When IJR Capital Investments filed an intent-to-use trademark application for THE KRUSTY KRAB for restaurant services in December 2014, it never imagined that it was walking into a federal lawsuit. That’s because federal courts lack jurisdiction over trademark infringement matters until the defendant actually uses its trademark in commerce. WarnerVision Entertainment v. Empire of Carolina, 101 F. 3d 259 (2d Cir., 1996) (A trademark holder cannot prevent a party who has filed an intent-to-use application from using its mark “on the grounds that [the trademark holder] has used the mark subsequent to the filing of the ITU application.”)
Nevertheless, on November 23, 2015, Viacom sent IJR a cease and desist letter, demanding that IJR drop THE KRUSTY KRAB name and withdraw the pending trademark application. Not long after, Viacom filed suit in the United States District Court, Southern District of Texas.
“The Krusty Krab,” as any cartoon-watcher knows, is the name of a fictional under-the-sea restaurant in “SpongeBob SquarePants” that airs on Viacom’s Nickelodeon network. Since 1999, the façade of “The Krusty Krab” (shown here) has been shown in 166 of 203 aired episodes, was depicted in two SpongeBob SquarePants feature films, and was licensed for consumer products. However, while Viacom’s “The Krusty Krab” does not actually provide any restaurant services, it does offer a fictional “Krabby Patty” to cartoon characters.
On summary judgment, Judge Gray H. Miller held that although Viacom never registered THE KRUSTY KRAB, it was still entitled to trademark protection as a “specific ingredient of a successful TV series” that the “public directly associates with the plaintiff or its product.” (Previously, courts have held that “Kryptonite” and “Daily Planet” are protected by common law trademark rights because they have been a “staple of the Superman character and story” and “regularly appeared on licensed consumer merchandise over they years.” DC Comics v. Kryptonite Corp., 336 F. Supp. 2d 324, 332 (S.D.N.Y. 2004); DC Comics v. Powers, 465 F. Supp. 843, 845, 847 (S.D.N.Y. 1978).)
THE KRUSTY KRAB, Judge Miller ruled, merited trademark status because it acquired “distinctiveness,” or “secondary meaning,” by Viacom’s exclusive use of the name in numerous episodes over the course of 17 years; its expenditure of $197 million in advertising expenses and gross earnings of $470 million for the two SpongeBob SquarePants films; and by numerous print and Internet advertisements for “The Krusty Krab” licensed consumer merchandise.
In other words, because Viacom used THE KRUSTY KRAB widely (and with heavy advertising), the name is capable of being associated, in the minds of consumers, with a particular source of goods and services, here, Viacom.
From these facts, but ignoring the essential principle that to sue for trademark infringement the plaintiff must be able to show actual use by the defendant, Judge Miller ruled that there was a “likelihood of confusion” between Viacom’s “The Krusty Krab” and the same mark that IJR intended to use, and therefore IJR was guilty of trademark infringement. Judge Miller made a mistake of law, not fact: “The court finds that IJR has not used the mark in commerce,” he wrote.
Of course, the minute that IJR would use “The Krusty Krab,” Judge Miller’s decision would in all likelihood hold. Although Viacom’s restaurant is merely fictional, Judge Miller wrote, “Context here is critical, because a consumer seeing either Viacom’s or IJR’s marks will likely think of a restaurant. Consumers may mistakenly believe that IJR’s restaurant is an officially licensed or endorsed restaurant, similar to how Viacom’s parent company, Viacom, Inc., through its subsidiary Paramount Pictures Corporation, has licensed its marks for restaurants, including Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a seafood restaurant chain inspired by the 1994 film “Forrest Gump.” Moreover, survey evidence submitted by Viacom showed that 30% of restaurant-going consumers nationwide believed that a restaurant called “The Krusty Krab” would be “operated, affiliated with, connected to, or approved or sponsored by Viacom.
What Judge Miller should have done is dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and directed Viacom to bring its complaint to the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), where it could initiate an opposition proceeding against IJR’s trademark application at the appropriate time. Instead, Judge Miller, who was appointed by George W. Bush, bent the law and made an apparent bow to corporate power. However, further skirmishes, including an appeal from his decision, appear likely. A week after Judge Miller’s decision, Viacom filed three use-based trademark applications in the USPTO. A week after that, IJR asked the USPTO to extend its time to commence use of “The Krusty Krab,” which extension the USPTO is likely to grant. It appears to us that IJR could win the battle, but will lose the war.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirms that a canvas tote bag with a graphic image of Louis Vuitton’s trademark is parody, not trademark infringement.
Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A. v. My Other Bag, Inc., 16-241-cv, 2d Circuit Court of Appeals, Dec. 22, 2016.
Trademarks facilitate purchasing decisions by consumers by signaling that behind certain goods or services stands a particular source. Of course, trademarks can also be used as decoration on t-shirts and other goods; but sometimes, the decoration itself is the trademark — that is, it uniquely identifies the source. Like the red soles of Christian Louboutin, Louis Vuitton’s configuration of the interlocking letters, “LV,” surrounded by flower-like symbols (the “Toile Monogram” design) serves as both decoration and trademark.
Trademark law exists to prevent competitors from copying trademarks for two reasons: first, to protect the consumer’s decision-making process; and, second (in the words of Supreme Court Justice Breyer) to help “assure a producer that it (and not an imitating competitor) will reap the financial, reputation-related rewards associated with a desirable product. The law thereby encourages the production of quality products and simultaneously discourages those who hope to sell inferior products by capitalizing on a consumer’s inability quickly to evaluate the quality of an item offered for sale.” Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., Inc., 514 U.S. 159, 163-4 (1995).
In May 2014, Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A. (“LVM”) sued My Other Bag, Inc. (“MOB”), for reproducing graphics of LVM leather bags on one side of MOB’s canvas tote bag. The other side of the MOB bags read “My Other Bag…” — a reference to the long-standing joke occasionally seen on bumper stickers on unglamorous cars, e.g., “My other car is a Porsche.” MOB used graphics of two different LVM bags, shown here, one with the Toile Monogram design trademark, and the other with the checkerboard “Damier” design, but instead of an interlocking “LV,” MOB used its own initials. Picturing an LVM bag on the side of a canvas tote bag was a joke, but LVM didn’t find it funny. In fact, LVM’s case against MOB is the latest in a series of failed litigation brought by LVM against parodies.
