Why journalists need to know their trade marks

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For big corporations, the protection of trade marks is worth millions of pounds – and it is a daily battle with journalists at the sharp end.

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.

For the companies themselves the stakes are huge. For journalists, it is more a case of good old-fashioned grammatic accuracy.

Don't use the word Portakabin unless you are talking about a portable cabin built by the company of that name.

Reporters and subs need to be aware that trade marks are not nouns, but should be treated as proper adjectives.

Thus: "Pass me that Jiffy padded envelope." They should not be pluralised, nor be used in the possessive form, nor used as verbs.

The easiest way to check is using the Patent Office website, www.ipo.gov.uk. Select 'Trade marks 'from the main menu and then use the 'Search' text window. You also have the option of conducting a search on a number of criteria.

Iain Stansfield, partner at law firm Olswang, says: "Brand holders worry about protecting the distinctiveness of the trade mark.

"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 the 1930s and which 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.

Stansfield says: "The Motion Picture Academy has always insisted that Oscar has a trade mark 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 don't begin using them generically.

Protected trade marks:

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