What do aspirin, kerosene and bikini have in common?

An official looking letter from an East Coast law firm can be a bit unnerving. That’s how I felt a number of years ago when such a letter landed on my desk at the Creston News Advertiser.

Since my ancestors came directly to the Midwest from the old country I knew the letter couldn’t be anything about an inheritance.

With great curiosity and some trepidation I opened the envelope to find a friendly but legal-toned note admonishing me for misusing a brand name in a column. In that column I had referred to “velcro.” I should have called it “Velcro hook-and-loop fasteners.” The lawyer’s letter reminded me that I was using a brand name and that the client would appreciate having that brand name used correctly.

Owners of trademarks, such as the folks who manufacture Velcro hook-and-loop fasteners, prize those trademarks and their value in the highly competitive world of marketing. If they don’t protect them, their trademarks could easily become generic terms which would have little or no value in the marketplace.

Think about it the next time you reach for a facial tissue. Or, do you call it a kleenex? Though that term is frequently used for any brand of tissue, Kleenex is actually an adjective, not a noun. It is used to describe a facial tissue manufactured by the Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

Over the decades there have been a number of brand names that have ended up being generic terms.

It’s enough to make a trademark attorney reach for an aspirin. Oops, there’s one of them! Aspirin with a capital A, of course started out as a brand name but is now a generic term.

Did you know heroin was once a brand name? Like Aspirin, Heroin was trademarked by Bayer which had to forgo both after Germany lost World War I. According to Inventors.About.com, Bayer had to give up their marks as a part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

I didn’t realize that at one time Brassiere was a trademark. I always thought it was a French word meaning “hold up.” Whatever its roots, that trademark is now in what marketers call “the graveyard.”

When we lived in Sioux City we supplemented the heat in our basement family room with a kerosene heater. Dreading winter’s worst and wanting to be prepared, I replenished the fuel supply for my kerosene stove in the fall. I didn’t realize at the time that Kerosene had been a trademark in its early years. Others in the same boat: nylon, escalator and raisin bran.

There’s more — bikini, for instance. The itsy-bitsy, teenie weenie little swim suit was trademarked as “Bikini” by its inventor, Louis Reard. The bikini took a while to catch on in the United States but when it did the name was quickly genericized.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that zipper was once a trademark! In 1925 B.F. Goodrich registered Zipper as a trademark for overshoes with fasteners. Other articles began to use the word and when B.F. Goodrich sued to protect its trademark the courts allowed them to retain rights only over the Zipper Boots.

Binney & Smith Company has done a good job of defending its famous brand. I know I’ve unintentionally misused their Crayola and Magic Marker trademarks. Binney & Smith have stated, “…The next time you’re waxing nostalgic over Crayola crayon colors like burnt sienna or periwinkle, or drawing conclusions with the help of a Magic Marker brand product, please remember, these names are trademarks.”

The Xerox folks published an ad some years back reminding us that “grammatically, there is no such thing as a Xerox… and there’s certainly no way you can Xerox anything.” It went on to explain that Xerox is a trademark for their line of copiers, printers and FAX machines.

So that I would not forget all this valuable information, I Xer… er, photocopied… the articles I read. So much to remember; I need an aspirin.