A trademark must identify the source of a product or service.

Not all words and pictures can be protected as marks for products and services. To be protectable, the mark must be capable of distinguishing one company’s products or services from those of others. Although a trademark does not have to tell purchasers who the company is that is the source for the product, the trademark must convey to purchasers that this particular product either comes from or is authorized by a single source. For that reason, generic names of products and services can never be a trademark. Examples of generic names would be the word “chair” for a seat having a back, or the word “automobile” for a vehicle that rolls on the ground. It would be fundamentally unfair to permit a single company the exclusive right to use such a generic name to refer to their product. At the other end of the spectrum are arbitrary or coined words that have no relationship to the underlying product and may not be a word at all. An example often given of a coined trademark is “Kodak.”

Between the generic and arbitrary ends of the spectrum are the remaining types of words and designs that bear some relationship to the underlying product. Two other categories have been named for purposes of analyzing the protectability of a trademark. The category of “suggestive” marks falls just before arbitrary or coined marks. A suggestive mark is one that suggests some attribute of the underlying product or service, but does not actually describe the product or a feature of that product. Suggestive trademarks can be immediately protected upon commencing use.

“Descriptive” marks fall between generic terms and suggestive marks. A “descriptive” term is one that actually describes the product or a feature of the product, but is not the common generic name of the product. When a “descriptive” term is first used, purchasers recognize it as describing some feature of the product and not as distinguishing that product from those of competitors. If a “descriptive” term is used sufficiently and by only one source for a product, that term can gain recognition among purchasers as identifying a single company’s product. At that point, the “descriptive” term will have achieved trademark significance and can be protected. This is referred to as achieving “secondary meaning”: the term no longer has just its “primary” descriptive meaning, but also has its “secondary” meaning as a trademark for this particular product.