Thursday, October 29, 2009

Descriptive Trademarks

The title here is a bit misleading as descriptive words are not typically allowed to be registered on the USPTO’s trademark Principal Register. Let’s back up a little...

One of the main points (some would argue THE main point) of having a Federal trademark is to have exclusive rights to a name, a logo or a slogan within your industry. Given that, words that “merely describe” the goods or services are not going to be allowed.

There are two main reasons the USPTO provides:

1) “to prevent the owner of a mark from inhibiting competition in the sale of particular goods”

What this means: The owner of the descriptive word(s) can’t trademark it as it could create a stranglehold, of sorts, on the word(s) within the industry. For instance, the word “trademark” is disclaimed on our Federal trademark registration on
TradeMark Express, meaning we’re not claiming exclusive rights to the word “trademark” as it’s a descriptive word for our industry.

2) “to maintain freedom of the public to use the language involved, thus avoiding the possibility of harassing infringement suits by the registrant against others who use the mark when advertising or describing their own products”

What this means: People should have the freedom to use descriptive words in advertising or in describing their goods/services. Using the example above, other companies offering trademark services should be able to use the word “trademark” to describe their services, in their advertising, etc.

So How do I Know if my Name is Descriptive?

As with anything trademark, it’s never black & white. Each situation is going to vary from the next. The basic litmus test is “does this word describe the product and/or service?” and if the answer is yes, then you’ve most likely got a descriptive name on your hands.

It is not necessary that a term describe all of the purposes, functions, characteristics, or features of a product/service to be considered merely descriptive; it is enough if the term describes one significant function, attribute, or property.

Here are some examples provided by the USPTO:

• APPLE PIE held merely descriptive of potpourri (most likely because the words describe the scent)

• BED & BREAKFAST REGISTRY held merely descriptive of lodging reservations services

• MALE-P.A.P. TEST held merely descriptive of clinical pathological immunoassay testing services for detecting and monitoring prostatic cancer

If you’d like help determining if your name is descriptive, please leave a comment or email me at

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