Use of Python trademark

I have a general question about trademark usage. I read in lots of places that trademarks should be used as adjectives, but then I see many instances of trademarks being used as nouns by their owners. I’m trying to understand that apparent contradiction.

So this isn’t about Python specifically, but if someone could explain why the PSF is OK with it in certain cases, it might help me understand the broader question.

For example, on https://www.python.org/psf/trademarks/, we have:

Always use any trademark as an adjective only, followed by a generic noun. For instance, it is correct to refer to the Python programming language (adjective) but not simply to Python (noun).

But on the home page is:

Python is a programming language that lets you work quickly and integrate systems more effectively.

and

Lists are one of the compound data types that Python understands.

and so on. Natural usage leads to using “Python” as a noun. This seems to directly contradict the trademark guidance.

Is there some nuance here I’m missing?

I am not in any way suggesting that anyone is doing anything wrong, or that anyone should change what they are doing. I’m just trying to reconcile the things everyone says about their trademarks (“Don’t use Frabbitz as a noun”) and what I see them actually do (“Frabbitz is amazing!”).

1 Like

Disclaimer: IANAL I just have strong opinions :slight_smile:

There are many sources on the Internet that claim that trademarks must
be adjectives, not nouns, for example

but this is contradicted by the examples shown on the very same page,
including references to trademarked names such as IBM, Google and Apple.
Names are nouns. Even a cursory look at Microsoft’s extensive (and
non-exhaustive) list of trademarks:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/legal/intellectualproperty/trademarks/en-us.aspx

demonstrates that trademarks may be nouns. Trademarks can be just about
anything:

  • names
  • words, expressions or phrases (“Just Do It!”)
  • colours
  • symbols
  • scents
  • sounds
  • distinctive typographical designs, e.g. Coca-Cola
  • logos

etc and I’m sure that some day some company will attempt to trademark an
emotion or frame of mind wink

Names are a definite counter-example to the claim that trademarks need
to be adjectives, and I can see no evidence that there is any
restriction on what words can be trademarked on the basis of grammatical
part of speech or lexical class.

I think the idea that trademarks must be adjectives not nouns (which as
far as I can tell is simply false) comes from the idea that the
trademark holder should not dilute a trademark by using modified
versions of it.

Using a trademarked noun like Google™ as a verb, as in to google
something using any search engine, may dilute the trademark. (I know
Google gets annoyed at people who talk about googling. I don’t know why
they don’t just trademark the verb as well, it’s not like they can’t
afford it.) Even adding a possessive “s”, as in “Microsoft’s founder
Bill Gates” or using it as a plural, as in “I bought two iPods”, might
be said by some to dilute the trademark. So pedants and lawyers trying
to justify their fees might insist on writing “Microsoft™ Corporation’s
founder” and “two iPod™ personal listening devices”.

But they still aren’t adjectives, they are proper nouns being used as
noun adjuncts.

Personally, I would be very surprised if trademark judges actually were
sufficiently silly to believe that consumers might be confused that two
iPhones are a different brand to a single iPhone just because the word
is plural, but the law often does silly things, so who knows?

Another factor may be that you can’t legally stick the trademark symbol
on something not trademarked. So if Apple wanted to use a ™ or ® on
every use of the word iPhone, they would have to forego using the word
“iPhones” unless they took out a trademark on that. So this may be a
factor too: companies too cheap to take out a trademark on the plural
but pedantic enough to insist on the full trademark treatment may be
forced into circumlocations in order to avoid the plural form, and
mistakenly think that this makes the word an adjective. It doesn’t.

A third factor may be that this is a method of distinguishing the word
from its generic sibling. If Microsoft always refers to Windows™
operating system rather than Windows, they can avoid any possible
confusion with plain old windows you look through.

Similarly, by referring to the Python™ programming language, the PSF can
avoid any confusion with either Monty Python or the snake.

But as far as I can tell, the idea that trademarks must be adjectives,
even if held by lawyers, is a myth not based on any actual restriction
on the kinds of words that can be trademarked, but is based on a
misconception of what an adjective is. The “Python” in “Python™
programming language” is still a noun.