In 2006, LVM went after Haute Diggity Dog, LLC, a small business that manufactured and sold pet products, many of them parodying famous marks, including “Chewy Vuiton” dog toys, which took the form of little plush “handbags” suggesting (but not mimicking) LVM’s Toile Monogram design. (Among other differences, Haute Diggity used an interlocking “CV” instead of “LV”.) LVM claimed trademark infringement and “trademark dilution,” a cause of action granted to famous marks to punish “blurring” (i.e., misappropriating a mark for use on a dissimilar product) and “tarnishment” (misappropriating a mark for use on low quality or unsavory products). LVM also claimed copyright infringement, since the Toile Monogram, as a design existing apart from handbags, is protected by copyright. In addition to objecting to the use of the Toile Monogram mark on dog toys, LVM claimed that the toys were also likely to tarnish LVM’s marks because they “pose a choking hazard for some dogs.”
The District Court slapped down LVM’s claims, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed: “Chewy Vuiton” dog toys were successful parodies, and the distinctiveness of LVM’s marks was not threatened by “Chewy Vuiton.” Parody, a form of fair use, is a complete statutory defense to a charge of trademark dilution, but not against trademark infringement (e.g., passing off a product under a third party’s trademark, thereby leading consumers to believe that the product came from the trademark owner).
In 2007, LVM sent a cease and desist letter to Danish artist Nadia Plesner, for selling t-shirts and posters to raise money for the charity “Divest for Darfur.” The artwork showed a malnourished child holding a chihuahua dressed in pink in one arm, and carrying on the other arm a bag that resembled Louis Vuitton’s “Audra” bag, with an altered Toile Monogram design. (Here, the interlocking “LV” was replaced by an interlocking “SL” for the name of the artist’s campaign, “Simple Living.”) Plesner was living in Holland at the time.
Unable to afford to go to fight a court case, Plesner stopped selling the t-shirts and posters. In 2010, however, she repainted the Darfur child in a painting that she titled “Darfurica,” which was exhibited for the first time in the Odd Fellow Palace in Copenhagen in January 2011. By the end of the exhibit, she received an injunction, obtained (unbeknowst to Plesner) by LVM from a court in The Hague. Plesner was ordered to stop showing the painting in the gallery and online, and to pay 5,000 Euros per day until she complied. In May, she went to The Hague and made her case. A month later the court reversed the injunction and ordered LVM to pay part of her legal costs.
Louis Vuitton’s attack on Plesner’s artwork is a real head-scratcher, given that Mattel tried a similar thing in 1999 when it sued artist Tom Forsythe, who produced a series of photographs of a nude and provocatively posed Barbie in or around various household appliances. (She ends up in a blender.) Mattel lost and was ordered to pay the artist $1.8 million in legal fees.
Unlike LVM`s case against Plesner, the case against MOB involved not a work of art, but a commercial product. MOB’s purpose was parody, but to LVM, MOB was merely trading on the strength of the Toile Monogram mark. As in LVM`s failed litigation against Haute Diggity Dog, LVM also claimed both “trademark dilution” and copyright infringement claim.
In order to prove trademark infringement, LVM needed to prevail on a host of factors used to analyze whether the use amounts to an infringement. In the Second Circuit, courts use the “Polaroid Factors,” a set of criteria first mentioned by Judge Friendly in the 1961 case, Polaroid Corp. v. Polarad Electronics Corp., 287 F.2d 492 (2d Cir., 1961). “The problem of determining how far a valid trademark shall be protected with respect to goods other than those to which its owner has applied it,” Judge Friendly wrote, “has long been vexing…”
Where the products are different, the prior owner’s chance of success is a function of many variables: the strength of his mark, the degree of similarity between the two marks, the proximity of the products, the likelihood that the prior owner will bridge the gap [i.e., begin selling directly competing products], actual confusion, and the reciprocal of defendant’s good faith in adopting its own mark, the quality of defendant’s product, and the sophistication of the buyers. Even this extensive catalogue does not exhaust the possibilities — the court may have to take still other variables into account.
Polaroid Corp. v. Polarad Electronics Corp., supra, 287 F.2d at 496.
LVM failed to prevail on any of the Polaroid Factors. Although LVM`s handbags and MOB’s canvas tote bags could theoretically be purchased by the same consumers, there is an enormous gulf between the quality of the products, their prices, and the venues in which they are sold. LVM was unable to come up with any convincing evidence of consumer confusion – and consumers were considered sophisticated enough to know that LVM, whose handbags run upwards of one or two thousand dollars, was not the source of an inexpensive canvas tote bag prominently marked “My Other Bag.” The court also found that there was no likelihood that MOB would be entering the luxury handbag market (i.e., “bridge the gap”).
Unsurprisingly, given the Haute Diggity Dog decision, LVM lost both in the District Court and on appeal to the Second Circuit. LVM attempted to argue that the District Court erred by finding that MOB’s use of the Toile Monogram design was parody, but the Second Circuit would have none of it. “At the same time that they mimic LV’s designs and handbags in a way that is recognizable,” the Second Circuit wrote,
they do so as a [graphic image] on a product that is such a conscious departure from LV’s image of luxury—in combination with the slogan “My other bag”—as to convey that MOB’s tote bags are not LV handbags. The fact that the joke on LV’s luxury image is gentle, and possibly even complimentary to LV, does not preclude it from being a parody.
In any event, the nature of MOB’s business—it sells quite ordinary tote bags with [graphic images] of various luxury-brand handbags, not just LVM’s, printed thereon—and the presence of “My other bag,” an undisputed designation of source, on one side of each bag, independently support summary judgment for MOB on this designation-of-source issue.
LVM fared no better on its copyright claim: “MOB’s parodic use of LVM’s designs,” the Court held, produces a “new expression and message that constitutes transformative use.”
Parodists should probably thank LVM for losing cases involving trademark parody in two federal jurisdictions. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. that rap group 2 Live Crew’s appropriation of Roy Orbison’s song, “Pretty Woman,” was not copyright infringement, but parody. (As with trademark dilution, parody is a statutory defense against claims of copyright infringement.) Since that decision, the courts have come to embrace the idea that parody should also be permitted (at least under some circumstances) as a defense to trademark infringement. Despite this trend, it has been the practice of many major trademark owners to make overbroad claims and excessive threats, sometimes commencing litigation knowing that the parodist can’t afford to fight, and will quickly give in to their demands. Hopefully, this most recent decision, which has received ample publicity, will make companies like LVM think twice before engaging in such tactics.
 The Toile Monogram was first registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1932. While LVM’s case against MOB was pending in New York, the General Court of the E.U. invalidated the Damier Trademark because it was “a basic and banal feature composed of very simple elements” and lacked any brand-specific features. It is also likely unprotectable in the United States.
