Unprotectable Generic Trademarks + Top-Level Domains = Protectable Trademarks

Generic trademarks are those which, due to their popularity and/or common usage, have become synonymous with the products or services. Such trademarks include Kleenex, Band-Aid, Jeep, Aspirin, and Cellophane. Such marks, generally, cannot be federally registered or protected under the Lanham Act due to the marks direct reference to the class of product or service it belongs to. In other words, it fails to distinguish the good or service from other goods or services in the marketplace.

Breaking ways with this long-standing body of law, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia reversed a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) decision denying trademark applications for BOOKING.COM. The plaintiff in that action previously filed a federal trademark application for BOOKING.COM for both travel agency services and for making hotel reservations for others in person and via the internet. Plaintiff already had an international trademark registration for the same services pursuant to the Madrid Protocol.

During the USPTO’s review the plaintiff argued that the marks had acquired distinctiveness, but the USPTO refused to register the mark due to its genericness. The plaintiff appealed the decision to the TTAB, which affirmed the USPTO’s refusal. In doing so, the TTAB stated that “.com” did not impact the genericness.

On appeal, the Eastern District of Virginia first examined whether BOOKING.COM is generic. In doing so, it first analyzed BOOKING and .COM separately before analyzing them in conjunction. The Court found that that BOOKING is generic for the relevant services. When analyzing BOOKING.COM as a whole, however, plaintiff argued that the combination of the generic word BOOKING and .COM created a unique designation of the source of the services.

The Court found that when combined with a second-level domain, top-level domains, such as .com, typically have source identifying significance. The Court further held that second-level domain and top-level domain combinations generally create descriptive marks that are protectable upon acquiring distinctiveness. The reasoning stemmed from the Court finding that a top-level domain plus a second-level domain equals a domain name, which is unique and can only be owned by a single entity.

Next, the Court analyzed whether BOOKING.COM had acquired distinctiveness. Finding that the plaintiff offered sufficient evidence that consumers identify BOOKING.COM with a specific source, not just a reference to services provided, the Court held that BOOKING.COM had acquired distinctiveness, but only as to hotel registration services, not travel agency services. Accordingly, the Court ordered the USPTO to register BOOKING.COM as to those services, and remanded the matter to the USPTO to determine whether the design and color elements in two of the applications, in conjunction with the protectable word mark, were eligible for protection.

So, what does this mean? In short, it means that although a party may be unable to register its generic mark alone, it may be able to combine the generic mark with a top-level domain to create a registrable trademark. But although this undoubtedly provides some benefit, such trademark owners should heed the Eastern District’s warning that such marks will not be according broad protection.