Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 102: The English Language®, part 2

Last week, Mitzi Gramling, associate general counsel at American Public Media, joined us on the podcast to help us understand trademarks. She said, "A trademark is a word, name, symbol or device used in trade with goods, to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others."

This week, Gramling joins us again on the podcast. We asked her why companies go to great lengths to protect their trademarks — and if it's just about money. "It's partially about money," Gramling says, "but it's probably also about reputation and branding. If you've spent money to create a brand name for your product and you want the public to associate that brand name with your product, and someone else is using the same name for something else, that's not something that you would appreciate."

Another thing that trademark owners dislike is if their names are used as nouns and verbs, because this dilutes the trademark and puts it at risk of becoming what is known as a lost trademark. Gramling tells us that the word yo-yo is an example of a lost trademark, and that the word can now be used to name any toy that is round and has a string in the middle. "It's important for companies to protect their trademarks and police their trademarks because if they don't, that's how it ends up in the public domain," she says.

A recent New York Times article by John Branch describes the efforts of the Frank J. Zamboni & Co. to protect the trademark on its namesake ice-resurfacing machine. Branch wrote that the company asks that Zamboni not be used as a noun or a verb. Coincidentally, Gramling tells us of a time when Southern California Public Radio ran a story that used the name Zamboni as a verb. Gramling's office received a polite yet firm letter from the company, reminding writers that the Zamboni trademark "is always a capitalized adjective." With a simple edit, everything ended well. "We changed the Web site to read, ‘a machine similar to a Zamboni ice resurfacer' and the Zamboni Company was happy," Gramling says.

Something that's occasionally seen in typography is the use of intellectual property marks; that is, the or ® symbols. "A is used when you believe that you have rights to a trademark but you don't actually have a federal trademark registration," Gramling says. "A circle-R adjacent to the mark is used when you actually have a federal trademark registration for the mark."

These marks are not often seen in formal writing, but there are rules surrounding them. "Technically, you should probably always use the or ® every time you use the mark, but graphically that's messy and it doesn't look good," Gramling says. "Most people I think just use the or ® the first time they use the mark in a written piece."

The marks rarely — if ever — appear in news articles. "That's not because of intellectual property law," Gramling says. "I think that's because newspaper editors don't like the clutter of and ®."

After all the talk about how companies protect their trademarks and trademarks protect companies, we asked Gramling if there is any trademark-protection benefit to the general public. She uses the example of the Cuisinart food processor, saying that when people buy a Cuisinart food processor, they know exactly what they're getting. "If Cuisinart were just a generic term and it meant any sort of food chopper, you wouldn't have the protection of knowing who you're buying the food chopper from and what the quality of the product is," Gramling says.

Next week, we'll continue our exploration of the use of trademarks in writing.

Sources: A Guide to Intellectual Property Protection, by the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development and the law firm of Merchant & Gould (not available online); The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2009.

Music from this episode: "Trademark" by Carl Smith; "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni" by The Gear Daddies

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