Failed Cybersquatter Asks Supreme Court To Declare 'Google' A Generic Term

from the give-me-back-my-bad-faith-registrations! dept

A litigant hoping to retain ownership of more than 750 domain names containing the word "google" has asked the Supreme Court to take a look at his recent Appeals Court loss.

David Elliott first filed a lawsuit against Google back in 2012, claiming the term "google" was now a generic word meaning "to use a search engine." If the term had become generic -- like aspirin, kleenex, and others before it -- Google no longer could claim control of the trademark and should relinquish his hundreds of domain names.

While it's true many people refer to running searches as "googling," nearly 100% of the time these people actually use Google's search engine. (I assume the small percentage that don't either don't know how to change their default search engine or simply don't care where their search results come from.) Elliott's attempted judicial genericide doesn't have much going for it, but at least he's not making assertions about Google and the Philadelphia 76ers colluding to expose his Social Security number to the world. (True story.)

The 9th Circuit Appeals Court [PDF] clearly didn't think Elliott had much of a case. It upheld the lower court's denial of Elliott's claims, pointing out that Google, as a trademarked term, covered far more than just its titular search engine. Thanks to its diversification, it's unlikely Google will become solely synonymous with search engines.

Having suffered two losses in a row, Elliott (along with co-plaintiff Chris Gillespie) is asking the Supreme Court to "undo the chaos" created by the Appeals Court decision. Elliott's main argument appears to be that if the general public verbs a trademarked noun, the owner of the trademark should lose all protection. From the petition [PDF]:

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion contradicts the advice given by scholars, leaving trademark owners and the appropriating public standing on uncertain ground. The Ninth Circuit found that trademarks used as verbs can be used either discriminately (in a manner which indicates source) or indiscriminately. These terms were coined by the Ninth Circuit in its opinion in this case and are not derived from any existing trademark law or precedent. However, the Ninth Circuit found neither discriminate nor indiscriminate verb usage affects the mark’s status as generic or non-generic. The Ninth Circuit found that only usage of the mark as the name (noun) for the class of goods or services on or in connection with which the trademark was used is relevant to the genericness of a mark.

First, taking this decision to its logical end results in untenable and conflicting consequences. A mark may be used ubiquitously as an indiscriminate verb to the point where no one remembers the term’s origin as a trademark and yet, pursuant to the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, the mark’s status would remain unchanged, existing in perpetuity. Second, the Ninth Circuit’s decision only begs more questions. If a verb can be discriminate, does that mean it can be registered as a trademark itself? On the other hand, if verb usage is not trademark usage, then can competitors fairly use verbs which originated with trademarks indiscriminately to describe the action of using their own products?

Some interesting arguments, but ones that kind of skirt around the issue underlying the case: the registration of URLs containing the word "google," most likely done in hopes of selling them off to the search engine giant or simply to harvest traffic from inept Googlers. Not only that, but some of the 763 domains registered would likely have caused problems down the road for the plaintiffs, as they also included names of other trademark holders. The Ninth Circuit opinion lists just a few of the registered domains and there's already an aggressive IP enforcer in the mix: "googledisney.com," "googlebarackobama. net," and "googlenewtvs.com."

It seems highly unlikely the Supreme Court will pick this case for review. While there may be a credible argument out there that Google's headed to genericide in terms of its search engine, the fact that it offers a number of non-search engine products under the Google brand makes it extremely difficult to simply declare "google" means nothing more than running a search. And I don't see the Supreme Court viewing someone's attempt to salvage cybersquatted domain names as being worthy of setting new precedent.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Matthew Cline (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 4:20am

    In order to protect a trademark, does a company like Google only have to make a good-faith effort to prevent the public from genericizing their trademark, or do they have to actually succeed? It seems to me that requiring success would be setting the bar too high, since (from my non-lawyer understanding of trademark law) a company can only sue if their trademark is used by as a name of a product or is used to advertise a product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:47am

      Re:

      In order to protect a trademark, does a company like Google only have to make a good-faith effort to prevent the public from genericizing their trademark, or do they have to actually succeed?

