QR Code® Trademarked? Yep! My Response

By | February 3, 2012

This past week, a client of mine forwarded me an email from Denso Wave Incorporated, the originators of those 2d mobile response codes we call QR Codes®. We call them that because Denso Wave trademarked the term, although few of us may be aware of it. But they did.

(View Denso Wave’s trademark info here.)

But Denso Wave has not protected its trademark, and over the years, the industry has used the term as a generic for mobile 2d response codes. Think of all of the references in white papers, research papers, publications, marketers, printers, blogs, and newsletters . . . how many times have you seen the trademark used?

Call me clueless, but I’ve never seen one. So when my client forwarded me an email from Denso Wave asking not only that the trademark be used with every reference to QR Codes® (apparently, Denso Wave also wants it with a capital C), but also that the phrase “QR Code is a registered trademark of DENSO WAVE INCORPORATED” be included somewhere on the Web page or in the publication, if I’d been dead, I would have turned over.

The fact is, there are many different types of mobile 2d response codes. QR Codes®, Datamatrix, BeeTAGG, MS Tag, SnapTag, JagTag, and the list goes on. What’s different about QR Codes® is that Denso Wave chose to make the code open source, so anyone can download it and create their own. Just Google free “QR code generator” and see how many companies have done it.

Combined with lack of enforcement (or, at the very least, selective enforcement) from Denso Wave, the result has been an explosion in use of QR Codes® (which I’m sure pleases Denso Wave), but also a genericization of the term QR Code® itself, which clearly does not.

I understand the desire to protect a trademark, but there is a certain level of common sense here, too. Can you imagine what writing on this topic would be like if every company trademarked the names of their codes or insisted on the ® be used after the ones that are?  Then the phrase “[such and such] is a registered trademark of [company]” be listed for every one? You’d use up your word count before you ever began writing.  Plus, every magazine article, piece of marketing collateral, and white paper would end up looking like a press release or advertisement.

I don’t know whether Denso Wave has suddenly changed its policy and decided to enforce its trademark more aggressively after all of these years or whether one of its employees simply got a burr under his or her saddle and sent the email on his or her own accord, but it reminds me that, in this industry, we need a generic term for 2d mobile response codes that doesn’t involve someone’s brand name.

So let me suggest one — 2d mobile response codes. It’s not as clean as QR Code®, but it’s a true generic that will prevent letters from trademark attorneys or vigilante employees and marketing collateral and publication pages that look like alphabet soup.



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14 thoughts on “QR Code® Trademarked? Yep! My Response

  1. Steve O

    The problem with using a generic term such as 2d mobile response codes is that no one will know what platform you are talking about specifically. They are already getting mixing up as it is, causing confusion for the consumer when the “2d mobile response code” they are trying to scan turns out to be a Datamatrix code, not a QR Code.

    When writing an article regarding a Trademarked or Registered product, it is common to use the symbol only once (on the first mention) with a footnote at the bottom. Hardly taxing on the word count.

  2. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    My comment about word counts was really tongue in cheek. Sometimes a little hyperbole helps to show the ridiculousness of something, as I think the case is here. Most publications follow AP style, which is to not use the trademark at all. I now that when I was the editor of Printing News, I didn’t. I would say that research, white papers, and similar materials — even private newsletters — could be considered editorial, which would fall under AP style, as well.

  3. Bryan Yeager

    My recommendation would be simply “mobile response code”. At InfoTrends, we used this specific term throughout our “Mobile Technology: Making Print Interactive” study as a way to categorize all of the different technologies out there. The reason we did not include “2D” or “two-dimensional” is that if you include image recognition (Google Goggles, Documobi) and digital watermark (Digimarc Discover) technologies under “mobile response codes”, “2D” doesn’t really factor in.

    I agree with Steve to the extent that when these codes are being presented to a target audience, they should have more specificity regarding the type of response technology that is being used. “Mobile response code” is an appropriate term to use among marketers, advertisers, and service providers, but will likely not resonate well with consumers and other audiences.

    Regarding the Denso Wave trademark, I agree that it will not be an issue for editorial in particular, due to specific styles as you mentioned. Nevertheless, it could be an issue for marketers and advertisers that specifically refer to a code as a “QR Code”. Also, I’ve seen many businesses in this space include the “QR” as part of their own company, product, or service name. I would presume that Denso Wave could go after these entities, as well. We’ll have to wait and see to what extent D.W. decides to exercise its trademark. So far it seems to be pretty hands-off, but since QR Codes in particular have rapidly increased in adoption, they could take a more aggressive approach.

  4. Chuck Gehman

    No one except a technologist would care what it is called, anyway. This is another impediment to adoption, by publishers who might worry about the trademark, and as Steve O said, may lead to further consumer confusion.

