Q: An editor once pointed out that I was using brand names instead of the generic equivalent. How am I to know which words have been trademarked and which aren't?—Anonymous
A: When your character cuts his hand, does he cover it with an adhesive bandage or a Band-Aid? Does his mother use a hand-held vacuum cleaner or a DustBuster? And be sure to blow your protagonist’s nose with a tissue, not a Kleenex.
Many generic-sounding words and phrases are actually trademarked brand names. Some are so common that it can be difficult to tell the difference without looking them up. And the list continually grows, as terms like Netflix and Google are used more generically (e.g. I google my name at least once a week).
Trademarked words aren’t off-limits for writers, but be sure to use them correctly—double-check the spelling, use proper capitalization and refrain from writing out specific product names when you’re using it as a generalized term. And if you want to know which words are legally restricted, you can visit the International Trademark Association (inta.org). They offer an updated (though not complete) list of most trademarked words and phrases.
Several words on INTA’s list that aren’t obvious trademarks include:
Trademark Generic term
Bubble Wrap (cellular cushioning packaging material)
Cheez Whiz (processed cheese spread)
Cineplex (multi-auditorium movie theaters)
Crock-Pot (electric cooking appliance)
Febreze (fabric deodorizer)
Frisbee (toy flying saucer)
Hula-Hoop (plastic toy hoops)
Jacuzzi (therapeutic whirlpool baths)
Jell-O (gelatin, pudding)
La-Z-Boy (chairs and ottomans)
Silly Putty (modeling clay)
Q-Tips (cotton swabs)
Xerox (photocopiers, printers, copiers, scanners)
Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.
Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.