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In trademark law, “trademark dilution” refers to an instance in which the distinctiveness and impact of a trademarked brand are reduced. Trademark dilution can take a number of forms, including blurring, tarnishment, and genericization. Many countries including the United States have laws which are designed to prevent trademark dilution, and to give companies guidelines for protecting their individual trademarks. Since a trademark is a unique and powerful thing, companies take dilution of their brands extremely seriously.
Laws which address trademark dilution are focused on two issues. The first is consumer protection. When consumers purchase a trademarked product, they are choosing it for a particular reason such as perceived corporate responsibility or quality. If a competing company uses a similar mark with the intent of confusing consumers, this can undermine consumer confidence. Trademark dilution also hurts companies, by lessening the powerful impact of their brand. Many companies aggressively protect their trademarks from trademark dilution, with some critics believing that a small number of companies take their efforts too far.
When a trademark is blurred, competing companies use that mark or a similar one, usually to market unrelated products. For example, a company may specialize in marketing tires for cars. The company's brand and markings are well known, so when consumers see a breakfast cereal with similar markings, they may associate the breakfast cereal with the tire company. This dilutes the tire company's mark, by broadening its associations. In some instances, a competing company may manufacture a similar product with an alarmingly similar trademark or package design, confusing consumers and also leading to trademark dilution.
In the instance of tarnishment, a company's mark may be associated with an unsavory or poor quality product. As a result, consumers develop a negative image of the company concerned. The issue of tarnishment is often linked with pornography and other explicit art forms, since many companies with a wholesome image do not want to be associated with adult material. Tarnishment is a slippery slope, since sometimes the use of a trademark is considered parody, and it cannot be prosecuted in a court of law.
Genericization is the terminal form of trademark dilution. Many generic terms such as xerox, zipper, hoover, escalator, and kleenex were once trademarked terms for specific products. The parent companies did not realize the danger of allowing consumers to use the terms generically until it was too late. Under these circumstances, a company may be able to pursue limited options, especially if the genericization is caught early. However, a company which fails to act will lose its trademark.
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