    But the consumer problem is primarily software/accessibility; they shouldn’t even have to know what it is called to use it. In fact, the name QR Code, while short, sounds a little scary when you take a step back– is it a secret code? Is it a virus? Do I have to know the code? It is only called “code” because it is a barcode– in fact, it’s use has nothing to do with a “code”, so it’s a bad name. We don’t go around telling consumers to scan barcodes, either (well, at least not much.)

  5. Gina Danner

    Wow… wake up and see your world changed. Well not really. I am a huge proponent of protecting intellectual property. It seems odd that DENSO WAVE INCORPORATED would just now make any effort towards trademark protection.

    The MSP sector has been working hard to extend the use of QR Code to maintain relevancy and integrate with digital mediums.

    It seems odd for a company to put any energy toward this protection when it has not done so in the past. AND to try and protect something it has freely distributed and encouraged the use of for years.

    Changing reference to mobile response codes only further muddies the water especially in relationship to Google’s effort for location based technology. (can’t remember what it is called)

  6. Patrick Henry

    Denso Wave has a right and an obligation to protect its trademark, but shouldn’t it be at least as concerned about the fact that QR Codes® and other mobile action tags have pretty much failed to catch on with consumers?

    A survey by Forrester Research cited in a recent article in Advertising Age* found that only about 5% of mobile phone users scanned 2D barcodes during a test period. Utilization of 2D bar codes by the mobile audience was found to be a little higher than that (6.2%) in a study** conducted last year by comScore. But, by either measure, it seems clear that while 2D barcodes may be enjoying an explosion of visibility, their acceptance by consumers is a story still waiting to be told.

    If you code it, they won’t necessarily come. Printers often are urged to do a better job of promoting their own medium as a marketing channel. Maybe Denso Wave and other vendors of mobile marketing technologies need to make a similar effort on behalf of scannable action tags.

    I remember, from my own stint as editor of Printing News, that Pantone® always was aggressive about enforcing what it deemed to be the correct use of its trademark symbols and phrases. But, as the acknowledged leader among vendors of color specification products, Pantone® could assert its prerogatives from a position of strength. As providers of mobile marketing solutions, Denso Wave and its counterparts don’t have nearly that kind of clout. They need to get out there and earn it with campaigns promoting best practices and rich consumer experiences whenever mobile action tags are used.



  7. Jim Olsen

    This doesn’t solve Heidi’s QRCode® dilemma, but does bring up another interesting point.

    What is the best way to describe generically the ability to jump from a substrate to the web and deliver content in real time? New solutions are popping up all over the place.

    Being a “printer” all my life, I have been delighted with the new technology. I suggest we might think of transposing two of the words in the InfoTrends study: “Mobile Technology: Making Print Interactive”, and simply use “Interactive Print” to describe this emerging technology.

  8. Kevin Keane

    Hi Heidi

    I truly admire your zest for this fight. Maybe it’s the times, or there was something in the water lately that caused the IP police to ratchet up ‘enforcement.’

    To wit (hey, sounds like a lawyer) most of us watched the Super Bowl last nite and at one point I really did stop to pay attention – Clint Eastwood’s tour de force ‘commercial becum soliliquoy’ on behalf of the American spirit (oh, and a city called Detroit and firm called Lazarus, aka Chrysler.) I thought it was a gorgeously produced and mostly apolitical paean to getting moving again.

    The NFL however, thought otherwise:

    NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Chrysler’s two-minute Super Bowl ad “Halftime in America” featuring actor and director Clint Eastwood has been taken down from YouTube. A notation on the Google Inc. /quotes/zigman/93888/quotes/nls/goog GOOG +1.77% web site said the video segment is “no longer available due to a copyright claim by NFL Properties LLC.”


    Can’t see the forest for the trees, those spoil-sports!

  9. Bryan Yeager

    @Pat Henry – You raise some valid points, although low adoption alone shouldn’t curtail people from using this technology (after all, 5% of the U.S. population is still 15 million people).

    It all comes back to a mix of marketing fundamentals and best practices: knowing your target audience (in this case, younger, affluent smartphone owners) and providing a compelling offer will drive interaction and engagement; providing prescriptive instructions, doing a lot of testing, and linking to mobile-friendly content will ensure the end-user experience is optimal. Mobile response codes aren’t right for every application, but when done right, they can be extremely effective to meet marketers’ and advertisers’ objectives.

  10. Charles Kerr

    I am thinking that someone (a lawyer type) reminded Denso Wave that if they don’t protect their claim to the trademark a bit more aggressively they risk loosing the Trademark altogether… think Kleenex and Q-Tip. You can Trademark it, but if you don’t actively protect the Trademark you loose it to ‘General Usage.’

  11. Ruthie Iller

    OMG! those procedures look very painful. I’d think a million times before getting a tattoo done for this reason. Would never wanna go through any of this.

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