When someone asks you to Google something, do you punch it into Bing? Has anyone ever Yahooed something?
Linguistic conventions and trademark law are being put to the test by a lawsuit in which Phoenix, Arizona, resident David Elliott is suing to have Google’s trademark on its own name canceled, on the basis that the term now refers to a generic internet search.
Elliott heads a venture marketed toward the gay community. Part of his business plan, it seems, was to register some 750 sites that included the word “Google,” including GoogleGayCruises.com and GoogleDonaldTrump.com. Google didn’t take kindly to that strategy, and won ownership of the cache of domains from Elliott in a ruling earlier this month by the National Arbitration Forum.
According to Elliott’s lawyers, that move was unwarranted. They say ‘Google’ has become “a generic term universally used to describe the action of internet searching with any search engine, which cannot serve as a trademark to the exclusion of others,” according to a new complaint.
“Worldwide, the term ‘GOOGLE’ has been, and is now used as a common transitive verb meaning ‘to search the Internet’ or to ‘search the internet using any search engine,’” reads the complaint. “The Collins English Dictionary, the online dictionary www.dictionary.com, and Wikipedia all recognize ‘GOOGLE’ as a transitive verb.”
The complaint makes a historical and linguistic case for releasing the name from trademark, a not-unprecedented event that has previously put terms including “linoleum” and “kerosene,” both originally trademarked, into generic use.
“There is no known synonym for the verb ‘GOOGLE,’” reads the complaint, which does not acknowledge that the word ‘search’ might be such a synonym.
Elliott faces an uphill battle. To liberate the verb “Google” from Google, he would need to demonstrate in court that users no longer associate the brand name with the company.
Underlying the case is the suggestion of bias. Elliott notes that there are “thousands” of domain names that include the word Google that the company has not attempted to shut down, including sites that provide “pornographic material, questionable dating services, competitive search engine services, and more.”
Digital Trends’ Graeme McMillan points out that, in a certain way, the lawsuit could be seen as a compliment: in a sense, Elliott is charging that Google has become so popular that it has subsumed the notion of search.
Eat your heart out, Bing.
Image: Aspirin is a generic term in the United States, but is still trademarked to Bayer in many countries (Morguefile.com)