Xerox and other abused trademarks?

So, Cecil, you used “Xerox” as a verb in your Jackalope column, and didn’t even capitalize it. I know that many trademarks become so embedded in our consciousness that we think of them as the true generic word for the concept, when it’s really something clumsy like “photocopy.” (Although, I’m not sure “photocopied” wouldn’t have served your tone even better in the particular spot where you used “xeroxed”, but hey, you’re the nationally syndicated writer.)

Which leads me to my question: Xerox, Jell-o, Kleenex, Aspirin… which of these brand-nouns have actually become so ingrained in the lexicon that the trademark owners are no longer legally able to do anything about it?

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Does the jackalope have a rabbit’s body but an antelope’s horns? (11-Aug-2000)

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I didn’t see “spam” on the list. Or “Barbie”, which everybody I know uses, instead of saying “eleven and a half inch fashion doll”.

“If you’re a good girl, we’ll go to the Dollar Store and get you a Barbie.”

What about “Bubble Tape” which I believe is probably a registered trademark, but everybody around here uses to refer to bubble gum tape?

Also, we use “Doctor Pepper”, “Mountain Dew”, and “7-up” to refer to the equivalent store brand knockoff. It’s what’s down in the basement; it’s understood that that’s what you’re referring to.

Is “Duct Tape” a registered trademark?

Was Velcro on the list?

It’s not a case of being ingrained. Kleenex is so well ingrained that virtually no one calls it facial tissue, yet it’s still a trademark. For well-established trademarks, there has to be a judicial ruling that it is now generic.

Among those four, aspirin lost its trademark status in the United States during WWI. The trademark, along with the name Bayer and their US factory, was confiscated as “enemy property”. After the war, IG Farben sued to recover it but lost. Finally in 1994, Bayer (IG Farben was broken up after WWII) bought the company that owned the rights to the name Bayer in the US. But the word aspirin was lost to the public domain so they can’t recover it.

However, aspirin is a trademark in various other countries, including Canada.

Spam is still being fought. The company has assented that they really can’t do anything about people calling junk email “spam”, so they just ask that you differentiate between spam (email) and Spam (the “tasty” pork ham meat product). And FYI, I have seen “potted meat” - the generic name. Or you could call the generic “canned pork”.

Barbie is still specific. Everyone you know uses “Barbie” because that is the single most common, popular, well-known, and easily found 12" tall fashion doll. Can you name any other brand of 12" tall fashion doll? So of course the kids want a Barbie, not a “fashion doll”. So the parents buy a Barbie. Like wanting a Star Wars action figure. If parents claim they’re going to buy a Star Wars figure then buy a Batman figure, that’s a difference (the importance of which is up to the individual opinion of the kid in question). Most parents won’t bother to say “I’ll buy you an action figure.” They’ll either say “Star Wars” or “Batman” or other specific brand name figure, or they’ll use the generic “toy”.

Dollar Store may be going generic.

Is there more than one brand of bubble gum tape, or is “Bubble Tape” the only brand?

Regarding sodas, I disagree with you. If I ask for a Sprite and someone gives me a 7-up, I can usually taste it, and not approve. Similarly with Coke vs. Pepsi. And those are such that the companies do fight in court to preserve their names. Example is the word “coke”. If you go to a store and ask for a coke, they legally should either clarify that you mean a Coca-cola or tell you if all they have is RC. Because Coke is trademarked. Cola is generic. That is really bad in the south where every soda is a coke. “I’ll have a coke.” “What kind?” “Oh, a Dr Pepper”.

Anybody trying to pass off a Slice as a Sprite should be shot. It is definitely NOT understood that whatever is down in the basement will work. Any good customer service person will clarify out of courtesy anyway, but if not for that reason the companies will sue restaurants that they find doing such.

“Duck Tape” is a registered trademark. Duct tape is, I believe, generic.

And Velcro is a brand name. The government uses “hook and pile fastener” as the generic term. Or “hook and loop”.

OK, so one can say “cola” instead of “Coke”, and the wordy “Lemon-lime drink” instead of 7up, but what does one call a generic drink flavored similarly to a Dr Pepper or a Mountain Dew? So far as I know, those flavors don’t have generic names.

Mountain Dew, Mello Yello, and the excrable Mountain Lightening are all citrus flavored beverages.

Dunno from the Doc and others.


Heroin was once a trade name for a cough medicine manufactured by Bayer. I guess they gave up the fight on that one. Check out the link for an ad from the 1890s.

Chronos, Dr Pepper clones are technically colas, but Dr Pepper had a unique taste that most colas didn’t, so there have been (numerous) efforts to create a generic form.

According to
they are “Dr Pepper clones”. Not very catchy, huh.

With the exception of a handful from the list, they all pretty much use some derivivative of “Dr” in their title - to indicate they supposedly taste like Dr Pepper instead of regular colas.

Awesome! So much learned debate from so little a thing. Of course, without THAT, what would SMDB be? Don’t answer that.

