A few weeks ago, one of my friends brought by a board game from his childhood. It was the 1977 “Destroy Death StarTM Game” released almost concurrently with A New Hope. This game was published by the toy company Kenner Products, which had the master license to produce all the toys and games based on the 1977 Star Wars movie. And oh man, did they use it. This board game was festooned with all sorts of trademarks. Players flew a X-WingTM squadrons in an attempt to destroy the Death StarTM. Along the way, we had to fight Tie-FightersTM, sometimes with the help of Han SoloTM‘s Millennium FalconTM. It may sound like I am joking, but every single time one of those words showed up, it was accompanied by that little superscript TM.
For those who don’t know, TM is short for “trademark”. According to Wikipedia, a trademark is “is a type of intellectual property consisting of a recognizable sign, design, or expression that identifies products or services from a particular source and distinguishes them from others.” Basically, it is something unique to your brand/company identity which is also very firmly associated with it. Many things can be trademarked, from slogans and icons, to colors and even scents. For example, LEGO® is a trademark, as the name is integral to the toy company’s identification as a brand. If you wanted to make a competing brick building system, you would not be allowed to use the name LEGO.
There are also several levels of trademarks. Anybody can claim a trademarkTM under common law. However, most of the time for courts to recognize trademarks, they need to be registered®. The little R in a circle means that the trademark has been registered with a governmental organization. In the United States, trademarks are monitored by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Having a registered trademark means that the USPTO has agreed that your trademark is a unique identifier for your brand.
The reason that board game had TM’s plastered everywhere is because companies do have to fight to protect their trademarks, or else they run the risk of becoming genericized. For example, aspirin, the common name for acetylsalicylic acid, was originally a trademark name used by the pharmaceutical company Bayer. However, because the company failed to enforce their trademark enough, other companies began using the name. Over time, “aspirin” became the common name for the medicine. When a trademarked name becomes the common name for something, most courts will no longer recognize the trademark. Other genericized trademarks include linoleum, kerosene, thermos, and even app store.
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