Today is the anniversary of a registered trade mark that gave the world an alternative to zippers and buttons: Velcro.
One man’s annoyance can be another man’s eureka. When Swiss inventor George de Mestral returned with his dog from a walk, he noticed that he and his dog were covered with cockleburrs. Instead of being annoyed, he studied the burrs under a microscope where he noted their hook-like shape.
Engineering artificial fasteners that replicated the ones he found in nature took a few years, but Mestral was eventually successful in creating his easy to use hook and loop fastener. He registered his invention in 1958. For the name of his product, he blended two French terms: "vel" from velvet and "cro" from crochet (little hook).
Today the Velcro Industries is a successful international company, but like other successful companies, Velcro is challenged by a paradox: they want people to use their trademarked name as much as possible to promote their product; however, because the name is used so often and the product is so successful and so ubiquitous, the name of the product becomes a generic, non-capitalized word. As a result, companies like Velcro are in a constant battle to protect their trademark and in turn their bottom line. The lines are blurred even more when a word, like Google, becomes used so often that it becomes more than just a noun. No doubt the legal department at Google and the neologism department at the American Heritage Dictionary are both busy tracing the growth and development of this word.
The following statement from the Velcro website is an example of the kinds of reminders and warnings that companies put out to protect their brand names:
The goodwill and integrity which are reflective of the Velcro companies are ingrained in the VELCRO® trademark. This makes the trademark a very valuable asset to the company and to our customers who purchase the VELCRO® brand fasteners.
Many terms that we all use frequently in our everyday language were once trademarks …. All of these terms lost their distinction as trademarks because their owners allowed them to be misused by the public. That's why the Velcro companies pay close attention to how the VELCRO® trademark is used.
As stated by the Velcro website, there are several brand names that were once registered trademarks, but today they have lost their capital letter and entered the dictionary and the English lexicon as generic terms, such as cellophane, excalator, and the yo-yo.
Today's Challenge: The Law and the Language
See if you can identify which of the words below are registered trademarks and which are generic trademarks. All of the words below are from Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language, and all are capitalized to make your choice a little harder.
7. Raisin Bran
10. Chap Stick (1)
Quote of the Day: There is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so. William Shakespeare.
Answers: The generic terms are: 2. thermos 3. nylon 6. zipper 7. raisin bran
1 - Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language (Reader's Digest). Pleasantville: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1983.