Why You Can’t Trademark a Descriptive Term – The “Hot Yoga” Example

May 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

We’ve mentioned previously that names and slogans may not be protected unless they are distinctive and capable of identifying a particular source of the good or service.

The reasoning behind this section of the Trademark Act is simple: if businesses were able to obtain exclusive rights to descriptive or generic terms, then competitors would be unable to describe their goods and services to the market. For instance, if a restaurateur obtained a trademark for “Restaurant” his competitors (the rest of the restaurant business) would be unable to call their restaurants by that name.

A great example found in the United States Patent and Trademark files is the Hot Yoga application.

The “Hot Yoga” Trademark Application

California based Bikram’s Yoga College of India attempted to register the phrase “Hot Yoga” in connection with education services for yoga. Of course, it is obvious that the phrase simply describes the service itself – that is, yoga in a hot room.

Not surprisingly, the USPTO issued an Office Action (an official document issued by the USPTO to explain problems with a trademark application) denying the application because it was descriptive. In quoting from case law, the trademark examiner said that a mark is merely descriptive “if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the relevant services.”

The examiner explained the reasoning above in the Office Action and concluded that descriptive marks may not be registered because “businesses and competitors [must] have the freedom to use common descriptive language when merely describing their own goods or services to the public in advertising and marketing materials.”

Arbitrary is Better

As a result of this limitation, many attorneys advise clients to be as arbitrary as possible when naming products and services. The more arbitrary and unconnected a phrase is from a particular good or service, the more likely the USPTO is to grant protection. One problem with this tactic, however, is that arbitrary marks are sometimes not very marketable because they do not describe the product or service and thus are more difficult to attract customers.

In practice, many business owners simply go somewhere in the middle and use a term that is partially arbitrary, but also partially descriptive. These trademarks suggest the good or service to the customer without being overly descriptive. Businesses then take their chances with a trademark application.

Secondary Meaning

One last tip: in some cases a company can obtain trademark protection for descriptive terms. For example, “Sharp” in connection to the sale of televisions. While that mark is descriptive of televisions, the name has obtained enough recognition in the market (a secondary meaning) to overcome the descriptive limitation. But we’ll cover this more in a future post.

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Image Credit: Thinkstock/Anna Berkut

*This article is very general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. Readers with legal questions should consult with an attorney prior to making any legal decisions.

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