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Why “iPad” is Not Generic for “Tablet”

A recent story in USA Today asked whether “iPad” will become the generic term for tablet computers. While I’m glad that the media are discussing trademarks at all, I think the article didn’t accurately communicate how and why some trademarks become generic, while others don’t. Let’s take a look at the concept of Genericide, applied to how Apple positions its products, and show why “iPad” is not generic for “Tablet” in the real world.


“Aspirin” was originally a trademark owned by Bayer. Over time, the word became, in the eyes of the public, a generic term for the underlying product – an anti-inflammatory pharmaceutical – and an American court eventually ruled that Bayer could no longer claim trademark rights in the term Aspirin. This fate, known as “Genericide,” was also suffered by the companies behind such common products as Cellophane, the Escalator, and many others.

(The story behind Aspirin is somewhat idiosyncratic, given that Bayer, a German firm, was forced to relinquish certain of its property, including intellectual property, as part of the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, but the story was interesting enough that I couldn’t resist including it here.)

On the other hand, several well-known companies, such as Xerox and Kleenex (Kimberly-Clark) have been able to combat this process and retain exclusive rights to their famous trademarks. This is a process that occurs through educating the public – informing the world that KLEENEX is a brand name for tissues, for example.

The point is that just because people commonly say “Hand me a Kleenex,” when they aren’t actually expressing a brand preference, doesn’t mean that Kimberly-Clark is going to lose its trademark rights. In most cases, a brand owner will need to be negligent about protecting the rights to the mark in order for a claim that the mark has become generic to succeed. Most brand owners these days who face this situation – and remember, by definition, the concept of Genericide can only apply to famous and successful brands (at least within a particular industry) – are conscious of the issue and are willing to take the steps necessary to remind us all that their term is meant to be a brand identifier, not a term for a class of goods or services. This is why most lists of genericized trademarks (including this Wikipedia list) tend to feature older brands. You don’t see a lot of recently-coined brand names on that list.

What About the iPad, iPhone, iPod, etc?

Think about this for a minute: have you ever referred to a non-Apple tablet PC as an iPad? Have you ever called an Android phone an iPhone? Loaded songs onto your third party MP3 player (there is such a thing) and thought of it as your iPod? I bet you haven’t. Nor have you heard others doing the same. It’s just not something that happens. Based on my completely unscientific study of the issue, I feel comfortable declaring that these terms are almost always understood to refer to specific products produced by Apple. You might not know who manufactures the copier in your office, but you certainly know who makes the shiny, desirable products with the little Apple icons on them.

A successful brand name is not the same thing as a generic term.

And Now for an Expert Opinion

While I was considering this issue, I turned to longtime Apple devotee and co-creator of the popular social Q&A app Localmind, Beau Haugh. He had a lot to say about the issue. This interview has been edited by me for clarity and length.

Me: How have you observed people using the terms iPod, iPhone, and iPad? Are they referring, in your view, to the Apple branded products, or to those goods as a general class? Have you ever actually seen someone refer to a non-Apple branded product as a iPod, iPhone, or iPad, the way someone would use the word “Kleenex” to refer to any brand of facial tissue?

Beau: My company’s main product is an iOS app. Despite daily conversations around the technology, platform, ecosystem of software, developers, users, and consumers, the use of the terms “iPhone,” “iPad,” and “iPod” is unmistakable — everyone means Apple…No product name has ever been LESS generic than “iPhone.”

Despite an industry that wants to call iPad equivalents “tablets,” “slates,” or “surfaces,” no one dares to appropriate “pad” from “iPad.” And “iPod” has stood unchallenged for over a decade.

Me: Have you noticed any distinction in the above between those in the tech industry and civilians?

Beau: Apple’s mass-market branding efforts have smoothed any gaps between tech nerds and lay civilians. An iPhone’s an iPhone, no matter where you are in the world, or if you read your news on ink or e-ink…

[Apple was r]ecognized in 2011 as the world’s most valuable brand [by] Millward Brown.



Me: What do you feel Apple has done over the years to communicate to the public that these are brand names for its products and not generic terms for the class of products?

Beau: Apple has always pursued an apt strategy of marketing their products as special and niche. This began in the very genesis of their resurgence, their seminal 1998 “Think Different” campaign: Apple products were then, as they are now, for the free-thinking, creative, problem-solving, clever among us; they are never targeted for everyone.

Their iPod marketing for the entirety of the ’00s portrayed images of youth, of pop music, of fashionable, talented silhouetted dancers; of cool. That wasn’t for everyone, but it was for those of us cool enough to recognize the track being played.

The “Get a Mac” campaign of the late decade had Justin Long as a hipster Mac personified, and stodgy John Hodgman as a generic (generic!) PC. Hodgman would make salient points as to why Windows PCs appealed to more people, and Long wouldn’t even refute them; he’d merely say that Macs worked well for some, and that was fine.

By sketching out a tiny slice of the market for those savvy enough to want a Mac, Apple cultivated a cool factor that carried over to its mobile devices. Even as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad capture increasingly dominant market share in their segments, consumer perception maintains Apple products as premier, as separate, as niche — even when most people select them over their competitors. For that reason, no one mistakes an Apple device for an alternative…Even Google’s Android marketing positions it as the mass-market, widespread alternative, picking up Microsoft’s mantle for the mobile era.

To sum up, Apple is in no danger of losing the rights to its iPad, iPod, and iPhone trademarks due to genericide. Apple has done more than enough to maintain its brand identity.

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