 For trademark purposes, “[a] ‘parody’ is defined as a simple form of entertainment conveyed by juxtaposing the irreverent representation of the trademark with the idealized image created by the mark’s owner … A parody must convey two simultaneous — and contradictory — messages: that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. Doughney, 263 F.3d 359, 366 (4th Cir. 2001). This second message must not only differentiate the alleged parody from the original but must also communicate some articulable element of satire, ridicule, joking, or amusement. Thus, [a] parody relies upon a difference from the original mark, presumably a humorous difference, in order to produce its desired effect. Jordache Enterprises, Inc. v. Hogg Wyld, Ltd., 828 F.2d 1482, 1486 (10th Cir.1987) (finding the use of “Lardashe” jeans for larger women to be a successful and permissible parody of “Jordache” jeans).” Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A v. Haute Diggity Dog LLC, 507 F. 3d 252 (4th Cir. 2007). (Internal quotes omitted.)
We previously reported the Declarations of Use pilot program by the USPTO. Examiners could request additional evidence when they questioned the evidence filed. These requests applied to both national and international registrations. As a result of the pilot program, the goods and services listed in the vast majority of the registrations questioned were limited to those in actual use. The USPTO is now proceeding to make the pilot program procedures part of the official rules. The objective is to have a more precise register of trademarks. Although the entire rulemaking process is not complete, these new regulations are likely to be implemented swiftly.
The key provision is:
The Office may require the owner [or holder of an International Registration] to furnish such information, exhibits, affidavits or declarations, and such additional specimens as may be reasonably necessary to the proper examination of the affidavit or declaration under section 8 [section 71] of the Act or for the Office to assess and promote the accuracy and integrity of the register.
See Federal Register – 6/22/2016 amending TMEP Sections 2.161 and 7.37
This rule gives the USPTO great latitude. Examiners can request additional information from a registrant to determine that the affidavit of use is accurate, and in particular that the mark is in use for all of the goods and services listed in the registration. United States law requires that an application filed on the basis of intent-to-use and converted to use, or based on use, must be in use for all of the goods and services. This is also true for the filing of Declarations of Use.
This new rule will be particularly problematic to foreign registrants where there is a tendency to include items in the list of goods and services that are beyond the scope of the business of the trademark owner. This common practice is because foreign trademark rights are more specifically limited to the actual goods and services listed in the registration. Rather under US law rights are evaluated under a likelihood of confusion analysis which can extend beyond the specific goods and services listed in the registration.
This rule further supports our regular recommendation to trademark owners to list those goods and services that are in actual use for the mark in order to minimize problems with the registration in the future. A likelihood of confusion determination is made on a variety of factors. Importantly, when pursuing an infringement, a trademark owner should not have to defend the registration from attack on the basis of non-use or fraud in the procurement or maintenance of the registration. The mark must be in use for all of the goods and services listed.
The USPTO published in the Federal Register on February 10, 2017, that there would be a 60 day freeze of the implementation of the foregoing rule change given the January 20, 2017 Presidential Executive Order requiring that any agency rule change comply with the order. The effective date was March 21, 2017, and as of now, no additional rules or regulations have been published or apparently implemented.
We note that the proposed rule went through exhaustive testing, analysis and public comment, and the Trademark Bar has supported the implementation of the rule to effectuate a cleaner and more accurate registry of trademarks.
Among the many reasons available to the USPTO to reject trademark applications is Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2(a). This provision bars registration of marks that consist of or comprise immoral or scandalous matter, or matter which may disparage persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute. The constitutionality of provisions of Section 2(a) are the subject of active court litigation and the outcome of these actions is relevant to the issue of registrability of marks in the United States.
In re Brunetti, Case No. 15-1109, (Fed. Cir. filed November 6, 2015) a Federal Circuit appeal denying registration of the mark “FUCT” where the Applicant argued that prohibition of the registration of scandalous marks under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is unconstitutional.
Pro-Football v. Blackhorse (No. 15 1874, Fourth Circuit). This is an appeal from the (TTAB) petition granting cancellation of six registrations for word and design marks containing the word, REDSKINS for entertainment services. See our June 20, 2014 blog post for a case analysis.
In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321, 1358, 117 USPQ2d 1001, 1025 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc), as corrected (Feb. 11, 2016) where the Federal Circuit determined that Section 2(a) barring registration of disparaging marks was unconstitutional. See our December 24, 2015 blog post for a case analysis. On March 9, 2016, the USPTO filed a request to extend the time to file a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari (Supreme Court No.15A925).
Consistent with USPTO procedures, on March 10, 2016, the USPTO issued guidance to the examiners to suspend action on pending applications involving marks subject to refusal under these provisions in Section 2(a), provided that all other issues raised by the examiner have been resolved. Clearly, the USPTO is waiting for a Supreme Court determination of the constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the trademark statute, namely, can the USPTO deny registration of marks that are scandalous, immoral or disparaging.
Update to our December 1, 2015 post Changes to the European Trademark System are Imminent, as of March 23, 2016, the Office of Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) will have a new name. It will be known as the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). The Community trade mark will be renamed the European Union trade mark.
A summary of noteworthy changes are as follows:
- An application covers a single class, but additional classes can be added upon payment of additional per class fees. (The pay for one, get two extra classes for free no longer applies.)
- Non-displayable signs such as smells and sounds may be registered. (Previously only graphically displayable marks were permitted.)
- Applicant must clearly and accurately describe the goods and services in the classes in question. (Class headings are no longer permitted.)
- Certification marks can now be registered.
- Grounds for Refusal have been expanded. Namely adding, designations of origin, geographical indications, protected traditional terms for wine and traditional specialities. (Previously, there were limited substantive grounds that OHIM could assert to deny registration of a mark. )
- Opposition Grounds have been expanded. Importantly, a revision of the relevant five year period for proof of use of the earlier mark in opposition proceedings to be the date of filing or the date of priority of the EU trade mark application, not the date of publication of the opposed mark.
- National offices must implement within seven years procedures for revocation and nullification of national trademarks. (Presently, many EU member countries do not provide an administrative way to cancel a national trademark registration requiring all such proceedings to be in the court.)
- “Goods-in-transit” procedures to prevent the EU from being used as a transit hub for counterfeit goods. These are new provisions that will require each of the EU member countries to implement in their customs regulations.
- New prohibitions on the use of signs (marks) in comparative advertising where that advertising is misleading. Comparative advertising is permitted, but is more restrictive.
