In the realm of intellectual property, one of the most intriguing phenomena is “genericide,” where a trademark can become a victim of its own success, transforming from a proprietary brand name into a common term for a type of product or service. A striking example of this is the term “Escalator.”

Trademark Policing

The word “Escalator” was originally a trademarked name owned by the Otis Elevator Company. It was coined in the early 1900s to describe their moving staircase invention. This innovation revolutionized the way people moved within public and commercial buildings, offering a novel and efficient means of transportation between floors. The escalator was a significant technological advancement at the time and quickly gained popularity worldwide.

However, as escalators became more common in department stores, airports, and subway stations, the term “Escalator” began to be used by the public and competitors to describe any moving staircase, not just those that were manufactured by Otis. This widespread generic use of the term led to its dilution as a proprietary trademark.

The shift from a trademark to a generic term was legally recognized in 1950 when the United States Patent and Trademark Office declared the term “Escalator” to be generic. This decision was based on the argument that Otis had not adequately policed and protected the term from becoming a common descriptive term for moving staircases. The loss of trademark rights meant that any company could use the term “Escalator” to describe their moving staircases, leading to increased competition for Otis.

The genericization of “Escalator” is a classic case of a brand becoming a victim of its own success. Otis’s failure to police and enforce the exclusive use of the term “Escalator” led to its widespread adoption as the generic term for moving staircases. This outcome highlights the importance of trademark protection and the need for companies to actively police, manage, and defend their trademarks.

This case has broader implications in the field of trademark law. It underscores the importance of companies actively policing, using, and promoting their trademarks in a way that emphasizes their brand, as well as taking legal action against misuse that could lead to genericization. The goal is to maintain the distinctiveness of the trademark as an identifier of the product’s origin.

Furthermore, the “Escalator” case serves as a lesson in the dynamic nature of language and consumer perception. As products become ingrained in everyday life, their brand names can often become the default terms used by the public. This phenomenon poses a unique challenge for companies in balancing the desire for brand ubiquity with the need to maintain trademark exclusivity.

The story of “Escalator” is a seminal example in the study of genericide, showcasing the intersection of trademark law, consumer behavior, and linguistic evolution. It serves as a cautionary tale for businesses about the risks associated with a brand name becoming too commonplace and the continuous effort required to protect a brand’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