1 Like

Does anyone know why sometimes Discuss sticks carriage returns (Ctrl-M)

at the end of every line, and other times doesn’t? When I respond to an

email here, using exactly the same mail client with exactly the same

line endings, sometimes Discuss adds CRs and other times doesn’t.

See my previous post for an example.

Steven, I appreciate you thinking about it. The rule isn’t that only adjective words can be trademarked, but that trademarks must be used as adjectives. “The Python programming language” describes a programming language (the noun). What kind of programming language? The Python one. “Python” (adjective) modifies “programming language” (noun).

My question has to do with why it is OK and very common for trademark holders to simultaneously enumerate rules (the trademark must be used as an adjective) and break those rules (using the trademark as a noun).

I was hoping someone from the PSF involved in trademark issues could provide some perspective.

IANAL (lawyer) and IANAL (linguist) but I believe “Python programming language” is what’s known as a noun phrase, where Python is a noun modifying another noun, “programming language”.

For example, “book” and “trouser” are nouns in “book cover” and “trouser press”. The noun that does the modifying acts a bit like an adjective is also called a noun adjunct, attributive noun, qualifying noun, or noun (pre)modifier.

Here, Python (noun) modifies “programming language” (noun).

But I cannot say how this applies to trademark law.

If we’re going linguistic… A noun phrase is a phrase talking about a thing (or in linguist terms, has a noun as its head). The concept has nothing to do with the construct in discussion here. The word you’re looking for is probably noun adjuct, which is a noun used to modify another noun :slightly_smiling_face:

The specific linguistic terms are not the point. The trademark guidelines are that “Python” must be used to modify a generic term like “programming language,” but the home page does not use it that way. I’m trying to understand why that is.

And again, to be clear: I’m not saying it’s wrong, and I’m not saying it should change. This is a pattern I see everywhere, and I’m trying to get some insight.

Because the Python homepage is published by the trademark owner and they can do what they want with it.

The guidelines are for people who do not own the trademark and yet want to use it. These are conditions put forth by the trademark owner such that other people can use the trademark, but under certain conditions that the owner deems necessary to not tarnish their own use of it (which is de facto legitimate).

That’s an interesting possibility, but runs counter to other experiences I have. I haven’t seen mention of a distinction between the owner’s use and others’ use. For example: https://www.owe.com/resources/proper-trademark-usage/ As I understand it, trademark law is meant to prevent confusion in the marketplace, and to protect consumers. How the owner uses the trademark is a key part of that, and it makes sense that it would be governed by the law.

Do you have a reference that separates the owner’s use from others’?

[Ned]

why it is OK and very common for trademark holders to
simultaneously enumerate rules (the trademark must be used
as an adjective) and break those rules

Because the first rule is bogus. As you have observed yourself, big
companies with well-paid trademark lawyers on retainer consistently
break that rule e.g.:

The evidence shows that “only use the mark as an adjective” rule can be
dismissed as folklore. Even if it comes from a lawyer. (Bold words, I
know.)

The rule about “adjectives” (noun adjuncts) is just a means to an end.
So long as you don’t weaken the association between the mark and the
brand or product, you can use it as a noun, and companies do.

I mean, seriously, does anyone think you could challenge McDonalds for
their trademark on “Big Mac” because their customers and marketing say
“I’ll have a Big Mac” rather than “I’ll have a Big Mac brand meat patty
on a bread bun product”? Good luck with that.

As for the origin of that “rule”, I think it might have something to do
with the escalator.

Trademark holders can lose the trademark by misusing it in such a way as
to dilute the association between the mark and their product or brand.
One way is to use it in a generic fashion. That’s exactly what happened
to Otis and the escalator: they consistently used it in a generic sense
and lost the trademark, e.g. their advertising material referred to
"elevators (a generic term) and “escalators”, used in a context that
suggested that it too was a generic term. For example, “the latest in
elevator and escalator design”.

Had they written “the latest in elevator and Escalator moving stairwell
design” they might have been okay. But there are lots of other things
that they could have done (but didn’t) which would have held the
trademark. Using the mark as an modifier to a generic term is just one
possible solution, it’s not the only one.

