• Shreyanshi Mishra

Why Google wants you to stop ‘Googling’

“Just Google it”

We are all familiar with the phrase, so much so, that we rarely hear someone asking us to “look something up on the internet” these days. And why would they, when the first phrase communicates the same idea without a mouthful of words? Concise and articulate. Isn’t that the aim of effective communication? Unfortunately, Google doesn’t seem to share the same sentiments.

The reason? Trademark Generification.

Generification: A threat to the trademark

The trademark of a brand is a distinguished symbol, word, phrase, logo or image that identifies and separates the goods and services provided by one company or individual from another. It also acts as a tool to prevent other companies from profiting off the success and popularity of bigger, more prominent enterprises providing similar services. It is a legal term for “intellectual property” and is extremely crucial for preserving the legality of an enterprise over its products and brand name. A threat to the trademark is also a threat to the legal rights of the company.

Trademark generification, or the use of popular brand names in a way that denotes the product itself, is by no means, a recent phenomenon. Over the past centuries, several brand names have fallen victim to genericide, a term used to define loss of a company’s rights of a brand name due to widespread colloquial use. The trademark becomes almost indistinguishable with time due to its ubiquitous usage and the company can no longer protect it from misuse.

No Googling- says Google

Brands names like Aspirin (originally a trademark of Bayer AG), Escalator (originally a trademark of the Otis Elevator Company) and Zipper (once a trademark owned by B.F. Goodrich) among many others have suffered through trademark erosion. Google, arguably the most popular search engine today, is also headed down the same path.

Google is laser focused on the generic usage of the term, even extending to Sweden’s Language Council. The Council is the primary regulatory body for the cultivation of the Swedish language and had proposed to add the word “ungoogleable” to a new list of words.

Google had raised objections at the definition of the word as described by the committee, meaning, ‘something that can't be found on the Web using a search engine’. The Council had expressed their displeasure at the company’s attempts to control language but were powerless to resist Google’s request to modify the meaning. Google had also appealed the Council to include a disclaimer, stating clearly, that the term would only come to denote information that wasn’t available on Google’s search engine.

Another representative of the company has pointed out on behalf of the company:

"We think it's important to make the distinction between using the word 'Google' to describe using Google to search the Internet and using the word 'google' to generally describe searching the Internet. It has some serious trademark issues.”

And despite all these explicitly stated concerns, several netizens feel that it might already be too late to stop the widespread use of the word as an intransitive verb and synonym for web search. In fact, the word is so popular that it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary on June 15, 2006 and to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006. The American Dialect Society, dedicated to the study of English in North America, even chose it as the "most useful word of 2002."

Beware the Lawsuit

The federal court of Arizona has ruled in Google’s favor in a lawsuit filed by Chris Gillespie. The plaintiff had registered 736 domain names that containing the word ‘google’, claiming that the term has become too generic for it to be considered a trademark. Google had in turn sued the owners of the domain names for trademark infringement. The plaintiff had lost in the mediation and Google’s transfer request under the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy was granted.

An excerpt from the court’s opinion states:

“It is contrary to both the letter and spirit of trademark law to strip a mark of legal protection solely because the mark—cultivated by diligent marketing, enforcement, and quality control—has become so strong and widespread that the public adopts the mark to describe that act of using the class of products or services to which the mark belongs. As one scholar has stated, top-of-mind use of a trademark in its verb form, is far from indicating the mark’s generic status, may well indicate the enduring fame of the brand.”

Conclusion- What happens now?

With the Supreme Court’s adjudication now in Google’s favour, the company is not shying away from filing lawsuits against dictionaries and brands that use the word ‘google’ in a collective, all-inclusive sense. Even though some corporates and councils do think it is an extreme measure, Julie Coleman, an authority on linguistics from the University of Leicester, said she could understand the company’s concerns. She states:

"The prestige associated with a trademark is lost if people use it generically, so I do see Google's point. They also do lots more than just search, so maybe they're reluctant for their brand name to be restricted in this way."

What does this mean for us? Not much, if we use the word in a manner that conforms to the guidelines pointed out by Google itself as far back as 2006 in a blog post:

“Google is a trademark identifying Google Inc. and our search technology and services. While we're pleased that so many people think of us when they think of searching the web, let's face it, we do have a brand to protect, so we'd like to make clear that you should please only use "Google" when you’re actually referring to Google Inc. and our services.”


Shreyanshi Mishra

Sources: Ars Technica, FactFiend, MarTech, CNET