10 Common Terms That Were Once Protected Trademarks

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The term “genericide” sounds ominous, like an act discovered in a religious cult compound. It’s actually a term from trademark law, and you’re probably familiar with the concept. For example, the words “escalator” and “linoleum” were once protected trademarks, but have long since become genericized. Many companies today fight diligently to protect their lucrative trademarks from genericide. For example, Google won a 2017 court battle against a man who had sued, claiming the word “google” had become a synonym for Internet searches. Here are a few surprising terms that were once protected trademarks but have become genericized.


10. Zip Code

The U.S. Postal Service registered the term Zip Code in 1976, then let it expire © Jamison Wieser

Yes, at one time this was a protected term. The United States Postal Service registered this in 1976 as a service mark (a trademark that applies to a service, not a product), but the protected status expired in 1997. By the way, ZIP is an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan.


9. Granola

An 1893 ad for Kellogg’s Granola touted it as perfect for “brain workers and feeble children.”

Original manufacturer Kellogg’s touted the miraculous wonders of this snack and breakfast food in the above 1893 advertisement, noting, “This food preparation is admirably adapted to the use of all persons with weak digestion, defective assimilation, general or nervous debility, brain workers, feeble children …” While Kellogg’s held a trademark on granola in the 19th century, it has long since been genericized.


8. Videotape

Ampex Corp. workers with one of the first videotape recorders, in 1956. © Ampex

The term arose much earlier than many people would imagine. The Ampex Corp. introduced the word “videotape” into the language with the debut of its VTR-1000 recorder in 1955. Those first machines were way beyond the average American’s price range, costing $45,000 (almost $413,000 in 2017 dollars).


7. Laundromat

This Philadelphia laundromat opened in 1947 and is believed to be the first coin-operated laundromat in the U.S. © Smallbones

The Westinghouse Corp. trademarked “laundromat” in the 1940s but it is no longer a protected mark. By the way, G. Edward Pendray, the Westinghouse public relations man who coined that word, also created the term “time capsule.”


6. Flip Phone

A Motorola MicroTAC 9800X flip phone from 1989. © Redrum

Motorola Inc. once held the trademark for this term, which is as obsolete as the product itself.


5. Teleprompter

A teleprompter partially obscures President Barack Obama’s face during a 2012 speech. © Don Shall

Long before this became a derogatory term critics hurl at news anchors and politicians (“all they can do is read a teleprompter”), it was a revolutionary product developed in the 1950s by the TelePrompTer Corp.


4. Trampoline

People preferred the name “trampoline” to the generic term “rebound tumbler.” © Ludraman

Two University of Iowa students, George Nissen and Larry Griswold, introduced the first modern trampoline in 1936. The Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Co. obtained a patent on the springy product, but everyone seemed to prefer the name “trampoline” to the generic term — “rebound tumbler.”


3. Zipper

Part of Gideon Sundbäck’s 1917 patent application for the “separable fastener.”

The original concept for what we today know as the zipper received a patent in 1851 as the “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.” As the design evolved, other bizarre names were used, such as “clasp locker” and “separable fastener.” The B.F. Goodrich Co. coined the word “zipper” in 1923.


2. Thermos

A 1967 advertisement for Thermos™ brand products. © Classic Film

Founded in 1904, the German company Thermos perfected the design of a relatively new concept, the vacuum flask. The company renamed the product a Thermos and encouraged the widespread use of that term for any vacuum flask. What happened after many years is that the two terms became synonymous, bringing on genericide. Although Thermos lost trademark protection for its product in the U.S. in 1963, it is still a leading manufacturer of insulated products.


1. Heroin

Bayer’s trademark on the term “Heroin” was invalidated in 1917, a decision the company doesn’t regret in hindsight. © Mpv_51

Friedrich Bayer & Co. trademarked Heroin in 1898, but the German company lost the rights to the trademark as part of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Another Bayer-trademarked term, Aspirin, lost trademark protection around that time in the U.S. because it became genericized. The company still enforces the Aspirin trademark in more than 80 countries around the world.


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