The story of “Kerosene” is an illustrative example of genericide in trademark law, where a product’s name becomes a common term for an entire category of products, not necessarily due to its overwhelming market success, but because of its functional uniqueness and widespread adoption.

Trademark Policing

Kerosene, also known as paraffin oil, is a flammable hydrocarbon liquid commonly used as fuel in lamps and heaters. The term “Kerosene” was originally a trademarked name, coined by the Canadian geologist and physician Abraham Gesner in the mid-19th century. Gesner developed a process to distill a clear, flammable liquid from coal and bitumen, which he named “Kerosene,” derived from the Greek word “keros” (wax), due to its waxy origin.

Gesner’s invention was a significant breakthrough, providing a safer and more efficient lamp fuel than the whale oil that was commonly used at the time. As the use of kerosene spread rapidly, it began to revolutionize indoor lighting and heating.

However, the term “Kerosene” gradually lost its association with any specific brand or origin. As the production process became widely known and other companies started manufacturing the same product, “Kerosene” began to be used generically to refer to any type of similar lamp fuel, regardless of the manufacturer. This widespread generic usage of the term led to its dilution as a proprietary trademark.

Eventually, “Kerosene” was no longer seen as a brand name but rather as the generic term for the fuel. This meant that the exclusive trademark rights to “Kerosene” were lost, and the term entered the public domain. Any producer could use the word “Kerosene” to describe their lamp fuel without infringing on trademark rights.

The case of “Kerosene” highlights several key points about trademarks and their protection. It shows how a product name can become a victim of its own functional success, transitioning from a proprietary brand to a generic term as it becomes the standard reference for a particular type of product.

Additionally, the story underscores the challenges faced in protecting a trademark when a product is pioneering in its field and its name is inherently descriptive of its function or composition. In such cases, the risk of the name becoming generic is significantly higher.

To prevent genericide, modern companies often engage in proactive strategies, including creating distinctive brand names that do not directly describe the product’s function, as well as educating the public and industry about the proper use of their trademarks.

The transformation of “Kerosene” from a proprietary name to a generic term offers an insightful narrative on the dynamics of genericide in trademark law. It serves as a cautionary tale about the complexities of maintaining a trademark’s distinctiveness and the importance of strategic branding and trademark management in preserving a product’s unique identity in the marketplace.
Michael Jones Michael Jones is the founder and managing member of Jones Intellectual Property, whose mission is to provide his clients with personalized, effective legal solutions. Michael has focused on creating, protecting, and advocating for his clients’ intellectual property rights throughout his career. View Bio