Distinctiveness of Marks

Under trademark law, a mark must be distinctive (i.e. capable of distinguishing the product or service from others.) Thus, trademarks are classified according to their level of distinctiveness and are afforded protection according to their classification.

  • Arbitrary or fanciful marks. The most distinctive marks are those which are arbitrary or fanciful. Arbitrary marks are those which have no relation to the goods (e.g. Apple for computers) and fanciful marks are coined or invented names (e.g. Kodak film). As long as they are not confusingly similar to other marks, arbitrary or fanciful marks are afforded the highest level of protection.
  • Generic marks. On the opposite end of the spectrum of distinctiveness lie generic marks – the common name for the product or service. Generic marks are incapable of protection under trademark law because others need to use the common name to compete effective. Thus, one cannot claim trademark rights in the word ‘desk’ to identify the supplier of a desk.
  • Descriptive marks. Between arbitrary/fanciful marks on one end of the distinctiveness spectrum and generic marks on the other end lie descriptive marks. These are marks which describe an attribute, function or use, characteristic, purpose or quality of the goods or services. Descriptive marks are only eligible for trademark protection if they acquire secondary meaning (consumer recognition of the term as a trademark.)

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