A Generic.com Term is Not Per Se Generic

Author: Julia Whitelock

A generic term combined with a non-source-identifying term is just a generic term, right?  In United States Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com B.V., Case No. 19-46, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3517, 591 U.S. ___ (June 30, 2020), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a sweeping rule that the combination of a generic word with “.com” is automatically generic and, therefore, unregistrable per se.

Procedural History

Booking.com, a digital travel company that provides travel-related services under the brand “Booking.com,” filed applications to register the mark “Booking.com.”  A USPTO examining attorney and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) concluded that the term “Booking.com” was generic for the services offered and denied registration.  According to the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (“TMEP”) (Oct. 2018), “[portions of the uniform resource locator (‘URL’), including the beginning, (‘http://www.’) and the top-level Internet domain name (“TLD”) (e.g., “.com,” “.org,” “.edu,”) indicate an address on the World Wide Web, and therefore generally serve no source-indicating function.”  TMEP § 1209.03(m).  Because “.com” “generally indicate[s] the type of entity using a given domain name, and therefore serves no source-indicating function, their addition to an otherwise unregistrable mark typically cannot render it registrable.”  Id.  TTAB found that “booking” was a generic term for “making travel reservations” and “.com” only served to identify a commercial website.  It therefore concluded that “Booking.com” is unregistrable because it is generic or, in the alternative, descriptive and lacking secondary meaning.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit disagreed with the PTO.  Generic terms are the “common name of a product or service itself.”  Sara Lee Corp. v. Kayser-Roth Corp., 81 F.3d 455, 464 (4th Cir. 1996).  The District Court, relying on Booking.com’s new evidence of consumer perception, concluded that the compound term “Booking.com,” as opposed to “Booking,” is not generic.  Instead, consumer perception evidence indicated that “Booking.com” is descriptive and had acquired secondary meaning as to hotel-reservation services.  The USPTO appealed only the District Court’s ruling on genericness.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s determination that “Booking.com” is not generic, finding no error in its assessment of consumer perception and rejecting the USPTO’s contention that combining a generic term with “.com” is “necessarily generic.”  The Fourth Circuit applied the three-step test for genericness: “(1) identify the class of product or service to which use of the mark is relevant; (2) identify the relevant consuming public; and (3) determine whether the primary significance of the mark to the relevant public is as an indication of the nature of the class of the product or services to which the mark relates, which suggests that it is generic, or an indication of the source or brand, which suggests that it is not generic.”  Booking.com B.V. v. United States Patent and Trademark Office, 915 F.3d 171, 180 (4th Cir. 2019) (citing Glover v. Ampak, Inc., 74 F.3d 57, 59 (4th Cir. 1996)).

The Supreme Court’s Ruling Reaffirms the Primary Significance Test for Analyzing Genericness

The Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit, concluding that “Booking.com” is not generic.  The Court held, “[w]hether any given ‘generic.com’ term is generic…depends on whether consumers in fact perceive that term as the name of a class or, instead, as a term capable of distinguishing among members of the class.”  2020 U.S. LEXIS 3517, *16.  The Supreme Court’s ruling rejected the USPTO’s assertion of a blanket rule that deemed all “generic.com” terms as generic.

The Booking.com Court’s holding does not materially change the test for genericness as announced in Kellogg Co. v. Nat’l Biscuit Co., 305 U.S. 111, 118, 83 L. Ed. 73, 59 S. Ct. 109 (1938).  In Kellogg, the Supreme Court stated that the owner of the mark “must show that the primary significance of the term in the minds of the consuming public is not the product but the producer.”  Id.  In Booking.com, the Supreme Court held that the owner of the mark must show that “consumers in fact perceive that term…as a term capable of distinguishing among members of the class.”  Accordingly, the Booking.com opinion reinforces the primary significance test in determining whether a mark is generic or descriptive in the context of a generic.com term.  To do so, the Court necessarily had to reject the USPTO’s position that a generic term combined with a generic corporate designation (in this case “.com”) is basically per se an unregistrable generic term.    

