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I’ve previously dispelled a common misconception between copyrights and trademarks. In summary, the “doctrine of laches” does not apply to copyrights. That is, if a copyright holder doesn’t enforce their copyright, they don’t lose the copyright. The doctrine of laches does apply to trademarks. Bayer’s Aspirin is an example of a trademark that fell prey to the doctrine of laches and was subsequently “genericized.” But there’s a legal twist to this story.
The German company, Bayer, held a patent in acetyl salicylic acid (“ASA”), and a trademark in Aspirin to identify it. The patent expired in 1917, but they continued to sell it under the brand name Aspirin, so the trademark lingered. Due to World War I, Bayer lost all its assets including its intellectual property. A new, company, bought those assets (including the trademarks “Bayer” and “Aspirin”) and continued selling ASA using the Aspirin trademark. Unfortunately, “considerably more than 220 tons” of counterfeit Aspirin flooded the U.S. market. This ASA was sold as “aspirin” throughout the general public, but with perhaps only an insignificant percentage of exceptions, manufacturing chemists, retail druggists, and physicians didn’t use or sell the infringing ASA.
In Bayer Co. v. United Drug Co., 272 F. 505 (S.D.N.Y. 1921), Bayer sued to enforce the trademark, and the result was, despite the Honorable Learned Hand’s claim, a first in the law. Here’s the relevant quote, which I’ll next explain.
The case, therefore, presents a situation in which, ignoring sporadic exceptions, the trade is divided into two classes, separated by vital differences. One, the manufacturing chemists, retail druggists, and physicians, has been educated to understand that “Aspirin” means the plaintiff’s manufacture, and has recourse to another and an intelligible name for it, actually in use among them. The other, the consumers, the plaintiff has, consciously I must assume, allowed to acquaint themselves with the drug only by the name “Aspirin,” and has not succeeded in advising that the word means the plaintiff at all. If the defendant is allowed to continue the use of the word of the first class, certainly without any condition, there is a chance that it may get customers away from the plaintiff by deception. On the other hand, if the plaintiff is allowed a monopoly of the word as against consumers, it will deprive the defendant, and the trade in general, of the right effectually to dispose of the drug by the only description which will be understood. It appears to me that the relief granted cannot in justice to either party disregard this division; each party has won, and each has lost. Id. at 513-14.
What all of this means is that, to the general public, aspirin was no longer a trademark. Anyone could sell ASA to the general public and call it aspirin (with a small A), because to the general public, they were the same thing. However, Aspirin (with a capital A) was still a distinctive mark among manufacturing chemists, retail druggists, and physicians, because they never treated it as a generic term. As professionals in the industry, they weren’t burdened by having to call the generic drug acetyl salicylic acid (or monoaceticacidester of salicylicacid), so they continued to do so. Also, those professionals weren’t willing to trade in infringing goods, so they never did.
The net result was that the trademark was no longer applicable to the general public, but it was still valid when selling to manufacturing chemists, retail druggists, and physicians.
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