Again, we note that there are many companies out there fraudulently soliciting for payments. The EUIPO has restated its concern about these Fraudulent Solicitations in light of the potential confusion while the OHIM office changes its name to EUIPO and the CTM trade mark registration is renamed the EU trade mark. See our Fraudulent Solicitations link for additional information about the many entities soliciting misleading payments for services.
On September 1, 2015, the USPTO announced a Pilot Program to Allow Amendments to Identifications of Goods and Services in Trademark Registrations Due to Technology Evolution. The intent of the program is to permit “amendments to identifications of goods/services in trademark registrations that would otherwise be beyond the scope of the current identification” with the “goal of preserving trademark registrations in situations where technology in an industry has evolved in such a way that amendment of the goods/services in question would not generate a public-notice problem.” That is to say, where a trademark registration claims a manner or means or medium of distribution that has changed due to changes in technology, it may be possible to amend the identification of goods and services reflecting the current manner or means or medium of distribution. This is what is being termed an “evolved designation.”
Since commencing the program, the USPTO has published examples of permissible evolved designation amendments. Examples are:
|Registration ID||Proposed ID Change|
|Prerecorded audio and video tapes featuring religious topics||Prerecorded CDs and DVDs featuring religious topics|
|Pre-recorded audio cassettes||Audio recordings featuring religious content|
|Pre-recorded audio/video cassettes for use in the field of pre-school and primary education||Sound and video recordings for use in the field of preschool and primary education|
|House mark for use with type face fonts recorded on magnetic and optical media||House mark for use with type face fonts on electronic storage media and downloaded provided by means of electronic transmission|
|Retail store services and on-line retail store services featuring musical instruments, bows, strings, instrument cases, sheet music, books pre-recorded video tapes and pre-recorded CDs featuring musical performances or musical instruction||Retail store services and on-line retail store services featuring musical instruments, bows, strings, instrument cases, sheet music, books, video recordings and pre-recorded CDs featuring musical performances or musical instruction|
|DOS-based application software to manage and forecast inventory for the direct marketing industry||Application software to manage and forecast inventory for the direct marketing industry|
|Videotapes, videocassettes, all on the subjects of ancient peoples and cultures around the world||Video recordings on the subjects of ancient peoples and cultures around the world|
It may even be possible to change the class coverage of the registration when the proper current description of the goods or services are in a different class from what was originally registered (e.g.: printed publication are class 16 while downloadable publications are class 9).
At the end of the process the USPTO will issue a new registration certificate, maintaining the priority of the original registration.
- Amendments are made via the post-registration petition to the Director provisions and the certificate of registration amendment provisions with a government fee of $200.00.
- Amendments cannot be made that would expand the scope of the registration. If the registration is limited to a specific subject matter, then the amendment would continue with the same subject matter, merely altering the distribution mechanism.
- The registrant must have discontinued the prior technology and the designation is removed from the description in the registration. Otherwise, the registrant would be compelled to file a new application.
- The amendments must conform to the current USPTO practice requirements for proper descriptions of goods and services.
- A US registration based on an International Registration (Madrid Protocol), must conform with the underlying IR during the first five years of registration. However, US registrations based on national foreign registrations are not similarly limited.
- There are a number of technical requirements, including:
- A request for a waiver of what is known as the “scope rule” which essentially permits only restrictions to identifications that would not require republication;
- A declaration that that the registrant will not file (or re-file) an incontestability affidavit for at least five years from the amendment acceptance date for the evolved designation;
- Submission of a specimen showing current use of the mark in commerce, along with the dates of first use of the evolved designation along with a declaration in support. (Note: the original first use dates would continue in the registration); and
- The request for the amendment must be filed electronically.
Once accepted by the USPTO, the amended registration will be published in the Official Gazette along with other Section 7 amendments.
The USPTO has considered third party harm considerations, and in the amendment examination process will:
- Conduct a search for possible conflicting marks;
- Require that the incontestability status applicable to any evolved designation will not apply for five years;
- Provide a mechanism for interested parties to comment about proposed amendments prior to acceptance, and
- Publish the proposed amendments on its website allowing interested parties to comment for thirty days.
What does this mean for trademark owners?
Depending upon the specific circumstances, it may be more prudent to file a new application claiming not only the new delivery mechanism, as an example, but additional goods and services that may be of interest to the registrant. Often, business changes over time, and trademark owners typically expand their product offerings.
When filing either a Section 8 (use) or 9 (renewal), it may be more prudent to delete the goods and services that are no longer of interest.
Ultimately, it really depends on the exact wording in the registration, and on what goods and services the trademark owner is using the mark that will determine the best procedure to deal with changes in technology.
Depending upon how many trademark owners take advantage of the pilot program will determine if the trademark office will continue with this special procedure. So, if you have any trademark registrations that claim outdated technology (or need to claim new technology), and could benefit from this program, feel free to contact us for a consultation.
On December 22, 2015, the Lanham Act’s prohibition on the registration of disparaging trademarks was held unconstitutional by the Federal Circuit, paving the way for federal registrations for REDSKINS, HEEB, N.I.G.G.A. and other marks previously denied federal trademark status.
In re Simon Shiao Tam, Case No. 14-1203 (Decision filed on December 22, 2015)
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit declared Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)) unconstitutional. Section 2(a) bars the US Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) from registering scandalous, immoral or disparaging marks.
The case came to the Federal Circuit by way of appeal from a decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) in In Re Simon Shiao Tam. The TTAB upheld the USPTO’s refusal to register the name of Mr. Tam’s Asian-American dance-rock band, the SLANTS. Mr. Tam purposely named his band with a pejorative term in order to make a statement about racial and cultural issues. A panel of the Federal Circuit upheld the TTAB decision earlier this year, but shortly thereafter, the Court granted, sua sponte, a rehearing en banc on the issue of constitutionality. Oral argument was held on October 2, 2015.
The Federal Circuit decision was resolute: “Many of the marks rejected as disparaging convey hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities. But the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech.” Thus, the court concluded,
[t]he government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks… The government regulation at issue amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and under the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint, we conclude that the disparagement proscription of § 2(a) is unconstitutional. Because the government has offered no legitimate interests justifying § 2(a), we conclude that it would also be unconstitutional under the intermediate scrutiny traditionally applied to regulation of the commercial aspects of speech.
Actually, in this case, it isn’t clear that the government disapproved of the expressive message conveyed by the mark. In his application, Mr. Tam stated that the band “feel[s] strongly that Asians should be proud of their cultural heri[ta]ge and not be offended by stereotypical descriptions,” and that their aim was to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes.
