Earlier this year, a federal court decided that while “googling” is a popular phrase that means “to search for something online,” that doesn’t mean the company should lose its trademark protection. Now the people behind that case have filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that the Supremes will agree that a verbed brand name is a generic term.
“Genericide” is when a word begins as a brand, but later becomes a generic term used to describe all brands of that thing. Think of trampolines, laundromats, aspirin, or escalators — all terms that started as brand names, but are now generic nouns.
Just AltaVista It
The Google genericide case began in 2012, when two enterprising men registered hundreds of domain names that combined brands or the names of prominent people with “Google” in the verb form. Examples of these domain names include “googledisney.com” and “googlebarackobama.net.”
Google was not pleased with this foresight, and sought to have the domain names, which use its trademark, turned over. The registrants argued that the domain names didn’t infringe on Google’s trademark, since using the word that way has become so common that it’s now a generic term.
Googling as a verb
The case worked its way from domain dispute resolution to the federal court system, with the U.S. Court of Appeals agreeing with a district court that “Google” is not yet a generic term, even in verb form.
Now attorneys for the two men have filed a petition [PDF] for the Supreme Court to hear the case, hoping to settle the genericization question. The issue that brings this case to the Supreme Court level is whether common usage of a word as a verb is enough to show that it’s been genericized.
While Google isn’t the only search engine on the internet, it is the most popular one, and the only one that has become a verb. Despite Microsoft’s best efforts, no one ever condescendingly tells you to go “bing” something. People don’t say, “give me a minute to duckduckgo that name.”
“I went to Bing and googled it”
In their petition, attorneys for the domain-registering plaintiffs observe that the lower courts ruled that “to google” remains a trademarked usage, in spite of “examples of actual references by members of the relevant public to googling on other search engines such as Yahoo or Bing.”
People do use “google” as a verb in this manner, but one difference is that at the time this case began, Google was the name of the entire company. Google is now one subsidiary of a holding company called Alphabet, and still isn’t just the name of a single product from a larger company.
If the Supreme Court takes up this case, it will decide whether common verbing of a trademarked noun means that it is in common usage as a generic term. If the court declines to hear the case, that means the lower court’s decision stands.
While no one will sue you every time you tell someone to go “google” something, it will be an issue for people who want to use the term on products, in their own brand names, or in domain names.