      Band-Aid and Kleenex still own their trademarks, so I have to figure it's the former.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 4:54am

    Verbs in violation

    You've gotta love it when parts of speech make the news. Next up: Can government issue injunctions against participles? Is a gerund eligible for personhood?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Machin Shin, 23 Aug 2017 @ 5:29am

    "I assume the small percentage that don't either don't know how to change their default search engine or simply don't care where their search results come from."

    Ahem... Or maybe there are those of us who do know how to change the default and actively choose to avoid Google. Google has strayed very far from their "Do no evil" motto. I tried to ignore the creepy "we are watching you" feeling, but after getting geolocated ads pushed to my phone I was like "Fuck this shit, I am out"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:39am

      Re:

      Well my iOS devices are set to DuckDuckGo. I use Google Search on my Desktop half the time, but really DuckDuckGo works quite well. It may not have some of the polish of Google for some things, and it doesn't spit out a zillion pages for a search like Google even though anything past the first page is almost always worthless. Not to be spied on everything I do. To not be force feed a bunch of Ad's.

      Yahoo used to be the Go To place. Currently it's Google and people are used to do, but really should give DuckDuckGo a chance. Try it for a week!!! You can still use your Google Map's and Gmail.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Machin Shin, 23 Aug 2017 @ 1:45pm

        Re: Re:

        Yeah, I have been using DuckDuckGo for years now. I have not missed google at all.

        Getting Google off an android phone.... now that was a bit more fun challenge. I did that too though and have been quite happy with it. Takes a little more effort and adjustment than switching search engines did.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:48am

      Re:

      Ahem... Or maybe there are those of us who do know how to change the default and actively choose to avoid Google.

      You really think there's a lot of overlap between that group and the group that uses "Google" as a generic term for searching?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Jeremy Lyman (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 10:49am

      Re:

      But you don't likely refer to generic searching as "googling," do you? We're looking for the subset who don't use Google and don't know they don't use Google.

      And don't worry, it's no so much that Google is watching you; just that Google is everywhere and knows everything. Better?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Machin Shin, 23 Aug 2017 @ 1:50pm

        Re: Re:

        I actually do sometimes just use "googling" as generic term for searching. Not that I don't get the difference, just that it kind of is a generic term.

        If I tell someone "Go google it" they know I mean "Go look that up online". Odds are very high they will probably go on to use google, but they might not.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 7:09am

    David really Elliotted this lawsuit up.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 7:20am

    claiming the term "google" was now a generic word meaning "to use a search engine."


    Hate to break it to the poor guy, but the word google has its origin in the study of math and it has nothing to do with search of any kind.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Machin Shin, 23 Aug 2017 @ 7:26am

      Re:

      The origin of a word really doesn't matter that much in this case. He is trying to make an argument about how the word is used currently by the common population. Where the world originally came from or what it used to mean does nothing to effect what it is now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        bob, 23 Aug 2017 @ 8:59am

        Re: Re:

        His problem is he tried to claim google means, to perform a search. From all the bad lawsuits and regulations people in America and Europe have tried to do, everyone knows google is the internet now.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Xuuths, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:14am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Your point makes his point -- that people aren't thinking of the company Google when they say "google". Using google and internet interchangeably is inaccurate technically, but demonstrates that regardless of diversity (is anyone claiming that they use "google" to mean any of the other Google offerings?), when people say to "google" something, they mean using a search engine.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      tanj, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:35am

      Re:

      That's googol.

      Google is an intentional misspelling.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 7:27am

    "While there may be a credible argument out there that Google's headed to genericide in terms of its search engine, the fact that it offers a number of non-search engine products under the Google brand makes it extremely difficult to simply declare "google" means nothing more than running a search"

    Is this still true, I though they moved all non-search related bits under the Alphabet name?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:44am

      Re:

      I think the point is, when someone say they're going to Google something, They actually go to Google!!! They don't then go to BING or DuckDuckGo or whoever else. So it's really NOT a generic term at all.

      aspirin is a generic term I assume, but Kleenex is a brand name. The generic term is tissue. I just ask for tissue, I don't think I've ever said Kleenex.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        spamvictim (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 1:24pm

        Re: aspirin

        Bayer lost the US trademark for Aspirin as confiscated enemy property at the end of WW I, so it's not a very good example. They lost the trademark for their highly effective cough syrup Heroin, too.