It isn’t that every use of a mark without attaching it to a generic term
is misuse, but that some such uses might be misuse. So if you’re a
trademark holder, and you trust your staff to think about whether the
mark is being used in a generic sense or not and get it right, you
might play it safe and instruct them to always use it as a modifer to a
generic term, specifically so they don’t have to think about it.

By the way Ned, thanks for the fascinating question! It really got me
thinking.

Yes, it is a noun adjunct, not an adjective, although “adjective” is

close enough for everyday life given that most people stop learning

grammar when they leave primary school :slight_smile:

If we look at Ned’s example from earlier:

[Ned]

“The Python programming language” describes a

programming language (the noun). What kind of programming language?

The Python one. “Python” (adjective) modifies “programming language”

(noun).

“Python” is a noun modifying another noun in that sentence.

It’s not “what kind of programming language”, which could be answered

with an actual adjective like “object-oriented”, “popular” etc but

which programming language, which is answered with a noun: Python.

One simple test for whether a word is an adjective or a noun adjunct is

to ask whether you could modify it with “too” or “very”:

  • “The very simple programming language.” Yes, “simple” is an adjective.

  • “The very Python programming language.” No, “Python” is not an adjective.

More here:

I think the discussion here isn’t very precise. Are you asking about what the owner can do (legally), or about what they should do (as a best practice)?

I am pointing out an apparent contradiction, and asking for an explanation. Why don’t trademark owners follow their own guidance about how to use their trademarks? It is not illegal to use your trademark incorrectly and carelessly, it’s just unwise.

The essential point here is whether “Python” is being used with reference to Python-the-programming-language or whether “Python” is being used as a noun to refer to programming-languages-generally.

For example:
Kleenex Tissues (good)
Give me some Kleenex! (referring to tissues generally)(bad)

The Google Search Engine (good)
Let me google that (as a reference to searching generally)(bad)

Give me a Coke. (good, referring to Coke-the-beverage)
What kind of Coke do you want? “Big Red.” (Danger Will Robinson! “Coke” is being used here to refer to a class of beverages)

What is Python? (good, refers, at least in context, to Python-the-programming-language specifically)
Hypothetical bad usage: “Are you Python-ing?” (As a synonym for programming generally)

This is the underlying logic behind all the examples: the mark should refer, at least implicitly, to the specific good available from a specific source. The mark should not be used to refer to a class of similar goods.

Pythonically yours,
VanL

4 Likes

@VanL Thanks for chiming in. Why do trademark usage guidelines skip these details?

Probably because almost no one actually reads such details except for IP lawyers.

1 Like

Also probably because a lot of it is theoretical but unlikely. The example of “google” as a generic above was thrown out by the 9th circuit (http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2017/05/16/15-15809.pdf) and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in appeal.

Wikipedia has a partial list of trademarks that have been lost due to becoming generic and there’s not a lot of big recent names on there https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_generic_and_genericized_trademarks

It sounds unlikely that some day “Python” would be used as a generic term for programming languages. This only seems to happen when a brand is hegemonic (such as Coke, Google or Word).

The text you find on our trademark page related to how to use
the text marks in writing is the standard blurb that you find on
a lot of TM pages. I guess it’s mostly folklore which no one really
questions anymore - but at the same time also mostly ignores.

It may have some value in court cases, where you as TM
holder want some additional proof of wrong use of your trademark.
But I guess even there, the value is limited, if not even the TM
holder follows such rules.

Note that the only way to keep a trademark is to defend it, hence
putting up rules which you don’t or cannot really defend in practice
can also limit your ability to demonstrate such protection.

Perhaps we simply ought to remove the folklore and only leave things
which we actually can protect, such as putting the TMs into a wrong
context, trying to misguide the public or create the impression
of endorsement.

The rules we have for the logos are much more hands on in this
respect.

It is also unlikely, but I think the risk is that someone forks Python, and calls it “Python”. “Python 2.8”? Or someone could fork CPython right now, and make a release they call “Python 3.10”. This is exactly the sort of “confusion in the marketplace” that trademarks are meant to prevent. A trademark is an indication of origin. “Python” should only refer to programming language implementations that originate with the Python core committers, and the PSF.