Googling Google

by Weintraub Tobin
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“I googled it …” has become ubiquitous in every day conversation. Many of us refer to “googling” as the act of searching the internet regardless of whether we use the Google search engine to do so.  But has our everyday use of the verb “googling” rendered the Google trademark unprotectable?  “Nope,” said the Ninth Circuit in the recent case of Elliott v. Google, Inc., decided May 16, 2017.

In early 2012, one of the Plaintiffs registered more than 750 domain names using the word “Google” to describe various brands and things such as “googledisney.com” and “googleborackobama.net.”  After Google objected, the National Arbitration Forum agreed that these domain names were confusingly similar to the GOOGLE trademark and were registered in bad faith.  It transferred the domain names to Google.  Plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit seeking to cancel the GOOGLE trademark under the Lanham Act.  Plaintiffs argued that because the word “google” had become universally understood to describe the act of internet searching, it had become “generic” and was no longer subject to trademark protection. The U.S. District Court in Arizona rejected this claim and granted summary judgment in Google’s favor. Plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

The Court began by recognizing that generic terms are “common descriptive” names, which people use to describe a particular type of good or services. Because generic terms do not identify the “source of the product” they are generally not protectable under trademark law.  The Court continued by recognizing that over time, brands could become the victim of “genericide,” that is, “when the public appropriates a trademark and uses it as a generic name for particular types of goods or services irrespective of its source.”  The Court provided as examples aspirin, cellophane and thermos as once protected trademarks that had lost their trademark protection over time as the public became accustomed to using these terms in connection with describing a type of product, regardless of who made the product.

However, the Ninth Circuit cautioned that “the mere fact that the public sometimes uses a trademark as a name for a unique product does not immediately render the mark generic … Instead, a trademark only becomes generic when the `primary significance of the registered mark to the relevant public’ is as the name for a particular type of good or service irrespective of its source.”  The Ninth Circuit described this analysis as the who/what test, i.e., whether the relevant public understands a mark as describing the “who” as the maker or provider of a good or service as opposed to whether it understands the mark as the “what” in describing the good or service regardless of who makes or provides it.

In rejecting the Plaintiffs’ claims, the Ninth Circuit began by clarifying that a claim of “genericness” must be made with regard to a particular type of good or service.  In doing so, it rejected Plaintiff’s claim that because “googling” had been commonly used to describe an act, i.e., an internet search, the District Court erred when it limited its inquiry as to internet search engines.  The Ninth Circuit found that this was proper because any claim of genericness must be made in relation to a good or service given the clear language of the Lanham Act.  The Ninth Circuit continued by recognizing that the failure to limit the inquiry to a particular good or service would put at risk those trademarks that were “arbitrary,” i.e., where an existing word is used to identify the source of a good with which it would otherwise have no logical relationship.  For instance, “IVORY” is subject to trademark protection when used in connection with the particular brand of soap, but would otherwise be subject to cancellation for genericness if “IVORY” was used in connection with products made from elephant tusks.

Next, the Ninth Circuit turned to the Plaintiffs’ argument that because the public has used “googling” as a verb, it was no longer subject to protection.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, finding that the use of an otherwise protected mark as a verb does not automatically render it generic.  The Court concluded that Congress, in amending the Lanham Act, specifically acknowledged that a protected mark may be used as both the name for a product, i.e., as a noun, and yet also used with a specific source in mind, i.e., an adjective.  The Ninth Circuit cited a prior case involving Coca-Cola’s trademarks in which it rejected a claim that customers ordering a “coke” were not necessarily referring to a Coca-Cola product.

The Ninth Circuit spoke approvingly of the District Court’s analysis in this regard by referring to both “discriminate verbs” and “indiscriminate verbs” in order to evaluate Plaintiffs’ claims.  The Court had reasoned that a speaker might use “google” in both an indiscriminate sense, i.e., using “googling” to refer to an internet search without regard to the search engine, as well as other times using it in the determinate sense, i.e., using “Google” meaning to search the internet using the Google search engine.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that the District Court properly found that the primary significance of the word “Google” was whether the relevant public related it to the specific search engine as opposed to the more of the generic internet searching term.

In conducting this inquiry, the Ninth Circuit found that the lower court properly concluded that Plaintiff had not met his burden of establishing the genericness of Google.  The Court noted that the Plaintiffs’ bore the burden of proving genericide by a preponderance of the evidence because they were the ones seeking cancellation of the GOOGLE trademark.  Thus, they were required “to identify sufficient evidence to support a jury finding that the primary significance of the word ‘google’ to the relevant public is as a name for internet search engines generally and not as a mark identifying the google search engine in particular.” Here, the lower court had rejected two of the three surveys conducted by Plaintiffs as being unreliable.  The District Court did accept a third survey, which used but was described as the “thermos” study in which a survey respondent was asked: “If you were going to ask a friend to search for something on the internet, what word or phrase would you use to tell him/her what you want him/her to do?” more than half the respondents used the term “google.”  The Court concluded, however, that this evidence did not go any further other than allowing a favorable inference to be drawn that google had both a determinate and indeterminate use.

Plaintiffs attempted to offer evidence concerning dictionary definitions of the term “google” but the Court again found this evidence insufficient given that the definitions referred to both the Google search engine and did nothing more than support the favorable inference already drawn by the District Court.

Finally, Plaintiffs argued that there was no other term to be used to describe the act of “googling,” which was rejected by the Court.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this finding that not a single competitor of Google’s referred to their search engine as “a google.” In short, the Ninth Circuit found that most of the evidence submitted by Plaintiffs to avoid summary judgment was irrelevant to the primary inquiry and affirmed the lower court’s granting of summary judgment in Google’s favor.

For now, it appears that Google’s trademark is safe.  However, give it time and how the public comes to view the term “google,” a court could revisit this issue in the future.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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