        Better examples are cellophane, escalator, and dry ice, all of which were originally US trademarks.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 7:41am

    Stupid conartist

    Like many others before him, he bought a bunch of urls that are related to a big company hoping they'd pay to get them rather than go through the hassle of a lawsuit. He figured google had billions and would throw a million or two his way to make him go away. It's been done since they started selling urls. Some companies fight, some settle, and some do a bit of both depending on circumstances. Google is much more willing to fight than settle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 8:03am

    Alphabet is the "Mother" Brand

    I don't agree with this statement from the article:

    "...the fact that it offers a number of non-search engine products under the Google brand..."

    Google is a product under the Alphabet brand. So, in this instance, I think that Google should be looked at alone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    James Burkhardt (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 8:15am

    I think it is important in this discussion to note the actual standard for gendercide: That the name is SO generic, you have to use it to be competitive. Its the flip side of the customer protection goal of trademark, That we will revoke a trademark if its presence is so dominant the trademark itself is harming the consumer market. I was unaware until recently that aspirin was a trademark at one time, you don't call that drug anything else. Trying to sell aspirin without calling it aspirin is a fools game. You need the name aspirin to sell your product.

    Google, while synonymous with search, and used as a generic term for searching the web, is not generic like Aspirin is. IF I talk about Bing, you know what that is. If I talk about a search engine, you know what that is. There are many places where using google to replace for search or search engine doesn't make any sense. "What site do you google with" is one of them. "I googled it on Yahoo" is another. Google is not so generic you have to use google to make yourself understood or compete in the search space. As such, there is no consumer benefit to Genericide of the google trademark.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 8:17am

    Until Bing, DuckDuckGo, etc. start having to call themselves "google engines" instead of search engines or else nobody will know what they do, this moron has no case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ShadowNinja (profile), 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:11am

      Re:

      ... But that's kind of the point of trademark law, they CAN'T call themselves 'google engines' while Google owns the trademark on Google.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:47am

        Re: Re:

        Who says they're going to Google something and then go to Bing? I'm going to Google this, and then goes to DuckDuckGo? I don't! Because Google is not generic. I also don't say I'm going to Yahoo and the go use Google.

        There's nothing generic about Google. This is a load of B.S.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          The Wanderer (profile), 24 Aug 2017 @ 7:09am

          Re: Re: Re:

          You don't, and I don't, and I (not speaking for you) think that no one should - but some people do, even including some technically-savvy people.

          They may not be at genericide yet, but they're well on the way. James Burkhardt's example sentences "What site do you google with?" and "I googled it on Yahoo" are instructive; contrary to his assertion that neither makes sense, I have literally heard a close equivalent of the latter used in real-world conversation.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:24am

    Follow The Money

    "Having suffered two losses in a row, Elliott (along with co-plaintiff Chris Gillespie) is asking the Supreme Court to 'undo the chaos' created by the Appeals Court decision."

    Who's paying the legal bills for the Nimrod's quest to defraud the unwary?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 9:58am

    Is kleenex fully generic?

    Lots of people talk generically about kleenexes, but has that actually been tested in court? I don't recall ever seeing an alternate brand print that on their box.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 10:59am

    I had to google "genericide", I thought it was just a mashup of generic and genecide but turns out it is a perfectly cromulent word...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 11:27am

    Turn a noun into a verb today
    Amaze you friends and family

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2017 @ 12:55pm

    Uh oh, someone is trying to hurt TD's biggest sponsor again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 24 Aug 2017 @ 7:34am

    Wait what

    "If the term had become generic -- like aspirin, kleenex, and others before it" Yes these terms have become ubiquitous but I cant start a company that sells Aspirin and call it Aspirin, Aspirin is a trademarked brand name for ASA. Hence why we have brands like Aspirin and Bayer. Same with Kleenex. I honestly dont know any other brand other than Kleenex but I know its a brand and no others can call themselves Kleenex. Many people call diapers pampers or pull-ups, but this is a brand and also ubiquitous for these products.
    This guy has no case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.