So familiar have the little white headache tablets become during the 20th century that, before his death in 1955, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset referred to the era as the Aspirin Age. Indeed, the word Aspirin is used widely today in a generic sense to describe pain-killers in general. But, while the word Aspirin has been without legal protection in the United States since 1921, in Canada and Europe the name Aspirin is still protected by copyright by its respective owners.
Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) was first given the name Aspirin in 1898, when the scientists who developed the drug for the German pharmaceutical firm of Friedrich Bay-
er & Co. decided it needed a trade name. Chemists Felix Hofmann and Heinrich Dreser used the syllable “spir” to indicate the presence of salicylic acid derived from the Spirea plant family. They shortened acetyl to the prefix “a” and added “in” to create a word that was spelled the same in German and English. That year, Bayer registered the trade name Aspirin worldwide. (In Canada, the trademark was registered with the ministry of agriculture, which administered the government’s trademark and copyright branch. The department of consumer and corporate affairs took over the function in 1967.)
Until 1917, only Bayer manufactured Aspirin. But during the First World War, the U.S. government seized the stock of Bayer’s New York City-based U.S. subsidiary on the grounds that it was the property of enemy aliens. In 1918, the U.S. Alien Property Custodian sold the stock—and trademark—at a public
auction to Sterling Products, which paid $5,310,000 for the firm.
As the pain-killer soared in popularity, other companies with products called Aspirin entered the market. After Sterling went to court in 1921 to defend its copyright, Judge Learned Hand of the Federal Court ruled that Aspirin was in the public domain. In Canada, Aspirin remains the trademark of Sterling Drug Ltd. Carol Gillies, spokesman for the Aurora, Ont.-based firm, said that ownership of the trademark has never been contested in Canada since it was first registered on April 12,1899. Leverkusen, West Germany-based Bayer AG, which remains the sole manufacturer of Aspirin outside of North America, has retained the trademark Aspirin in more than 60 countries.
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