Can you trademark a single everyday word? Even if you know nothing about trademarks, the answer seems obvious: NO. After all, if you can trademark a single word, what’s to stop you from trademarking “foot” or “bike” or “candy” and then suing someone every time they used that word in a business setting? Such a reality would be absurd. Sadly, such a reality may be upon us because King, the maker of the hit game Candy Crush Saga, has just received approval from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to do just that.
King is trying to protect Candy Crush Saga, its big moneymaker, from a host of imitators who use the word “candy” in their titles. So it did what any reasonably copyright holder would do to protect its financial interest… it submitted an application to trademark the word “candy” in order to prevent other game developers from using it. I’m not being sarcastic here either; King’s response IS reasonable because these imitators have confused the general public into thinking that these other Candy games were just like Candy Crush Saga, maybe even made by King. And with the public assuming all these games came from the same manufacturer, they became less likely to download the real deal and more likely to download the imitation, siphoning profit from King. This kind of marketplace confusion is exactly the type of problem that trademarks were designed to prevent.
The problem here isn’t that King tried to trademark a single word. The problem is that the USPTO let it. This is troubling for two reasons. First, the USPTO approving such an application violates a basic tenet of trademark law: that a trademark must stand out, it must be distinct. According to the USPTO’s own guidelines:
Generic words... are never registrable or enforceable against third parties. Because generic words are the common, everyday name for goods and services and everyone has the right to use such terms to refer to their goods and services, they are not protectable.
In this case, the word “candy” is too generic; it doesn’t immediately reference a game for most people. It refers instead to a sweet food substance that a man my age shouldn't enjoy as much as I do. If, on the other hand, King had tried to trademark a unique version of the word like “Kan-D” the mark might have been stronger and more worthy of protection.
The second reason King’s application is so troubling is that it’s bad policy. If anyone can trademark any word, they can then clog up the federal court system (where trademark disputes must be litigated) with needless lawsuit after needless lawsuit. King clearly has no intention of legally pursuing every business that uses the word “candy". They simply want to prevent other game developers from making games that reference Candy Crush Saga. But you can’t base policy on the intention of one party. You have to base policy on the potential actions of everyone affected. Frankly, other trademark owners may not be as nice as King when it comes to protecting their trademarks.
Luckily, the trademark process is a long and complication one. Here, the USPTO has not officially registered the mark (which is the final step that grants the trademark owner a wide swath of protective powers). They merely approved King’s application, which means now that anyone who could be hurt by the mark has 30 days to contest the mark and try to persuade the USPTO why trademarking a single generic word is a bad idea. And believe me, there will be a lot of pushback on this, from immediately affected parties and policy wonks.
So what possessed the USPTO to approve King’s application in the first place? Was it negligence? Does it signal a strange new shift in policy? Is it a long-term gambit designed to draw attention to single-word trademark applicants and whip the public into a frenzy, thereby dissuading future like-minded applicants? Who can say? In my estimation, King’s registration will probably fail because of the pushback its application is going to get. But if the mark survives the contest period and officially registers, you can bet this won’t be the end of the story. King may well have just saved Candy Crush Saga from imitators, but it also just painted a huge target on its back.