Despite the message that Mr. Tam intended to convey, the TTAB found that the applied for mark was disparaging to a substantial component of people of Asian descent because “dictionary definitions, reference works and all other evidence unanimously categorize the word ‘slant,’ when meaning a person of Asian descent, as disparaging,” and because there was record evidence of individuals and groups in the Asian community objecting to Mr. Tam’s use of the word.”
The USPTO has refused to register numerous marks on the ground of disparagement — most notoriously REDSKINS for the Washington football team. Other rejected marks include STOP THE ISLAMISATION OF AMERICA, THE CHRISTIAN PROSTITUTE, MORMON WHISKEY, KHORAN (for wine), HAVE YOU HEARD THAT SATAN IS A REPUBLICAN?, RIDE HARD RETARD, ABORT THE REPUBLICANS, HEEB, SEX ROD, MARRIAGE IS FOR FAGS, DEMOCRATS SHOULDN’T BREED, REPUBLICANS SHOULDN’T BREED, 2 DYKE MINIMUM, WET BAC, URBAN INJUN, SQUAW, DON’T BE A WET BACK, FAGDOG, and N.I.G.G.A. NATURALLY INTELLIGENT GOD GIFTED AFRICANS. As with SLANTS, applications for some of these intended marks (e.g., HEEB and N.I.G.G.A.) were filed by people from the very communities that the marks were held to disparage. The application for HEEB, for instance, was filed by a progressive Jewish organization. In that case, the TTAB rejected the applicant’s argument that the Examining Attorney “ignored the context and manner in which applicant’s mark is used when determining whether the likely meaning of applicant’s mark is disparaging to the Jewish community” and that “many of this country’s most established Jewish philanthropies and cultural organizations have openly and actively supported Applicant’s magazine and events through their continued funding and sponsorship.” The Board ruled that “[w]hether a proposed mark is disparaging must be determined from the standpoint of a substantial composite of the referenced group (although not necessarily a majority) in the context of contemporary attitudes.” In re Heeb Media, LLC, 89 USPQ2d 1071 (TTAB 2008) [precedential]. In other words, the particular viewpoint of the applicant was irrelevant to whether the mark was “disparaging.” Given prior decisions, the USPTO’s and TTAB’s rejection of Mr. Tam’s application for SLANTS came as no surprise.
A disparaging mark is defined as one which “dishonors by comparison with what is inferior, slights, deprecates, degrades, or affects or injures by unjust comparison.” In order to determine whether a mark is disparaging, the USPTO considers the following:
(1) What is the likely meaning of the matter in question, taking into account not only dictionary definitions, but also the relationship of the matter to the other elements in the mark, the nature of the goods or services, and the manner in which the mark is used in the marketplace in connection with the goods or services; and
(2) If that meaning is found to refer to identifiable persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group.
Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure, § 1203.03(b)(i) (Jan. 2015 ed.)
The Federal Circuit found that since the test for disparagement is determined by whether “a substantial composite of the referenced group would find the mark disparaging,” it is “clear that it is the nature of the message conveyed by the speech which is being regulated. If the mark is found disparaging by the referenced group, it is denied registration.” Under principles of constitutional law, regulations that are not content neutral, i.e, that target speech based on its communicative content, are upheld only if the government proves they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. Viewpoint discrimination, which targets the substance of the particular viewpoint being expressed, is subject to even greater scrutiny. The Federal Circuit found that Section 2(a) “amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and under the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint, we conclude that the disparagement proscription of § 2(a) is unconstitutional.”
The Court’s decision is ultimately hinged on its finding that the effect, if not the very purpose, of Section 2(a) is to disfavor certain viewpoints. According to the government, Section 2(a) is important because the government disagrees with the message that disparaging marks convey, based on how the message is received by an identifiable community or portion thereof. Although the government claimed that the USPTO doesn’t reject marks based on their viewpoints, this appears to be true only with respect to the narrow category of racial, religious and sexual epithets.
The Court cited several examples that it claimed were examples of viewpoint discrimination: the refusal to register 2 DYKE MINIMUM and registration of DYKES ON BIKES; the refusal to register SLANT and the registration of CELEBRASIANS and ASIAN EFFICIENCY, and the refusal to register STOP THE ISLAMISATION OF AMERICA and the registration of THINK ISLAM. However, DYKES ON BIKES was registered (after refusal by the USPTO and reconsideration in the TTAB) because the applicant was able to present evidence that the lesbian community did not consider DYKES to be disparaging, and also because the USPTO’s own evidence merely suggested that it “might” be disparaging. The comparison between SLANT and CELEBRASIONS or ASIAN EFFICIENCY also falls short: this is a comparison between a mark consisting of a pejorative term and two marks that contain no pejorative terms. Viewpoint discrimination, however, was apparently determinative in refusing to register STOP THE ISLAMISATION OF AMERICA. In refusing to register the latter mark, the TTAB “explained that the ‘mark’s admonition to ‘STOP’ Islamisation in America ‘sets a negative tone and signals that Islamization is undesirable and is something that must be brought to an end in America.’” That decision, the Court found, was a moral judgment “based solely and indisputably on the mark’s expressive content.”
Common Law Trademark Rights are Insufficient and Discourage Free Expression
The government attempted to counter this argument on three grounds. First, that Section 2(a) doesn’t prohibit free speech, “but leaves Mr. Tam free to name his band as he wishes and use this name in commerce;” second, that trademark registration constitutes a kind of government speech; and third, that trademark registration is a government subsidy, which (if true) the government may have the right to withhold.
With respect to the first argument, while it is true that Mr. Tam can continue to use his band name, it is not true that he can do so “as he wishes.” As the Court rightly found, Section 2(a) registration “bestows truly significant and financially valuable benefits upon markholders,” citing B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1293, 1300 (2015); Park ’N Fly, Inc. v. Dollar Park & Fly, Inc., 469 U.S. 189, 199–200 (1985) (valuable new rights were created by the Lanham Act); and McCarthy on Trademarks at § 19:9, :11 (“Registration of a mark on the federal Principal Register confers a number of procedural and substantive legal advantages over reliance on common law rights.”)
