Even as the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world, people and businesses are trying to gain a commercial advantage from trademarking words and phrases related to the virus and people and places associated with the epidemic. Chinese trademark officials, for example, recently announced that almost 1,000 trademark applications related to COVID-19 have been been filed and rejected. Chinese authorities are now punishing filers calling such applications “malicious” and an abuse of the trademark system. See report here. Likewise, the Korea Herald news media reports dozens of efforts to register trademarks in Korea related to the coronavirus. Examples include “CORONA KILLER,” “WCCORONA” and “CORONACOP.” Here in the US, there have been similar registration efforts in the last couple of weeks including proposed trademarks for “Coronavirus Survival Guide” in the trademark class for survival magazines and “We Cured COVID-19” for apparel. See report here.
These efforts seem insensitive and heartless — and maybe even opportunistic — amid the ongoing crisis. But these efforts are also likely to be pointless, since it is unlikely that ANY trademark related to the virus can be registered.
The key to a valid trademark registration is having a word, logo, symbol, phrase, or something similar that is used in commerce to identify a unique commercial source for a product or service in the minds of consumers. A trademark is not just a catchy phrase. Customers have to view and understand the trademark as identifying a company and as a means of distinguishing between various companies making products or providing services. Protecting the consumer from confusion is one of the main purposes of trademark law. Examples can be seen in the different trademarks used by McDonalds vs. Burger King and the ones used by automobile manufacturers Audi and Mercedes Benz. Consumers see these various marks and understand them to represent good food and fine automobiles made by the respective companies. These marks are unique and distinctive and serve as identifiers.
Furthermore, generally speaking, a trademark cannot be a common or descriptive word like “BLUE” or “WORLD” and cannot be a commonly-used symbol like a circle or a triangle. These types of trademarks are too general, generic, and descriptive. Without more, such words or phrases or symbols are not unique and distinctive enough to cause a consumer to see the word, phrase or symbol as an identifier of a unique commercial source/origin of goods or services. Finally, a trademark cannot be some word or phrase that is informational. Thus, a trademark application for “I♥NY” for coffee mugs would be rejected since the symbols relay information about the feelings and beliefs of the coffee drinker, not information about the commercial source of the coffee mug.
These are the main problems with any effort to trademark COVID-19 or CORONAVIRUS or any other words or phrases related thereto. In only a short time, these words have become common and now describe a pathogen and a pandemic. As such, in the minds of consumers, these words cannot identify a commercial source of goods or services. Furthermore, some of the proposed trademarks like “CORONACOP” or “COVID-19 SURVIVAL MAGAZINE” are merely descriptive or informational. Again, the words do not convey information about the source/origin of commercial goods or services.
If you have questions about trademark law, contact the trademark lawyers at Revision Legal at 231-714-0100.