Using trademarks properly can be a challenge for even the most brand-savvy editor. But doing so is increasingly crucial as content becomes more widely read and accessible to a general audience via the internet. This potentially infinite reach imposes an even greater responsibility to ensure that content is accurate and informative, from verifying quotes to using brand names in their proper context. Unfortunately, many professionals don’t fully understand what trademarks and trade names are, much less how to guarantee their proper use. Learning what trademarks are (and are not) and why they are important can help in understanding how and when to use them, which will set you apart from your peers.
What is a trademark?
A trademark is a source identifier—it can be a word, a name, a symbol or a device (or any combination of these) that distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others (for example, COCA-COLA and FEDEX). Trademarks may also be used to distinguish the services of one party from those of others. Trade names are corporate or business names, and are not the same as trademarks or service marks. For example, McDonald’s is the name of a company, as well as being a trademark for restaurant services.
Why do they matter?
Trademarks and service marks matter because they help the public to identify their preferred source of goods from among the many other sources available to them. Consumers are able to make informed choices based on their experiences with different brands. This in turn helps a company to establish goodwill and to build its brand reputation.
How can you use a trademark improperly?
One of the most common mistakes is to use trademarks and service marks as verbs or nouns, rather than adjectives. Trademarks are proper adjectives, and should be used as adjectives qualifying generic nouns that define the products or services. For example: A XEROX brand copier or a KLEENEX tissue. As adjectives, trademarks should not be used as plurals or in the possessive form, unless the mark itself is plural or possessive.
Why should I care about using trademarks properly?
When this rule is not followed, trademarks can lose their distinctive character and companies can lose their legal rights to a once famous name. Think of the following: Elevator. Kerosene. Yo-Yo. Each of these well-known product names was once a famous trademark, but now they are merely generic product names, and in some countries are unable to obtain accompanying rights. This is what happens when the public comes to regard a brand name as the generic name of a product. And when authors and journalists reinforce such use, this process can occur much faster.
So how do I remember the rules?
There is a simple mnemonic device that can help: just remember ACID.
Always use marks as adjectives—not nouns or verbs.
Make sure you reference marks the same way each time.
Use ™ to identify an unregistered trademark or ? to identify an unregistered service mark. Use ® to identify a registered trademark or service mark. Use these symbols at least once per article, advertisement or press release, preferably the first occurrence of the mark. For additional identifiers, including international symbols and designations, see INTA’s Guide to Proper Trademark Use.
Trademarks and service marks should be displayed in a way that distinguishes them from the surrounding text. For example, many trademarks are written in all capital letters. The generic noun that identifies the product or service should be used immediately after the trademark name. Examples include: CANON cameras, Scotch brand transparent tape and Callaway® golf clubs. Following these rules will ensure that both you and the trademarks you write about stand out from the crowd for years to come.
Eileen McDermott is the managing editor, news and policy at the International Trademark Association in New York City. The INTA is a global association of trademark owners and professionals dedicated to supporting trademarks and related intellectual property in order to protect consumers and to promote fair and effective commerce. For more information, visit inta.org.