the marketplace is no longer competitive, trademark law is less necessary. The rules concerning generic trademarks emphasize that trademark law exists to protect consumers from confusion and deception. If trademark law was centered on protecting businesses*, it would not make sense to cancel the trademark of a company that had dominated the market.

Just as Scrabble is a word game, not a language game, trademark law is a consumer protection law, not a business law. The distinction seems small, but sometimes a small difference matters. Like when you decide not to play “thermos” and lose a round of Scrabble by less than 10 points. One word– and the legal and linguistic status of the word– can make a difference, for both Scrabble and trademarks.


*Trademark law does protect businesses, of course: it prevents other competitors from benefiting from the branding and goodwill of a company, and gives legal backing to the abstract notion of “goodwill” that makes it a viable, montized asset of a company.