June 7, 2013
Supposedly, Coco Chanel named its fragrance “Jersey” after the loose-fitting and liberating fabric she helped popularize.
An attempt to trademark the name in the United Kingdom, however, failed because the Brits’ Intellectual Property Office felt that this would amount to giving Chanel ownership of the word “Jersey,” which also happens to be one of the Channel Islands.
Although this happened in the U.K., it is similarly difficult for companies to gain legal ownership of a word that is also a geographic locale in the U.S.
Martha Stewart, for example, tried to name a line of paint colors after Turkey Hill, her Connecticut home, only to find that her neighbors put up a legal fight to stop her. (“Using the name of our beloved hamlet on paint that the hoi polloi can buy? Perish the thought!”)
Generally speaking, you can’t appropriate a non-distinctive term for yourself; your attempt to trademark “Minnesota maple syrup” is probably going to fail, for example, because it does not do enough to distinguish your product from other brands of maple syrup that are made in Minnesota.
This is a pretty well-established tenet of trademark law, though, and yet companies keep trying.
I suppose it is because we strongly associate certain places with certain feelings or images (Paris – so romantic!) and companies are eager to associate their products with those places because they’re an excellent ready-made source of desirable connotations.
In this case, I am assuming Chanel was willing to run the risk that a fragrance called “Jersey” might call to mind “New Jersey…”