iHoover: When trademarks become generic

Posted on by Mike Evans

Such has been the success of Apple in the past five years that I can well understand the company's desire to protect trademarks. Unfortunately, great success brings the danger of your cherished trademark turning into a generic term. Apple are dangerously close to this phenomenon with the iPod. These days everyone talks about an iPod and everyone knows instantly that this is an MP3 player. It's definitely a more effective description than any other.

This is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the one case we all recognise is the trademark Hoover. Once upon a time, back in the middle of the last century, Hoover was the iPod of the vacuum world, with Goblin and Electrolux snapping at their bags. Even 50 years ago people were happily "hoovering" with their Goblins and not sparing a thought for the trademark. Now it is universal to prefer the verb hoover to the more generic vacuum.

There are lots of other similar instances. Sellotape and Scotchtape are both trademarks and have been fiercely protected by their owners for more than fifty years. Fiberglass (Fibreglass in the UK) is a trademark and for years journalists have been exhorted to use the generic "glass fibre". But it's a losing battle and the trademark has become a generic term.

Most of Apple's "i" products have been so successful that they have defined a genre. Both iPod and iPhone are in danger of becoming generic. iPhone, for instance, makes a much better generic for smartphone than Android in its many guises or, even, BlackBerry which for a time was becoming synonymous with smartphone. Until the Apple came along, of course.

Apple have a lot to do to make sure their trademarks do not descend into the generic.

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