As examples of the rights that registration bestows upon the registrant, the Court cited the exclusive nationwide right to use the mark anywhere there is not already a prior user that precedes registration. (15 U.S.C. §§ 1072, 1115). By contrast, marks protected by common law rights are “limited to the territory in which the mark is known and recognized by those in the defined group of potential customers,” citing McCarthy on Trademarks at § 26:2. Without a federal trademark registration, a competitor can swoop in and adopt the same mark for the same goods in a different location. Non-registrants also have no prima facie evidence of their trademark’s validity, ownership and exclusive use. (See 15 U.S.C. § 1057(b)). Federal marks become incontestable after five years; common law trademarks never become incontestable. Finally, a common law trademark owner cannot stop importation of goods bearing its mark, or recover treble damages for willful infringement. (See 15 U.S.C. §§ 1117, 1124.) Nor can the common law trademark owner prevent “cybersquatters” from misappropriating its mark in a domain name. (See 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d).)
Given the limited protection that common law marks receive, if a group fears that a mark might be deemed offensive or disparaging by the USPTO, it will be less likely to adopt the mark, at least in part because the group may not be able to establish exclusive nationwide ownership. There is also a disincentive to choose a mark that might be deemed offensive or disparaging because litigating to obtain registration can be expensive and futile. (The USPTO does not give refunds for applications that are refused.)
Furthermore, the Court pointed out, “the disincentive does not stop there, because the disparagement determination is not a onetime matter. Even if an applicant obtains a registration initially, the mark may be challenged in a cancellation proceeding years later. Thus, after years of investment in promoting a registered mark and coming to be known by it, a mark’s owner may have to (re)litigate its character under § 2(a) and might lose the registration.”
Although the Court didn’t squarely address the subject, common law rights in a band name offers the band no real protection at all. It is fairly commonplace in the music industry for start-up bands inadvertently to adopt the same or a similar name as another band in some other city. Consider two bands with the same name, one popular in and around New York City, the other hailing from Austin, Texas, and popular in the Southwest. Each band is able to co-exist within its respective geographic area. But if one signs with a nationally distributed record company, or even begins releasing records that receive national distribution, it can be hit by a trademark infringement claim from the other. Typically what happens is that the more successful band ends up changing its name. (To give a famous example, one of two bands called Hybrid Theory was forced to change its name in order to avoid a trademark dispute. The band members chose Linkin Park as their new name, probably a fortuitous result.) The problem can also have international implications. The U.S. applicant who is refused registration in the USPTO will face registration difficulties, resulting in many thousands of dollars in legal fees, where it also filed trademark applications internationally, either under the Madrid Protocol or via direct country filings, using the U.S. application as the filing basis, as is ordinarily the case.
In short, a denial of registration is tantamount to punishment, with an added effect of inhibiting people from engaging in potentially disparaging speech in the first place.
Trademark Registration is Not Government Speech
The government’s second argument — that trademark registration is government speech — is specious. As the Court pointed out, trademark registration is, like copyright registration, a regulatory activity that does not involve either approval or endorsement by the U.S. government. One cannot distinguish between trademark from copyright registration on the basis that trademark is “commercial speech” (and thus subject to greater regulation) because advertising and other utterances by businesses are protectable by copyright regardless of their viewpoint. As the Court pointed out,
[T]he logical extension of the government’s argument is that these indicia of registration convert the underlying speech into government speech unprotected by the First Amendment. Thus, the government would be free, under this logic, to prohibit the copyright registration of any work deemed immoral, scandalous, or disparaging to others.
The government cited Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, 135 S. Ct. 2239 (2015) to support its contention that trademark registration is government speech, but the facts of that case are easily distinguishable. There, the Supreme Court found specialty license plates to be government speech, even though state law permitted individuals and organizations to request their own expressions, because “[t]he history of license plates shows that, insofar as license plates have conveyed more than state names and vehicle identification numbers, they long have communicated messages from the States.” (Examples include “Live Free or Die,” “The Show Me State,” and “Land of Opportunity.”) Furthermore, the Supreme Court observed that the State of Texas “places the name ‘TEXAS’ in large letters at the top of every plate,” designs the license plates, and requires vehicle owners to display them. As a consequence, the Supreme Court reasoned, “Texas license plate designs ‘are often closely identified in the public mind with the State.’” In addition, the Supreme Court found that “a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message.”
No one seriously views trademark registration as speech by the government endorsing or approving the mark or the goods and services thereunder. Anyone who did would have to explain why the government was endorsing these registered marks: RADICALLY FOLLOWING CHRIST IN MISSION TOGETHER (4759522); THINK ISLAM (4719002); GANJA UNIVERSITY (4070160); CAPITALISM SUCKS DONKEY BALLS (4744351); TAKE YO PANTIES OFF (4824028); and MURDER 4 HIRE (3605862). (The Federal Circuit named just a few but examples are legion.) Furthermore, as the government stated in its brief, “the USPTO does not endorse any particular product, service, mark, or registrant” when it registers a mark, and “just as the issuance of a trademark registration by this Office does not amount to government endorsement of the quality of the goods to which the mark is applied, the act of registration is not a government imprimatur or pronouncement that the mark is a ‘good’ one in an aesthetic, or any analogous, sense.”
Trademark Registration is not a Government Subsidy
The government contended that “trademark registration is a form of government subsidy that the government may refuse where it disapproves of the message a mark conveys.” However, the benefits of trademark registration are not monetary: trademark registration does not involve government funding or a concession to use or benefit from government property. That the USPTO is partially funded by appropriations does not make it a subsidy. Moreover, since 1991, all of the USPTO’s operating expenses associated with registering marks “have been funded entirely by registration fees, not the taxpayer.” The fact that some federal funds are spent on PTO employee benefits such as pensions, health insurance, and life insurance, is not enough to make it a subsidy. Nor is the benefit of being able to seek enforcement of a trademark by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The analogy, the Court persuasively argued, is again copyright:
Under the logic of the government’s approach, it follows that the government could refuse to register copyrights without the oversight of the First Amendment. Congress could pass a law prohibiting the copyrighting of works containing “racial slurs,” “religious insults,” “ethnic caricatures,” and “misogynistic images.”
As a Regulation Aimed at Commercial Speech, Section 2(a) is Unconstitutional
The government’s main objection to the Court’s trademark-copyright analogy is that § 2(a) is intended to regulate commercial speech. However, the regulation of commercial speech is only permissible where the government has some compelling interest (e.g., to prevent misleading claims about a product or service) and the statute has been “narrowly tailored to achieve that objective.” Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525, 555–56 (2001). “Under a commercial speech inquiry, it is the State’s burden to justify its content-based law as consistent with the First Amendment,” said the Federal Circuit, citing Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 131 S. Ct. 2653, 2667 (2011).
On its face, the Court found, Section 2(a) “does not address misleading, deceptive, or unlawful marks. There is nothing illegal or misleading about a disparaging trademark like Mr. Tam’s mark.” Indeed, the government’s entire interest in § 2(a) appears to be the denial of registration to trademarks whose messages the government disapproves.
