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Understanding Distinctiveness in Trademark Law

Distinctiveness is a cornerstone concept in trademark law, determining whether a mark can be registered and protected. A trademark can be distinctive in two fundamental ways: inherent distinctiveness and acquired distinctiveness. This blog delves into these two forms of distinctiveness, providing insights and practical considerations.

Inherent Distinctiveness

Inherent distinctiveness refers to the intrinsic qualities of a trademark that make it distinguishable from others. Inherently distinctive trademarks fall into three categories:

  1. Suggestive Marks: These marks suggest, but do not describe, the qualities or characteristics of the goods or services. For example, "Netflix" for an online streaming service is suggestive.

  2. Arbitrary Marks: These are common words used in an unexpected way. For instance, "Apple" for computers is arbitrary.

  3. Fanciful Marks: These are invented words with no prior meaning. "Xerox" for photocopiers is a prime example.

Proving Inherent Distinctiveness

To establish inherent distinctiveness, one can utilize various forms of evidence:

  • Dictionary Definitions: Showing that the mark does not have a generic or descriptive meaning.

  • Foreign Registration Certificates: Indicating that the mark is recognized as distinctive in other jurisdictions.

  • Usage Documentation: Demonstrating how the mark is used on goods or services in a way that does not describe them.

  • Public Search Reports: Highlighting that the mark is not common to trade or used by others.

  • Google Searches: Proving that the mark is not generic.

Acquired Distinctiveness

Acquired distinctiveness, or secondary meaning, applies to descriptive marks that have gained distinctiveness through extensive use and consumer recognition. This is a jurisdiction-specific concept and varies based on the legal standards of each country.

Evidence of Acquired Distinctiveness

Proving acquired distinctiveness typically involves:

  • Extensive Use: Showing long-term and widespread use of the mark in commerce.

  • Promotional Efforts: Documenting significant marketing and advertising investments.

  • Consumer Recognition: Presenting surveys and testimonials that indicate public association of the mark with a particular source.

  • Market Share: Demonstrating a significant share of the market attributable to the goods or services bearing the mark.

  • Media Coverage and Awards: Highlighting positive media coverage and industry accolades.

  • Combination of Descriptive Words: Demonstrating that a unique combination of descriptive words has been exclusively associated with the plaintiff. It is crucial to note that even if a combination of descriptive words is registered, the exclusive right pertains only to the specific combination, not to the individual words.

The Pitfall of Generic Trademarks

Generic trademarks, are words that are used to refer the goods or services themselves, can never achieve distinctiveness. Such marks are not registrable or protectable because they fail to identify the source of the goods or services.

Dilution and the Loss of Distinctiveness

Distinctiveness can erode over time if a trademark becomes widely used by multiple parties without any enforcement by the original owner. This dilution can convert an inherently distinctive mark into a non-distinctive one, making it common to trade.


Understanding the nuances of trademark distinctiveness is essential for effective legal practice. Inherently distinctive marks provide strong protection, while acquired distinctiveness requires substantial evidence of consumer association.

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