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Can Facebook Trademark “Face”?

Facebook’s attempt to trademark the word “face” raises questions about the ability to trademark common words, and whether we can still use the word “face” without paying the social networking giant.

By
Adam Freedman
July 20, 2012

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Can Facebook Trademark the Word “Face”?

News recently surfaced that Facebook is trying to trademark the word “face” with the US government. This seemingly aggressive legal maneuver has set the online world all a-twitter, as it were. Can they really trademark such a common word? And does this mean that you and I can’t use the word “face” any more without paying a fee to the social networking giant?

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Before you panic and try to find some other word to describe that thing containing your eyes, nose, and mouth, let’s take a minute to explore what Facebook’s strategy really means from a legal perspective. As I’ll explain in a minute, Facebook may be within its rights, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the word “face” any more.

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is a word, symbol, or phrase used to identify particular goods and to distinguish them from other goods in the marketplace. You already know dozens--probably hundreds--of trademarks. Just think of familiar brands: “Apple” computers, “Ford” cars, “Oreo” cookies, and, of course, “Quick and Dirty Tips”. Those names, along with their associated logos are all trademarks. When such marks are used to describe services rather than goods, they’re known as “service marks,” but legally, they’re treated the same.

How Do Trademarks Work?

If you sometimes use the word “face” in casual conversation, don’t worry--you won’t be infringing Facebook’s trademark.Trademarks are governed mainly by a federal law known as the Lanham Act. 

One way to acquire rights to a trademark is to register the mark with the US Patent and Trademark Office, which is what Facebook is trying to do with “face.” In fact, registration is not necessary; you can also gain legal protection simply by being the first person to actually use the mark commercially. But registration does confer certain advantages, including the right to bring an infringement suit in federal court.

A Trademark Must be Tied to a Particular Product

As a matter of federal law, a trademark must be associated with a particular product or service that is used in interstate commerce. In the case of Facebook, the company’s trademark application specifies that it uses the word “face” in connection with its business of providing “online chat rooms and bulletin boards for transmission of messages among computer users in the field of general interest and concerning social and entertainment subject matter.” In other words – social networking. So if you sometimes use the word “face” in casual conversation, don’t worry--you won’t be infringing Facebook’s trademark.

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