Anywho, I read the column that Beruang pointed out, and I guess my question is: Is the word for these things now “meponym”? It never seemed to come to a conclusion.


p.s. sorry about not including the link. damn. I know that’s de rigeur, and I just flaked in the excitement of my first real post.

If you ever look in Writer’s Digest or The Writer, you’ll see that companies have taken out full-page ads warning writers NOT to use “xerox” as a substitute for “photocopy”, an the like. If you obeyed these ads you’d find yourself writing stilted things, like “Kleenex brand facial tissue” or “Band-aid Brand adhesive bandages”.

I’ve heard the justification for this, but it still seems unnecessary. “Aspirin” and “Cellophane” and “Zipper” may have been lost to their inventors, but does anyone seriously think that the powers-that-be are going to allow “Band-aid” and “Coke” to follow the same course? Even though these words have been colloquialisms for many decades? I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into a fast-food restaurant and ordered a “cola”, only to get a blank look from the counter help. “You mean a Coke?” they’ll ask, even if the brand they’re serving is Pepsi. Don’t tell me the Big Names are worried about losing their copyrights.

They are, which is why those ads in Writer’s Digest. But they don’t have to suppress every instance of someone using their trademarks incorrectly, it just has to look like they are making a good faith effort. If they ever get into court where someone is challenging the trademark, those ads will be part of their defense.

I was under the impression that companies don’t like to use words even remotely associated with other companies’ products.

Walkman may be a generic term, but most companies I’ve seen advertise them as personal stereos. In the UK hoover is a generic term for vacuum cleaners, but competitors still call them vacuum cleaners.

AFAIK, Walkman is still a trademark, as is Hoover. Just because it’s used generically by your average schlub doesn’t change a trademark’s status.

While the companies can’t control how the tm is used by the general public (except for those ads in Writer’s Digest), another company using it (or even something similar enough to confuse the customers) will get slapped with a lawsuit. If the second company wants to challenge the status, that’s probably how they would do it, but they have to be prepared to spend lots of dough on lawyers.

CalMeacham said:

No you wouldn’t. If you wish to refer to the brand name, you can do so without specifying the specific product. Just capitalize it. “Get me a Kleenex. What, that’s not a Kleenex, that’s just a facial tissue.” “I need a Band-aid - I’m bleeding.” “Sorry, all I have is Curad.”

If you need a generic term, drop the brand name and just say “adhesive bandage” or “facial tissue”. Or “snot rag”. “Paper hanky”, anyone?

Fast food shlubs aside, attempt to avoid the corruption of the terms. When I say I want a Coke, I mean a Coke, not a Pepsi, or a Dr Pepper. When I want a Dr Pepper, I say “Dr Pepper”. If I need a generic, I’ll ask what “soft drinks” they have, or sometimes “soda”. “Pop” is popular up north. Or you could ask for a “carbonated sweetened acidic beverage”. :wink:

The most assiduous letter-writer in the UK press is the guy who looks after the rights of Dictaphone. Every time a journalist dares to use the trademark as a generic term I see his letter in the paper the next day.

An IP attorney at my firm has explained that the key for the brand holder is to use the brand name as an adjective, never as a noun. That’s why we hear odd lines like “Watch it/Wiggle/See it/Jiggle/Cool and/Fruity/Jell-0 band gelatin…” Companies have erred when they’ve used lines like, say, “Nabisco is Shredded Wheat!” because they’re acknowledging that the brand is really Nabisco, not Shredded Wheat. (I’m not sure if this was actually the case with Shredded Wheat, but I think it’s indeed what happened to Thermos.)

Also, I’ve noticed that some generics are diminishing in use. I don’t here Xerox so often anymore, now that there’s really no other way to “copy” other than photocopying. When’s the last time anyone saw a mimeograph? Or carbon paper? (hijack) Remember the smell of fresh dittos? It’s one of the memories of grade school…

In NYC, I hear people just say “tissue,” since what other kind of tissue would they mean? (“Bathroom tissue?” Please, only in P&G’s dreams.)

But really, it doesn’t matter what the public says. What matters is how the brand holder behaves, both in using the brand itself, and it being seen to defend the brand aggressively. Xerox doesn’t really think it’s convincing people not to use the name. It just needs to be perceived as defending it, and asking people not to use it is one of the best ways. It’s a charade, but with an important purpose - the message really isn’t to the public, but to the courts and to competitors, that “I know I have a valuable brand and I’m not going to let it just wither away.”

Speaking of Jell-O band gelatin…

Nabisco sued a band for calling itself “Green Jello.” The band changed its name (the litigation of these points is notoriously expensive), although I suspect they might have successfully argued a First Amendment political-satire defense.

It’s now called “Green Jelly.” Anyone ever, ahem, “here” of them?

Well, the last time I saw a mimeographed copy was about last Christmas, the last time I visited my Mom. She’s an elementary-school teacher, and with the antiquated equipment the schools supply, dittoes are actually still cheaper than photocopies. I’d also hear of Green Jello/Jelly before the court case, but that’s just because I lived in Cleveland.