If you’ve been snooping around the web for as long as we have, you may have come across a 1990 Nintendo store poster correcting its users about using the word “Nintendo”.
While this ad may come across as Mario teaching your grandmother a grammar lesson, when this image first appeared on the internet, it was just passed around as Nintendo’s usual pomposity; a company that arrogantly tells its fans what they can and cannot do.
however it has quite a bit more in person reason of existence.
Now one might think, “Calling everything ‘Nintendo’ would be very beneficial to the Big N, wouldn’t it? It’s free advertising and beats the competition.” And yes, while it would be more profitable to eliminate rival products, in the world of trademark law it is quite literally the worst possibly something that could happen to a company.
You see, in order to receive a trademark for your product, service or company, it must be a very specific word or words to describe it. For instance, you could never trademark the term “video game” because not only is it an incredibly broad term to begin with, but it’s part of the public lexicon; an expression that everyone uses to describe the medium.
This all stems from the American Fritz G. Lanham Trademark Act of 1946, where Section 15 contains the clause:
(4) no indisputable right is acquired in a trade mark which is the generic name for the goods or services or part thereof for which it is registered.
Which in other words means, as long as your brand is unique, and mortal remains unique, you are golden!
Unfortunately for businesses, the English language is one that constant evolves and expands. Even in the past twenty years, multiple product names have become part of the lexicon. If you use a vacuum cleaner, do you call it a “vacuum cleaner”? Do you use “cello tape” or “scotch tape”? How many times have you looked online at an image that you suspect is fake and said, “That looks Photoshopped”, or when you asked to search for information, to “Google” it?
And like Nintendo, both Adobe and Google have made public requests to ask their users to change their wording, fearing the same loss.
So, when a trademarked word is doing become part of the public lexicon, it is then considered “genericized”; in other words, an adjective becomes a noun. And when That happens, its use may be legally challenged by: everybody†
For example, in 2019, Apple lost the rights to the “App” and “App Store” trademarks after they were challenged in court by Amazon to allow them to use the phrases on their line of tablets.
Even big brands like Coca-Cola are currently on shaky ground to lose their Coke trademark as a large majority of people in a restaurant will ask for “Coke” even if they ask for each drink coke, not specifically Coca Cola’s. It’s something the lexicon has developed to describe the drink, no matter how many times your waiter responds: “…Will Pepsi do that?”†
So with such a trademark potentially falling into the public domain at the time, Sega could have legally named their console: the “Nintendo Saturn”, or Sony could have named their console: the Nintendo Play Station. (Well) but you get the point.
However, from suing everyone from Blockbuster for renting out their titles, to companies producing their own cartridges… the loss of the trademark to “Nintendo” is literally what the company feared most because of their market dominance in the market. 1990.
Long story short, if you don’t want everything in gaming to be branded “Nintendo” in the future, whether the company made it or not. The next time your grandma asks if you play as Halo on one of your Nintendo, make sure to correct her adjectives (or cheer her on if you’re a rather vengeful Sony or Xbox fan!)