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Apple's iPad could become the next 'heroin'

April 09, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • Charges that Apple's new iPad undercharges its battery are generating a lot of discussion.
Charges that Apple's new iPad undercharges its battery are generating… (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg )

There's a thin line between a brand becoming ubiquitous and becoming generic. And no premium brand wants to be generic. Some experts say that Apple's iPad as a tablet-segment leader may now be facing that.

"For the vast majority, the idea of a tablet is really captured by the idea of an iPad," says Josh Davis, a manager at Abt Electronics in Chicago. "They gave birth to the whole category and brought it to life."

A company's biggest fear is that its brand name becomes so commonly used that a judge rules it too "generic" to be a trademark. That opens the name to be used by any product, even lesser ones.

This typically comes after a company sues another for using its name, then the case goes to federal court. 

Drug maker Bayer lost trademarks for "aspirin" and "heroin" this way in the 1920s. 

Certainly Apple is also working in some ways to make iPad the only name you need to know. With its latest iteration, "the new iPad," the company dropped the number from the name, which distinguished one iPad from the next.

This identity battle is nothing new. Many of us were so stuck on Band-Aid that it became the only name we knew for all wound coverings. (Johnson & Johnson even changed the song to try to preserve brand integrity.) Kleenex was what we asked for when we wanted to blow our noses into anything. "Xerox" was what we did when we made a copy on any machine. And Googling is now what we do to find something online, regardless of the search engine we actually use.

In fact, Apple has seen it before when all MP3 players effectively became iPods after its launch in 2001. But that hasn't hurt them any. 

"There's tension between legal departments concerned about 'genericide' and marketing departments concerned about sales," says Michael Atkins, a Seattle trademark attorney. "Marketing people want the brand name as widespread as possible and trademark lawyers worry ... the brand will lose all trademark significance."

This "genericide" is, essentially, death by association for brands that reach a desired level of ubiquity that all but erases their unique identity. This comes after companies spend millions of dollars to create brand recognition.

Of course, it doesn't happen with every top brand. Only about 5% of brands in America become generic.

For now, Apple dominates the tablet category, accounting for about 73% of the estimated 63.6 million tablets sold globally last year, according to research firm Gartner. Although its market share is likely to decline as more rivals saturate the market with tablets, experts say that won't necessarily lessen iPad's name recognition. 

"Apple is actually pretty good at this," Jessica Litman, professor of copyright law at the University of Michigan Law School, told the Associated Press. "It's able to skate pretty close to the generics line while making it very clear the name is a trademark of the Apple version of this general category."

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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