If you’ve trundled around the internet for as long as we have, you may have come across a 1990 store poster from Nintendo, correcting its users on how to use the word “Nintendo”.
While this ad may come across as Mario lecturing your grandmother with a lesson in grammar, when this image first hit the internets it was just passed off as Nintendo’s usual pomposity; a company arrogantly telling its fan base what they can and can’t do.
it does however, have a rather more personal reason for existing.
Now, one might think, “Surely calling everything “Nintendo” would be highly beneficial for the Big N? It’s free advertising and muscles out the competition”. And, yes, while it would more profitable to blitz out rival products, in the world of trademark law, it’s quite literally the worst possible thing that can happen to a company.
You see, to receive a trademark for your product, service or company, it has to be a highly specific word, or words to describe it. For instance, you could never trademark the term “video game” as it’s not only an incredibly broad term to begin with, but it’s also part of the public lexicon; a phrase that everyone uses to describe the medium.
This all stems from the 1946 US Fritz G. Lanham Trademark Act, where section 15 contains the clause:
(4) no incontestable right shall be acquired in a mark which is the generic name for the goods or services or a portion thereof, for which it is registered.
Which in other words means, as long as your trademark is unique, and remains unique, you’re golden!
However, unfortunately for businesses, the English language is one that constantly evolves and expands. Even in the past twenty years, multiple product names have become part of the lexicon. When you use a vacuum cleaner, do you call it a “Hoover”? Do you use “Cello-tape” or “sticky tape”? How often have you looked at an image you suspect is fake online and said “That Looks Photoshopped”, or when asking to search for information, to “Google it”?
And like Nintendo, both Adobe and Google have made public requests asking their users to alter their phrasing, fearing the same loss.
So, when a Trademarked word does become part of the public lexicon, it’s then regarded as being “Genericized”; in other words, an adjective becomes a noun. And when that happens, its usage can be legally challenged by anyone.
For example, as recently as 2019, Apple lost the rights to trademark the term “App” and “App Store” after being challenged by Amazon in court so they could use the phrases on their range of tablets.
Even huge brands such as Coca-Cola are currently on shaky ground to lose their trademark of Coke, as a huge majority of people will request “Coke” at a restaurant, even though they’re asking for any cola drink, not specifically Coca Cola’s. It’s something the lexicon has evolved into describing the beverage, no matter how many times your waiter responds: “…Will Pepsi do?”.
So, with such a trademark potentially falling into the public domain back then, Sega could have legally called their console: The “Nintendo Saturn”, or Sony could have called their console: The Nintendo Play Station (Well… Yeah) but, you get the point.
However, from suing everyone from Blockbuster from renting their titles, to companies that produced their own cartridges… losing the trademark to “Nintendo” is what the company literally feared the most from their market dominance back in 1990.
Long story short, if you don’t want everything in gaming to be branded as “Nintendo” in the future, whether the company made it or not. Next time your Gran asks if you’re playing as Halo on one of your Nintendo, be sure to correct her adjectives (or encourage her if you’re a rather vindictive Sony or Xbox fan!)