The crackling sound of a Velcro fastener is something we’re all familiar with. Used on everything from shoes to seat belts, Velcro forms a strong bond without the use of buckles, buttons or zippers. Many people don’t realize it, but Velcro is a registered trademark for a specific brand of hook and loop fastener.
Walk in the Woods
Like many inventions, Velcro was the result of sudden inspiration combined with years of hard work. It began in 1941, when Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral went on a walk with his dog.
As they walked in the woods, de Mestral watched as dozens of burrs attached themselves to his dog’s fur and his own clothing. He wondered if there was a way to make an adhesive that used the same principles.
After eight years of working and testing, he created an artificial, hook-and-loop version of those burrs. It comprised one strip of fabric with tiny hooks and another with tiny loops. His final version used nylon, which was a durable fabric that wouldn’t wear out with repeated use.
He named it Velcro, which was a combination of “velvet” and “crochet.” He received a Swiss patent for his “separable fastening device” in 1954. In 1955, de Mestral founded his company, Velcro SA.
After incorporating his business, de Mestral marketed the fastener as an alternative to zippers. He received a U.S. patent in 1955. In 1957, he opened his first U.S. plant in Manchester, New Hampshire. Velcro USA is still there. These were quickly followed by plants worldwide.
In 1959, clothing with Velcro fasteners was featured on the runway at a New York City fashion show. Despite this, Velcro didn’t catch on as a clothing fastener because it was bulky and unattractive.
NASA Comes Calling
In the 1960s, Velcro’s image got a huge boost when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Program used it to keep items in the Apollo space capsule from floating away. NASA later added Velcro to the astronauts’ suits. The first astronauts to walk on the moon wore suits with Velcro fasteners.
Like Tang and Teflon, the fastener became closely associated in the public mind with NASA. NASA still supplies a disclaimer on its website that Tang, Teflon and Velcro are not official NASA spinoffs.
In 1968, Puma became the first athletic shoe company to create a sneaker with three Velcro fasteners. The style became a bestseller that was quickly copied by Puma’s competitors. Over the next decades, every self-respecting athletic shoe had to have those triple-strapped sneakers.
In 1984, talk show host David Letterman invited Velcro’s U.S. representative to his show. Letterman performed a stunt designed to introduce his audience to the amazing things Velcro could do.
Letterman wore a suit made from Velcro. He then jumped on a trampoline that tossed him onto a wall covered in Velcro. As the audience cheered, he demonstrated the product’s incredible holding power.
Uses for Velcro exploded in the 1990s. The fastener appeared on suitcase handles, medical equipment, games, bags, toys, camping equipment and hundreds of other products. In 1992, it appeared on Huggies diapers. It is still used on blood pressure monitors in every clinic and hospital in the country.
In 2004, the U.S. Army redesigned its uniforms to incorporate easy-fastening Velcro instead of zippers. The Army had to rethink this design during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, where the endless sand became lodged in the Velcro hooks. In 2010, the Army went back to buttons.
In 2013, Japan-based YKK sued Velcro for trademark infringement. YKK also makes hook-and-loop fasteners under the Quickfit brand. The company’s patent gives it the right to create and sell fastener strips used with foam molded products.
According to the lawsuit, Velcro infringed on YKK’s patent rights by making fastener strips for use with molded products “with knowledge of or willful blindness toward the 059 patent.” The company said Velcro was attempting to enter the huge, highly lucrative market in car cushions and other car accessories.
At the 2017 trial, a jury ruled in favor of Velcro.
In a press statement announcing the verdict, Velcro said:
“Many cars in the U.S. with fabric or leather covers use hook fastener strips embedded in seat cushions to secure seat trim covers, so a large market was at risk. The jury delivered a complete defense verdict of non-infringement, finding that Velcro Companies’ VELCRO® Brand fasteners do not infringe YKK’s patent.”
Viral Video Explains Trademark Law
Velcro has taken a very creative approach to trademark protection. In 2017, the company produced a YouTube video featuring Velcro “lawyers” begging the public not to use “Velcro” as a generic name.
The humorous music video went viral on social media, but it points to a problem many famous brand names have. Some trademarked company names have become “genericized,” which means they lost their trademark protection when the public started using the trade name as a generic name.
Check out more common word trademarks
Many people don’t realize that aspirin, trampoline and dumpster were once trademarked names. Over time, these brand names became so popular that people began using them as generic names for products.
Companies who don’t want their brand names to lose trademark status must be on guard for every improper use of their name. This explains Velcro’s video and its vigilance about improper use of its name.
The company routinely checks product listings on Amazon, eBay and other reseller sites. If it spots a listing that uses the word Velcro, it demands the listing be pulled or reworded.
Velcro is doing the right thing, even if it seems like an uphill task. Other well-known names like Popsicle and Bubble Wrap have shown that it pays to defend your name from becoming a generic phrase. Even Google has had to fight to keep “to Google” from becoming a generic phrase.
Will Velcro be successful at convincing the public to use “hook and loop fastener” instead of the easier, catchier “Velcro?” Only time and the courts will tell.