An interesting case of genericide in trademark law, where the brand name’s transition to a generic term was not primarily driven by overwhelming commercial success, is the story of “Yo-Yo.”

Trademark Policing

The yo-yo, a popular toy consisting of a round, symmetrical object attached to a string, which is then wound and unwound to perform tricks, has ancient origins. However, in the 1920s, Pedro Flores, a Filipino immigrant to the United States, popularized and commercialized the modern design of the toy under the name “Yo-Yo.”

Flores founded the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in California and was the first to mass-produce the toy. In 1932, he sold the company and the rights to the name “Yo-Yo” to the Duncan Toys Company. Duncan capitalized on the name and worked to promote the yo-yo as a popular American toy.

However, the public and competitors used the term “Yo-Yo” to describe any similar toy, regardless of its manufacturer. This widespread generic use of the term weakened its association with the Duncan brand. The company fought to keep “Yo-Yo” as a proprietary name, but the term had become so common in everyday language that it lost its distinctiveness as a trademark.

In a landmark legal battle in the 1960s, the courts ruled that “Yo-Yo” had become a generic term for the toy and was no longer protectable as a trademark exclusively for Duncan. This ruling meant that any company could use the term “Yo-Yo” to describe their similar toys without infringing on any trademark rights.

The genericization of “Yo-Yo” is a prime example of how a product’s name can become a victim of its own functional success. The yo-yo’s simple, descriptive name, combined with its widespread popularity, led to the term being adopted as the generic name for the product category itself.

This case highlights the challenges brands face when their product names are descriptive of the product itself. When a name succinctly describes the product’s function or form, it runs a higher risk of becoming generic. It also emphasizes the importance of trademark management and the need for companies to actively protect and enforce their trademarks.

In response to the risk of genericide, companies now often choose less descriptive, more distinctive names for their products and engage in continuous marketing efforts to strengthen the association between the brand and the product in the public’s mind.

The story of “Yo-Yo” provides a compelling narrative on the dynamics of genericide in the field of trademark law. It illustrates the delicate balance between a product’s popularity, its name, and the preservation of its trademark status. For businesses, it serves as a lesson in the importance of strategic branding and proactive trademark management.
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