Selecting Trademarks–How the Car Companies Do It

While this blog is called The Business of Patents, from time to time we will discuss other areas of intellectual property law. Today, we will focus on trademark law, and in particular, on the selection of a trademark.

Trademarks are characterized according to their “strength” as an indicator of source, i.e., as an indicator that the product or service originated from a particular source. The source itself need not be identified by the mark, but the mark indicates that the product is attributable to a particular source. The categories of trademark strength are arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive, and generic. Arbitrary marks are the strongest, and generic marks are the weakest.

Arbitrary marks are those that have little or no relationship to the goods or services, e.g., “APPLE” for computers. Descriptive marks describe some aspect of the goods or services, and suggestive marks are somewhere between the two. Generic marks are the words used to identify a particular good or service and cannot achieve trademark status. Descriptive marks can achieve trademark status, but only after they have been used for a time and in a manner that allows them to function as an indicator of source. Some have contended that suggestive marks are the best because they are strong indicators of source while still communicating, at least implicitly, some information about the nature of the product or service.

With that background in mind, today’s issue of the Detroit Free Press includes an article describing how the automakers select trademarks for their vehicles. It provides interesting insights into the thought process behind mark selection. The article is available at