What journalists need to know about trademarks

The accident happened as workmen tarmacked Acacia Avenue. John Smith, 11, ran out in front of a bulldozer and was clipped on the leg by the vehicle.

Workmen took him to a site portakabin and passer-by Sue Jones cleaned his wound with kleenex, before applying band-aids and giving the lad an aspirin.

Jones, who has Red Cross training, said: ‘John will be fine and able to go on his outward bound tomorrow.”

In three paragraphs, this report commits six trademark offences: Tarmac, Portakabin, Kleenex, Band-Aid and Outward Bound are all registered trademarks, and the designation Red Cross is protected by the Geneva Conventions Act 1957. The use of ‘aspirin”, though, is not a problem, as we will see.

Trademarks are commodities that companies guard ferociously, spending millions to distinguish them from the rest of the pack. Journalists are often at the front line of their protection battle, since the way trademarks are used in publications can seriously affect future value.

If no distinction is made in the use of such words in the media, ‘genericide’takes place, whereby a trademark, over time, becomes synonymous with all products of its kind. Aspirin, corn flakes and escalator were all once trademarks, but are now generic terms.

Reporters and subs need to be aware that trademarks 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 alos have the option of conducting a search on a number of criteria.

Select the one that says ‘text’and key in the word or phrase to check. This brings up a list of instances where the words in question are protected by trademarks, or where a trademark has been applied for. Look in the column marked ‘type’ or those which are marked as WO – which stands for Word Only.

This means the pure text is trademarked, whereas those marked SW, for example, are trademarked as Stylised Words, used as part of a logo, or only written in a specific typeface.

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