Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date

May 2007


This contribution to an inter-disciplinary book on Trademarks and Brands responds to the work of Alan Durant, a linguist who (in his chapter of the book) provides legal scholars with both a rich understanding of how linguists view terms that are part of the basic argot of trademark law and a potentially vital explanation of the different social functions that word marks might serve. The Response explains why linguistics should matter to trademark law, but also why trademark law might on occasion ignore the precise reality of consumer understanding as might be provided by linguistics. I suggest that, while trademark law should not become beholden to linguistics, the lessons of Durant’s linguistic analysis are to some extent already accommodated in the practice of trademark law, and could be important guides in the further development of a number of legal principles. In particular, I explain how trademark law does in large part take into consideration Durant’s observation that legal analysis would comport more with the reality of how words function if it focused on marks as they are used. The Chapter also argues that Durant’s exploration of the concepts of “distinctiveness” and “descriptiveness”, as understood by lawyers and linguists, respectively, should reinforce important lessons for legal scholars about the complex policy prescriptions embodied in those concepts. Finally, I argue that particular insights developed by Durant from the field of linguistics may prove valuable in illuminating several points of contention in contemporary trademark law. In particular, Durant stresses that determining whether a defendant’s use has evoked the source-identifying aspect of plaintiff’s mark, as opposed to the descriptive properties of that term, can only be done by analyzing the “discourse ‘setting’ in which interpretations are constructed.” Thus, although the type of use should be relevant to assessing infringement, any analysis of use type must be highly contextualized. This insight should inform the choice of doctrinal vehicles by which trademark law establishes limits on the scope of protection.

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