South Africa: Tweet, Twitter And Generic Words

Last Updated: 21 November 2013
Article by Rachel Sikwane

Most Read Contributor in South Africa, September 2016

It was recently reported that Twitter had, as part of its proposed listing, warned that several of its trade marks might be at risk.  As trade marks are very important assets – in some cases the trade mark is the most important asset that a company has – information of this nature is clearly very relevant for potential investors. Incidentally, if you're wondering how valuable tech brands can be, it's worth noting that in Interbrand's 2013 Best Global Brands survey Apple comes in at number one with an estimated value of US$98 billion, Google at number two (US$93 billion), Amazon at no.19 (US$26 billion), and Facebook at no. 52 (US$7 billion).

Twitter listed its trade marks as follows: TWITTER, TWEET, RETWEET and the Bird Logo. What Twitter was saying to potential investors was that some of its trade mark registrations might become open to attack on the basis that the trade marks have become generic. The trade mark that Twitter's apparently most concerned about is TWEET, which is of course the name of the message that you send via Twitter. The company said this: 'There is a risk that the word "Tweet" could become so commonly used that it becomes synonymous with any short comment posted publicly on the Internet, and if this happens, we could lose protection of this trademark.'

It's a fundamental requirement of trade mark law that a trade mark must be distinctive in order to be registered.  The trade mark might be inherently distinctive, for example a word that is coined and meaningless like OOBA, or a word that has a meaning but is used fancifully or out of context like BLACKBERRY. Or the trade mark might be a word that is descriptive of the product, but has in fact become distinctive of one company through considerable use, like SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS.  

Sometimes, however, something different happens – a trade mark is used extensively but instead of becoming associated with one particular company it becomes the generic term for the product.  A famous example was 'oven chips', a term that was coined by McCain for a product that had never been seen before, but became the accepted and generic term for the product rather than the protectable trade mark of McCain.  Twitter seems to fear that a similar situation may arise with TWEET. The word, being an existing word that's used fancifully or out of context, is inherently distinctive for short messages that are sent via Twitter. It's therefore a registrable trade mark. Yet it clearly has the potential to become the generic term for a short message sent by any means or service. If that happens, trade mark registrations for the trade mark may become vulnerable to cancellation.  This is a problem that companies that bring out genuinely new products do face from time to time.

There are, of course,  lots of trade marks that have become generic words, for example 'escalator', 'aspirin', 'nylon' and  'gramophone' (in some cases a word may still be a registered trade mark in one country but a generic word in others).  A more recent example is 'club', which was used exclusively as the name of the business class service of British Airways, but over time became a generic word and eventually started appearing in dictionaries -  it's bad news having your trade mark appear in a dictionary, because those seeking to cancel your registration will invariably use this as proof that the word has become generic, even if the dictionary does have one of those  disclaimers  to the  effect that the word's appearance in the dictionary  does not mean that it isn't  proprietary.  Incidentally, the word 'Tweet' has already found its way into the Merriam-Webster dictionary where it's  defined as 'a post made on the Twitter online message service'.

There are a number of trade marks that are used loosely (somewhat generically) from time to time, but they are probably still valid trade marks. Examples that come to mind include Xerox, Hoover, Jacuzzi, Windsurfer, Vaseline, Jeep and Kreepy Krauly. The owners of these marks sometimes take steps to educate the public about how these names should be used. Some go for the subtle approach: the owners of Kleenex have used their brand name in the form 'Kleenex Brand Tissues', which reminds people that it's a tissue that you blow your nose with and not a Kleenex; the makers of Jeep have used the expression 'There's only one' to remind us that Jeep is a make of car rather than a type of car.

There are other steps that you as the brand owner can take to make sure your trade mark doesn't become generic.  The most obvious way is to use your trade mark correctly. Your trade mark is an adjective not a noun, so if you're Apple you should offer the consumer an 'Apple computer' rather than a plain 'Apple'. If you're offering the consumer more than one, it's 'two Apple computers' rather than 'two Apples'. And you shouldn't use your trade mark as a verb - if you're Google don't suggest that people 'google' things, rather suggest that they 'search on Google' (this is, of course, an obvious problem with Tweet, as it is used as a verb). But I should perhaps mention that not everyone see things this way - when Steve Ballmer of Microsoft launched Microsoft's Bing search engine, he famously said that he hoped that Bing would soon 'verb up', by which he apparently meant that he hoped people would soon start saying that they were 'binging' in the same way as they sometimes  say they're 'googling', adding that he wasn't  too concerned about the trade mark  implications because in the tech age trade marks have such short life-spans that it doesn't really matter if they become generic.

The news reports even suggest that there may be some concerns about the trade mark TWITTER itself.  If TWITTER were to become a generic word it would truly be a disaster for the company. But in my view that's a very long way off, and I'm sure that the company will do whatever is required to make sure it never happens.  One IP lawyer is quoted in one of the news reports as follows:  'I suspect "Twitter" might eventually fall into the "xerox" category - but not for a long time. In Internet time, that is. Even if it does, I don't see any long-term problems for Twitter itself.'

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Mondaq Advice Centre (MACs)
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.