Whether or not the Supreme Court lets the Federal Circuit’s decision stand, the Federal Circuit’s view that Mr. Tam was unjustly refused registration is compelling:
[I]t seems clear that the result as to Mr. Tam this case exemplifies how marks often have an expressive aspect over and above their commercial-speech aspect. Mr. Tam explicitly selected his mark to create a dialogue on controversial political and social issues. With his band name, Mr. Tam makes a statement about racial and ethnic identity. He seeks to shift the meaning of, and thereby reclaim, an emotionally charged word. He advocates for social change and challenges perceptions of people of Asian descent. His band name pushes people. It offends. Despite this—indeed, because of it—Mr. Tam’s band name is expressive speech.
On the other hand, if Mr. Tam can now register SLANTS for a salutary purpose, there is no constitutional justification that would prohibit an organization to register the same word for a racist purpose, for example, “No Slants Allowed.” Nor would there be a constitutional justification for preventing registration of REDSKINS for a football team. (The owner of the REDSKINS trademark certainly claims not to have disparaging intent.) It seems to us that Congress could narrowly prohibit the registration of racial, religious and gender-based epithets that disparage “a substantial composite of the referenced group” on a viewpoint-neutral basis (i.e., regardless of the trademark applicant’s purpose in using the epithet), but Section 2(a) reaches too far when it prohibits disparaging messages whose words, standing alone, are not inherently disparaging. Of course, whether Congress should pass a law prohibiting the registration of epithets is another matter. The marketplace of ideas may be the best way to determine the worth of any mark.
The fight over Section 2(a) is far from over. The case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court and, of course, Congress may look for a legislative solution, leading to further litigation. In addition, the Federal Circuit limited its holding to the disparagement provision of Section 2(a), “[r]ecognizing, however, that other portions of § 2 may likewise constitute government regulation of expression based on message, such as the exclusions of immoral or scandalous marks…”
Appropriation artist Jeff Koons is back in court, this time for a 1986 painting from his “Luxury and Degradation” show for his work, entitled “I could go for something Gordon’s.” The work is a re-painting and reconfiguration of a Gordon’s Gin advertisement from that same year. Koons’ show, and the work in particular, is not about selling gin, but about how advertising seduces the consumer and presents false promises of the fulfillment of desire. The work is on display on the Whitney Museum website, with commentary on the work and Koons’ series in general.
On December 14, 2015, photographer Mitchel Gray filed suit in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, against Koons and auction house Phillips Auctioneers, LLC, for copyright infringement related to the creation, display and sale of the work and Artist Proof which sold “approximately $2.1 million” in 2008. According to Gray, he only discovered the infringement in July 2015.
The Copyright Act has a statutory limit on damage claims accruing more than three (3) years prior to the filing of the lawsuit. What that means is that in order to recover against Koons and Phillips, not only must Gray prove that Koons’ work is not “transformative,” but also Gray must show that he was not on “constructive notice” of Koons’ appropriation. Constructive notice means he should have known of the appropriation. Koons’ attorneys will undoubtedly argue that the appropriation was open, public and notorious, and that Gray should have known of it prior to December 2012.
For an explanation of what is “transformative,” see our posts here (on a Second Circuit’s ruling about “transformative” art; and here (on the Second Circuit’s ruling that the Google book-scanning project was non-infringing.)
See also, Psihoyos v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 748 F. 3d 120 (2nd Cir. 2014) for a discussion of the three year limitations on damages being based on discovery of the infringement..
On December 2, 2015, Pepperidge Farm filed suit against Trader Joe’s in Connecticut federal district court, alleging that Trader Joe’s Crispy Cookies infringe on Pepperidge Farm’s Milano cookie configuration trademark and causes “dilution by blurring,” a term of art in trademark law that indicates “an association arising from the similarity between a mark and a famous mark that impairs the distinctiveness of the famous mark.” Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2006 (“TDRA”), Section 43(c), Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(2)(B) (2006). Some might call the TDRA a license to bully, but in this case Pepperidge Farm has hardly picked on a small fry.
Pepperidge Farm’s trademark, which registered on September 28, 2010, but was first used (and first used in commerce) on December 31, 1977, is described in the registration as follows:
The mark consists of a configuration of a cookie comprised of a filling sandwiched between two oval-shaped cookies. The notch depicted near the upper portion of one of the cookies represents a small portion of the cookie that bumps out of the otherwise flat contoured surface.
Both the mark (the “Milano Configuration”) and a specimen cookie are pictured below. Pepperidge Farm contends that its Milano Configuration is famous, and it may well be: a well-regarded treatise on trademark law, McCarthy on Trademarks, argues that a mark is famous if “it is known to more than fifty percent of the defendant’s potential customers.” Marks that have been determined to be famous include VICTORIA’S SECRET, BEANIE BABIES, WAWA, COCA-COLA, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, 7-ELEVEN, NIKE, BUICK, DUPONT and KODAK.
Famous marks are generally afforded a greater scope of protection than non-famous marks. Indeed, if Pepperidge Farm is able to show that the Milano Configuration is famous, then in order to win on its claim of “dilution by blurring,” at least in the Second Circuit where this case has been brought, Pepperidge Farms will not need to prove that Crispy Cookies are visually substantially similar to Milano cookies.* Rather, it will only need to prove that they are similar enough, along with other factors weighed in Pepperidge Farm’s favor, including:
- the degree of inherent or acquired distinctiveness of the Milano Configuration;
- the extent to which Pepperidge Farm is engaging in substantially exclusive use of its Milano Configuration;
- the degree of recognition of the the Milano Configuration;
- whether Trader Joe’s use of the Milano Configuration is intended to create an association with the Milano Configuration; and
- any actual association between the Crispy Cookie and the Milano Configuration.
(*Note: Some circuits still require substantial similarity as a threshold test for trademark dilution.)
Whether Crispy Cookies are similar enough to the Milano Configuration is a judgment call. In the complaint, Pepperidge Farm describes the Crispy Cookie as “a chocolate filling sandwiched between two rounded rectangular cookies, mimicking an overall oval shape.” The use of of the word “oval” is somewhat misleading, as the Crispy Cookie is more rectangular than oval, and it doesn’t contain the Milano’s famous notch, as can be seen in the image below. How a jury comes out on that question is anyone’s guess.
