From Brandnama, a newish naming blog based in Chennai, India, I learned that back in 2002, Austria's supreme court ruled that "Walkman" had become a generic term for "portable music player" and that Sony--maker of the original Walkman--no longer enjoyed trademark protection in Austria. There's a word for this loss: genericide, the process by which a brand name becomes a generic term. Aspirin, heroin, zipper, and escalator are examples: all were once trademarked and spelled with capital letters.
And here's another name to add to the list: espresso. I'd always assumed it was generic from the get-go--it means simply "express" in Italian--but I was wrong. According to an article in yesterday's New York Times business section, the word was coined in the 1930s by Francesco Illy, the Hungarian-born founder of Illycaffè, which is headquartered in Trieste, Italy. Mr. Illy had invented a steam-driven coffeemaker, which he named the Espresso, to replace the traditional little pots. Eventually the word became synonymous with the machine's output.
In recent years, Illy's grandson, Andrea Illy, had tried unsuccessfully to regain legal protection for "espresso." Too late, the Italian authorities told him. "As we say, the cows were already out of the barn," Mr. Illy is quoted as saying.
Rather than keep suing--or whining--Illy has cleverly appropriated "espresso" into the name of a new chain of proprietary high-end coffeehouses, Espressamente, that look like fashion boutiques. Besides coffee, the shops (there are now 120 of them around the world) sell cups and saucers designed by well-known fine artists such as Julian Schnabel (who is better known for his broken crockery) and Jeff Koons.
There are two lessons here: One, if you care about your brand and don't want to see it diluted, apply for trademark protection and make sure you renew it before it expires. Two, if you lose that protection, find another way to ensure that your customers associate your brand name with you and you alone.