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.

Filed Under: cybersquatting, david elliott, trademark


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  1. 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.


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