Brand protection: Why journalists need to know their trademarks

For the ‘Grey Cardigans’out there on the subbing desk, getting the correct reporting of trademarks is simply a matter of grammatical accuracy.

But for the big corporations that rely on the strength of their brand, or brands, to survive it is a multimillion-pound business.

Put simply, if the world starts referring to vacuum cleaning devices as hoovers, then the huge domestic appliance company which goes by that name has a big problem, because it becomes a generic title and anyone can start sticking that word on their products. The same goes for Portakabin, Kleenex, Band-Aid and a host of other brand names.

Don’t use the word Portakabin unless you are talking about a portable cabin built by the company of that name. Otherwise, you are just being a sloppy writer. If you are talking about a Portakabin, cap up the P, because it’s a proper noun.

Iain Stansfield, partner at law firm Olswang, said: ‘Brandholders worry about protecting the distinctiveness of the trademark.

Paradox

‘There’s this paradox that the more successful a brand is, the more chance it has of becoming a generic part of the language. Over time some brands can become less protectable because they become a general part of speech.”

Muzak is commonly used as a generic term for the sort of piped-in music you might hear in a lift.

But it is still a registered trade mark to the US-based company which pioneered providing pre-recorded music for shops and offices in the Thirties and still trades to this day.

Theoretically, journalists could face some sort of legal action for deliberately devaluing a brand. But in practice any penalties would be likely to be more subtle.

Sanction

Stansfield explained: ‘The Motion Picture Academy has always insisted that Oscar has a trademark against it. If journalists ignore that, the situation might be that you get less access, but I’m not sure if there would necessarily be any sanction in law.”

Stansfield added that it is distinctiveness and continuity of use which makes brands valuable, and that this is why their owners are so keen to ensure journalists treat them as proper nouns.

Top Tips

  • When talking about a protected company or product names the term to use is trademark – not copyright or patent-protected, which are both different things.
  • A good way of checking if a word is trademark protected is by going to the website of the UK Intellectual Property Office (www.ipo.gov.uk), clicking on trademarks and doing a search under the Find Trademarks section, ‘by mark text”. Caution: this is not an exhaustive list.
  • Only use the R in a circle ® next to a word if it is a registered trademark – but not all trademarks are registered.

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