Understanding Generic : the Land of Lost Trademarks


Understanding Generic : the Land of Lost Trademarks

At 99designs, we tend to define the “original” relative to its opposite — the much maligned “copy.” Somewhere in between these two poles, though, exists a no man’s land known as the “generic.” Any designer who has brushed against our originality policy or followed our blog knows how crucial this third concept is in determining a design’s originality: while maybe not that exciting, generic is fair game. But what exactly do we mean by it?


image by San Jose Library

Chances are, you deal in the generic more than you know — with the world of trademarks. Like logos, brand names are unique signs (only linguistic instead of visual) meant to stand for a specific product. Companies trademark them to legally protect their uniqueness; once trademarked, other companies cannot use them.


image by RahelSharon

However, sometimes the power of the masses overrules the power of law. Take the word “escalator,” a brand name originally trademarked by the Otis Elevator Company. Soon, people started using the word “escalator” to refer to all moving stairs, not just Escalator-brand moving stairs. This improper usage eventually became so common that the U.S. court declared the term “generic.” Now, any company that produces moving stairs may call their product an “escalator.”


image by Nicola since 1972

In summary: the more widely entrenched a word becomes in the common vocabulary, the harder it is to legally claim it as ones own property.


image by ecastro

The same occurs, again and again, in graphic design. For example, placing a speech bubble in a social networking-oriented website’s logo, though perhaps original at one point, has since become such a common part of our “visual vocabulary,” it is now considered generic. If a brief involves networking, then, speech bubbles are open for anyone to use. The same goes for leaves in environmentally-oriented company logos, simple abstract geometries, the fusion of a company name’s initial letters and a vast array of other such endlessly re-used concepts.


image by dandeluca

Throughout this post we’ve included images of once trademarked brand names that have become generic, either officially or in practice. Did you recognize them? The Yo-Yo, the Escalator, the Zipper, the Band-Aid and the Kleenex have all gone the way of the generic.

Can you think of any others? Post them in the comments!

Understanding Generic : the Land of Lost Trademarks | manda | 4.5
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