What may not serve as a trademark? What is not registerable?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 20, 2013

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Certain words or symbols cannot be appropriated as a trademark, and may not be registered under the Federal law known as the Lanham Act. These are outlined below.

(a) Generic words (the common name of a thing, such as “piano”, “concrete”, “cigarette”, “copy”, “car”)

(b) Descriptive marks that merely describe a product or service that have not achieved recognition as functioning as a trademark (trademark practitioners call such recognition “Secondary Meaning” and the term is fully explained below). Descriptive marks may be registered on the “Supplemental Register” and then moved onto the principal register after secondary meaning is acquired.

(c) Geographically descriptive marks, for example, the name of any state, city or foreign nation. You may register such a mark if it is not generally identifiable as a source of the goods, or if you build secondary meaning over time through sales and advertising.

(d) Primarily merely a surname, except if you build secondary meaning over time through sales and advertising.

(e) Deceptively misdescriptive marks

(f) Immoral or deceptive marks

(g) Scandalous, immoral or used in a disparaging matter – For example, is the trademark “Redskins” owned by the Washington Redskins professional football team scandalous or disparaging to American Indians? The word “Senussi” was rejected for cigarettes on the grounds it is the name of a Moslem religious sect.

(h) Disparaging words

(i) Suggesting a false connection with persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols.

(j) Flags, coats of arms or other insignia of the U.S.

(k) An individual without his consent

(l) A deceased President, while the widow is still alive

(m) Trade names, unless used on goods or services in the same way a trademark is used

(n) Certain words and phrases covered by Special Statutes providing for exclusive use by certain organizations, such as trademarks of the Boy Scouts, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Daughters of the American Revolution and any symbols of the “Olympics”.

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