In Goodyear’s India Rubber Glove Mfg. Co. v. Goodyear Rubber Co., the Court held that “Goodyear Rubber Company” was not “capable of exclusive appropriation.”  128 U.S. 598, 602, 32 L. Ed. 535, 9 S. Ct. 166 (1889).  “Goodyear Rubber” was a class of goods and the combination of a generic term with “Company” “only indicates that parties have formed an association or partnership to deal in such goods.”  Id.  In Booking.com, however, unlike a generic term combined with “company,” a generic term combined with “.com” refers to a specific entity due to the exclusivity of domain name ownership.  2020 U.S. LEXIS 3517, *14.  Therefore, “consumers could understand a given ‘generic.com’ term to describe the corresponding website or to identify the website’s proprietor.”  Id. *15.  The Booking.com Court clarified Goodyear’s principles, in conjunction with the subsequent enactment of the Lanham Act, as “A compound of generic elements is generic if the combination yields no additional meaning to consumers capable of distinguishing the goods or services.”  Id. *15-16.  However, “[a] ‘generic.com’ term might also convey to consumers a source-identifying characteristic: an association with a particular website.”  Booking.com, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3517, *14.  The point is that a court must look at consumer perception to determine whether the combined “generic.com” term identifies a class of goods or a particular producer. 

Impact

The decision may increase the cost of trademark prosecution.  The ruling seemingly opens the gates for an onslaught of generic.com applications.  However, applicants will need to show consumer perception that the generic.com term identifies a brand, not a class of goods.  The Booking.com Court provided a non-exhaustive list of support for consumer perception of a term’s meaning, to include: “consumer surveys, but also dictionaries, usage by consumers and competitors, and any other source of evidence bearing on how consumers perceive a term’s meaning.”  2020 U.S. LEXIS 3517, *16 n.6.  Compiling such evidence may be costly to trademark applicants seeking to register facially generic terms.

The decision may create a path for federal registration for other combination generic terms and non-source-identifying terms.  The Booking.com Court’s holding specifically identifies the factual circumstances for which to apply its rule – when analyzing whether a “generic.com” term is generic.  However, the analysis could likely be extended to other generic terms that lack a source-identifying term (such as other TLDs like “.org” or “.net”, or # or HASHTAG).

While a generic.com mark may be registrable (assuming proof of the mark’s primary significance as source to consumers), Booking.com does not alter the tenets of trademark law – likelihood of confusion and fair use.  “[E]ven where some consumer confusion exists, the doctrine known as classic fair use, [4 McCarthy] § 11:45, protects from liability anyone who uses a descriptive term, ‘fairly and in good faith’ and ‘otherwise than as a mark,’ merely to describe her own goods.”  2020 U.S. LEXIS 3517, *18 (citing 15 U.S.C. §1115(b)(4); KP Permanent Make-Up, Inc. v. Lasting Impression I, Inc., 543 U.S. 111, 122-23, 125 S. Ct. 542, 160 L. Ed. 2d 440 (2004)).   

However, the decision may ultimately increase the instance of trademark bullying.  Even though a generic.com mark is registrable, as the Court explains and Booking.com concedes, the mark is a weak descriptive mark with a more difficult path to showing likelihood of confusion.  First, Booking.com concedes that “Booking.com” is a weak mark and as a descriptive mark, it is “harder…to show a likelihood of confusion.”  2020 U.S. LEXIS 3517, *18 (quoting Tr. of Oral Arg. 42-43, 66).  Second, Booking.com accepts that close variations of “Booking.com” are unlikely to infringe.  Id.  And finally, the federal trademark registration of “Booking.com” “would not prevent competitors from using the word ‘booking’ to describe their own services.”  Id.  However, it is conceivable that a generic.com trademark owner could and would use its federal registration to scare users of the generic term into ceasing use for fear of a costly, protracted legal battle.

About the author: Julia Whitelock is a partner in Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani’s Intellectual Property and Commercial Litigation Practice Groups.  Her practice focuses on litigating matters involving trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, commercial disputes, and consumer claims, and advertising & e-commerce law.

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