Bank Threatens Reporter Over Trademark For Using The Term 'Virtual Wallet'

from the virtual-wallet,-virtual-wallet dept

We’ve written many times in the past about how, thanks to the ridiculous sense of “ownership society” that is often presented to the world around copyright, patents and trademarks, it’s unfortunately common to see massive overclaiming of certain rights. That’s especially true of trademarks, which really shouldn’t be lumped in with patents and copyrights, since they’re very very different. Trademarks, as we’ve noted before, are really about avoiding consumer confusion, so they don’t buy one product trusting that it’s another product. It is not about “ownership” in any sense. And yet so many companies (and individuals) think that if they get a trademark on a word or phrase, they can basically stop anyone else from ever using it.

The latest example of trademark overreach comes from PNC Bank, who threatened a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle for having the gall to use the phrase “virtual wallet” in an article. PNC sent a legal nastygram, telling the SF Chronicle that it must “refrain from misuse of our client’s VIRTUAL WALLET trademark.” Except, of course, that’s hogwash. Nothing in trademark law could possibly make that true, and the Chronicle’s James Temple responded appropriately:

To which I say: virtual wallet, virtual wallet, virtual wallet, virtual wallet.

Furthermore, he notes that the trademark itself is almost certainly invalid, as the phrase was in widespread common usage for many years before 2008 when the bank sought the trademark (and, ridiculously, the USPTO granted it).

In late 1994, Newsweek published an article titled “The Age of Cybercash” that informed readers: “Your virtual wallet may soon be here.”

By the end of 2007, the term “virtual wallet” had appeared more than 700 times in the English press, including in American Banker, the Economist, the New York Times and Consumer Reports.

Nevertheless, the following year, PNC Financial Services Group launched a “Virtual Wallet” product. It sought trademark protection, asking to own the commercial rights to two consecutive words that had been pushed together by the press and industry more than a decade earlier.

Temple goes on to call out others who have sought to abuse trademark law to “homestead” the English language — including our favorite trademark troll ever, Leo Stoller, who “trademarked” all kinds of words including “stealth,” “all goods and services,” “chutzpah,” and (oh yeah) “Google” which he claimed to have been using since 1981.

As Temple notes, PNC is trying to avoid having the phrase “virtual wallet” be declared generic such that their registered trademark can be eliminated, but if they didn’t want that to happen, they probably shouldn’t have gone with such an already generic and descriptive phrase.

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Companies: pnc bank, sf chronicle

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Comments on “Bank Threatens Reporter Over Trademark For Using The Term 'Virtual Wallet'”

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27 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

after the amount of shit the banks have caused worldwide, mainly thanks to those in the USA, i would have thought that they would have kept quiet over such a ridiculous thing and kept a low profile in general. like the entertainment industries, the old ‘thick skin’ (or should it be just thick?) doesn’t even crinkle when wet, let alone when making pricks of themselves!

Anonymous Coward says:

“Furthermore, he notes that the trademark itself is almost certainly invalid, as the phrase was in widespread common usage for many years before 2008 when the bank sought the trademark (and, ridiculously, the USPTO granted it).”

The word Apple was in widespread common usage for many years before Apple trademark it.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The word Apple was in widespread common usage for many years before Apple trademark it.

Yes – but that trademark was for a different and very specific use of the word. You can still use the word Apple to describe anything that you might have described as an apple before 1975 – (including the Beatles music company). The point here is that PNC are trying to claim trademark on a usage of the term that predates their own usage – you can’t do that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes – but that trademark was for a different and very specific use of the word. You can still use the word Apple to describe anything that you might have described as an apple before 1975 – (including the Beatles music company). The point here is that PNC are trying to claim trademark on a usage of the term that predates their own usage – you can’t do that.

It strikes me as having been merely descriptive, not generic. It became registrable when it acquired secondary meaning.

F! says:

Re: Re:

“The word Apple was in widespread common usage for many years before Apple trademark it.”

I still facepalm whenever I think about how Apple Computers signed a deal with Apple Records saying that as long as they (Apple Computers) would stay out of the music business, they could each keep their respective names.

Apple Computers later violated the agreement when they introduced iTunes, and then they turned around and sued Apple Records – and WON. WTF was that judge thinking!? That was just wrong on so many levels…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

That’s because the original trademark registration for the XEROX mark is still valid and subsisting.

Although the original registration for KLEENEX used with tissue has lapsed, it wasn’t due to any genericness holding (at least not at the PTO).

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of these brands’ death by genericide are greatly exaggerated.

In contrast, competing companies use actual generic terms that used to be trademarks all the time (e.g., aspirin, zipper).

Anonymous Coward says:

PNC is trying to avoid having the phrase “virtual wallet” be declared generic such that their registered trademark can be eliminated,

Why? Why are they fighting so hard to keep a generic term from being recognized as generic? So they can keep being humiliated in the press? So they can throw more money away on legal efforts to try to keep people from using basic online terminology? Why?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because they paid a bunch of money to get the trademark in the first place.
It would call into question why the bank and its lawyers would ignore the obvious problems and spend money to do this.
Also it would allow them to keep any other bank from offering a “Virtual Wallet” so they could be unique and own the whole idea.

PaulT (profile) says:

Reminds me of Games Workshops’ battles over “space marine”. Why they couldn’t foresee this is ridiculous. Yeah, you have a feature that acts like a wallet, only virtually, or you have combat forces who act like marines, only in space. Why should the combination of the most obvious words to describe your product be able to be trademarked?

Here’s a hint to companies: if you trademark something that’s a logical descriptor for the type of thing you’re selling, it will be inadvertently infringed upon and you’ll look like assholes for defending it, especially since such descriptors will almost certainly predate your own use. Either invent a non-obvious descriptor, or accept that others will always use it.

Another example of what happens when you let lawyers run your company, I suppose.

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