Google is the world’s largest search engine. The tech giant performs more than 1 trillion searches a year and generates over $100 million in advertising revenue daily. Like many technology companies, however, it had humble beginnings.
Starting at Stanford
In 1995, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were computer science students at Stanford University. They began working together on a web search engine they called Backrub, which was named for its ability to perform backlink analysis. A test of the search engine was successful, and they began work on the next, improved version.
This search engine differed from earlier engines because it used a proprietary technology they named PageRank. They named their new project “Google.” The name came from the word “googol,” which is a mathematical term for a huge number. They wanted something that reflected the huge amounts of data their new search engine could process.
The inventors worked in their dorm rooms and in a borrowed room at the campus library. They built the network out of used, inexpensive computers and maxed out their credit cards to buy equipment.
As their project took its final form, they looked for investors who might want to license their product. When they didn’t find any takers, they decided to keep it and look for outside financing. Their first funding came from the founder of Sun Microsystems, who wrote them a check after watching just one demonstration of what Google could do.
Google’s Official Launch
Later funding came from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and other tech investors. They raised almost $1 million total.
In 1998, they opened Google’s first location in Menlo Park, California. The initial search engine answered 10,000 search queries daily in its first week of operation. In 2001, they received a patent for their PageRank technology and moved to a larger office building in Palo Alto.
By 2003, the company was making more than $2 billion a year and profits of almost $300 million. In 2004, Google went public. The initial public offering (IPO) valued the company at $23 billion.
Today, Google is regularly listed as one of the top 10 tech companies in the world. Google has since introduced a fleet of new products, including Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive and the Chrome web browser. It also owns YouTube, the Android operating system, and Chromebooks laptops. The Google logos are also often a topic of fun internet banter.
Keywords and Lawsuits
Like many large, famous companies, Google has been involved in several lawsuits. Many of these have involved trademark litigation.
Sometimes, the company’s vast reach as a search engine has created trademark troubles in which Google was the defendant. In 2005, a court in Paris, France, ordered Google and its French subsidiary to pay $377,000 in damages to the fashion house Louis Vuitton. The design house accused Google of selling search-related keyword advertising to its competitors.
Read more on common words and phrases that are trademarked.
A year later, the company was successfully sued by payday loan provider Check’n Go, who claimed Google’s engine allowed other payday lenders to buy ads triggered by its trademarked phrase and name.
Google settled a lengthy lawsuit with American Blind & Wallpaper Factory. The company claimed Google’s AdWords program violated trademark law by selling advertising that appears in search engine results. In the settlement, neither side claimed they were wrong, and both paid their own legal fees.
Is Google Generic?
Many people use “Google” as a word for any use of a search engine. While this is a sign of Google’s standing as a brand, it also raises the question, is “google” a generic term? This is important because becoming a generic term means Google would lose its trademark.
It seems hard to imagine that a giant company like Google could lose its trademark status. In fact, well-known companies are most likely to see their brand names become generic terms.
How Genericide Happens
Sometimes, a brand becomes so closely associated with a certain product that it becomes the accepted, everyday word for something. For example, think about how often you say “Band-Aid” instead of bandage or “Kleenex” instead of tissue.
The legal term for this is “genericide,” and it happens in one two ways. One, a company does not properly register, update and protect its trademark. Two, a court rules that the company’s name is so well known that anyone selling a similar product must use the same name just to compete fairly in the market. In this blog, we’ve looked at how companies like Rollerblade, ChapStick and TASER have fought to protect their trademarks.
Famous Names That Are Now Generic
Genericide has happened to some of the world’s most famous trademarks. Some common words we use daily were once trademarked terms, including the following.
- Aspirin: Once a trademark of the German company Bayer, it is still trademarked in Europe but generic in the U.S.
- Flip phone: Originally a Motorola trademark, it is now a generic term.
- Laundromat: Westinghouse trademarked this term in the 1940s and 1950s, but the trademark expired.
- Escalator: The Otis Elevator Company held this trademark until 1950.
- Linoleum: First registered as a trademark in 1864, it is now a generic term for flooring.
- Dry ice: The trademark was registered in 1925, but it is now expired.
- Cellophane: While still trademarked in Europe, it is a generic term in the U.S.
Testing the Waters: Gillespie Lawsuit
In 2015, a plaintiff named Chris Gillespie tested the “genericide” waters with Google. He filed a lawsuit based on the idea that “Google” has become a generic term.
Gillespie purchased several internet domain names that contained the phrase “google.” After he registered over 700 names that included google.com in their spelling, Google sued him for cybersquatting. Google also claimed trademark infringement for improper use of its name.
Gillespie countered by claiming that the name Google has become generic. His lawsuit argued there was no trademark infringement. According to his countersuit, using terms like “to Google” or “Google it” has become common place, and the trademark should be cancelled.
People Still Know It’s a Brand Name
A lower court found that the name Google belongs to the internet search engine itself and not to the act of searching or “Googling.” The court also found that even people who use the term “Google” to mean “search” know they are using a trademarked brand name.
In 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling. Gillespie, the court found, did not prove that the term “to Google” has become an “exclusive descriptor” that makes it difficult for competitors to sell similar products without using the same name.
The court concluded, “Even if we assume that the public uses the verb ‘google’ in a generic and indiscriminate sense, this tells us nothing about how the public primarily understands the word itself, irrespective of its grammatical function, with regard to internet search engines.”
You Can Google It
Despite its massive popularity, Google has not become a generic term. If you are using the term “to Google” to mean searching the web, you’re using a trademarked term. It’s likely that Google will take all necessary steps to protect that trademark.