By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court rejected a per se rule by the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that a generic word followed by “.com” is necessarily generic and therefore ineligible for trademark protection. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office et al. v. Booking.com BV, Case No. 19-46 (Supr. Ct. June 30, 2020) (Ginsberg, Justice) (Sotomayor, Justice, concurring) (Breyer, Justice, dissenting). In so doing, the Supreme Court found that the proper test for whether “booking.com” is eligible for trademark protection for travel booking services is whether the public perceives “booking.com” as identifying a single source.
Trademarks identify and distinguish the goods and services of a single party, and the Lanham Act establishes a system of trademark registration. Among other requirements for registration, a trademark must be distinctive, as judged along a spectrum of trademark distinctiveness. Distinctive trademarks, in order of most to least strength, include fanciful or made-up words (e.g., KODAK); arbitrary marks that are existing words that have no connection to the underlying goods or services (e.g., CAMEL cigarettes); and then suggestive marks, which require some mental thought to connect them to an attribute of the products or services (e.g., TIDE laundry detergent). Descriptive words are not inherently distinctive (e.g., BEST BUY), but can still be protectable and registerable upon proof of acquired distinctiveness (i.e., secondary meaning) arising from extensive use and advertising by the trademark owner. At the low end of the spectrum of distinctiveness are generic terms, which merely refer to a category or class of goods or services (e.g., wine or art) and are therefore never protectable or registerable as trademarks.
The PTO refused registration for “Booking.com,” citing policy developed from a 132-year-old Supreme Court case which held that the addition of “Company” to a generic word does not render the resulting name (i.e., Generic Company) distinctive. See Goodyear’s India Rubber Glove Mfg. Co. v. Goodyear Rubber Co., 128 U. S. 598 (1888). After the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) affirmed the refusal of registration, Booking.com appealed to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which reversed the refusal of registration, finding that “‘Booking.com’—unlike ‘booking’—is not generic. The district court found that the consuming public primarily understands that BOOKING.COM does not refer to a genus, rather it is descriptive of services involving ‘booking’ available at that domain name.” The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the Virginia federal court (IP Update, Vol. 22, No. 3), and the PTO sought certiorari from the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari (IP Update, Vol. 22, No. 11), and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg delivered the opinion of the Court, with which six other justices joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a short concurring opinion, and Justice Breyer dissented. The question under review by the Court was “whether the addition by an online business of a generic top-level domain (.com) to an otherwise generic term can create a protectable trademark.
Both parties in Booking.com agreed that “booking” is generic for the kind of travel [...]