To bolster its infringement and dilution claims, Pepperidge Farm also contends that Trader Joe’s mimics Pepperidge Farm’s packaging. Displayed on the package of Crispy Cookies (see below) are three cookies upright in a fluted (apricot-hued) paper cup, but there are no fluted paper cups in Trader Joe’s packaging: the cookies sit in a plastic tray. Pepperidge Farm uses fluted (white) cups inside the package, but has not shown fluted cups on its packaging since the 1990s. Pepperidge Farm further claims that Trader Joe’s upright bag is intended to mimic that of the Milano, when most cookie packs are oriented horizontally.
Pepperidge Farm’s argument that Trader Joe’s use of an image of Crispy Cookies sitting in a fluted (albeit apricot-hued) paper cup to create an association in consumers’ minds is not a bad one, given that the actual Crispy Cookies packaging includes no fluted paper cups inside. However, claiming that the image on Trader Joe’s packaging is mimicking the image on Pepperidge Farm’s packaging from twenty years ago seems to be a stretch.
As a separate claim, Pepperidge Farm alleges that Trader Joe’s product is “likely to cause confusion, mistake, and/or deceive purchasers, potential purchasers, and the relevant public and trade at the time of purchase, as well as post purchase as to the source or sponsorship or approval of the Infringing Product, and/or as to its affiliation with Pepperidge Farm.” Pepperidge Farm will have a very difficult time convincing a judge or jury that any significant consumer confusion could arise at the time of purchase, given the sophistication of consumers of Milano cookies, few people shopping at Trader Joe’s will think that Milano cookies were inside the Crispy Cookies bag or that Pepperidge Farm was affiliated with Trader Joe’s. Most people will recognize Crispy Cookies as a merely competing product, with biscuits of similar texture and color, and chocolate filling — configurations not owned by Pepperidge Farm. However, if the Milano Configuration is famous, the question won’t be consumer confusion at the time of purchase, but consumer association. Regardless of whether the Milano Configuration is famous, Trader Joe’s will surely have its greatest difficulty in a post-purchase context, where consumers may not see the associated packaging. As with many trademark infringement suits involving claims of fame and similarity, the case will likely be determined by consumer surveys.
The TDRA poses the greatest risk of liability to Trader Joe’s because Pepperidge Farm’s burden of proof regarding the similarity of the two products will be so much lower. Moreover, in most instances, the statute provides only for an injunction against further dilution; but if Pepperidge Farm can show that Trader Joe’s sought willfully to trade on Pepperidge Farm’s reputation or to cause dilution, then Pepperidge Farm may be able to recover Trader Joe’s profits and, if the facts revealed in the case are egregious enough, legal fees. Recovery of profits and an award of legal fees is also possible if the jury finds that the Milano Configuration is not famous, but the configuration of Crispy Cookies is substantially similar to the Milano Configuration, and Trader Joe’s acted intentionally and egregiously. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Trader Joe’s withdraw its Crispy Cookies from the marketplace in the near future, at least in their present form.
You have to expect it. There are domain name trolls who register domain names in an attempt to extract money from its rightful owner; and there are patent trolls, who attempt to enforce patent rights far beyond their patent’s actual value or contribution to prior art. Enter the trademark troll and trademark bully.
Trademark trolls attempt to (or actually do) register a mark with the intent of demanding payment from companies that have adopted the same or similar marks, often in another country. This is common in China. For example, as reported by Peter Mendelson in the International Trademark Association (INTA) Bulletin on December 1, 2015, Li Dao Zhi (Li), a Shanghai company, registered the mark Ka Si Te (a transliteration of “Castel”) in China in 2002, a year after French winemaker Castel Frères SAS began selling wine under the mark, Zhang Yu Ka Si Te. It wasn’t until 2005 that Castel Frères was aware of Li’s registration. Castel filed a request to cancel based on Li’s non-use, but while the request was pending, Li initiated use and sued Castel for infringement. The Court ruled in favor of Li and ordered Castel to pay over USD $5 million, but the Chinese high court suspended the decision and fine and ordered the case retried.
Similar situations in China, few with happy endings, have affected such companies as Tesla Motors and New Balance Athletic Shoes.
As this problem is not necessarily limited to China, but can happen in any country (particularly those in which a trademark belongs to the party who is “first to file”), the lesson is that whenever a company is contemplating doing business in a country, that company should apply to register its marks well in advance of entering the marketplace. (Winemaker Castel actually entered the Chinese market in 1998, possibly tipping off Li that there was a trademark up for grabs.) WebTM files and prosecutes trademark applications in the United States and worldwide directly through the Madrid Protocol and National applications through local counsel. (“Prosecutes” in this context means doing the necessary work to see that a mark is registered.) A description of our services and a listing of our fees are provided elsewhere on this website.
Trademark bullies are a bit different from trolls. The trademark bully is the company that sends cease and desist letters to, or actually sues, other companies, claiming infringement on their trademarks beyond what is really justified. Most trademark bullies are big companies with well-known or “famous” trademarks, and big budgets to go after smaller companies. While the law recognizes that “famous” marks (a term of art in trademark law) are entitled to a wider scope of protection than regular trademarks, many companies use their power to go beyond what the law really provides, knowing full well that the smaller company won’t have the resources or economic interest to fight.
Sometimes, of course, these companies send cease and desist letters or initiate actions with good cause. In other cases, there is clear overreaching. Levi Strauss is a good example of a trademark bully when it comes to their back-pocket “Arcuate” trademark, shown at left. Levi Strauss has, over the years, gone after dozens of companies (including our clients) for allegedly mimicking the Arcuate mark, and has been successful (mainly by settlement) in the pretrial phases of most of those cases. The resolve of Levi Strauss to create a wide scope of protection around its Arcuate mark can be seen in a litigation it brought against Abercrombie & Fitch Trading Co. in 2007. In that case, Levi Strauss alleged that Abercrombie’s back pocket design (below right) was confusingly similar to the Arcuate mark, and therefore infringing. Levi Strauss also alleged that Abercrombie’s mark would dilute the distinctiveness of the Arcuate mark, which is “famous.” (Whether a mark is “famous” is determined by looking at such factors as general public recognition, duration of use, amount of advertising and promotion, and the economic value of the mark. The term applies only to widely recognized trademarks.)
Having the resources to fight, Abercrombie took the case to trial, where the jury ruled in favor of Abercrombie, finding that although the Arcuate mark is famous, the two marks were not confusingly similar. However, that still left the question of trademark dilution, which is decided by courts, not juries, under a special statute designed to protect famous trademarks, the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2006 (the “TDRA”), Section 43(c) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c). To that end, the jury gave an advisory (non-binding) opinion that the two marks were not so similar that they were essentially the same mark, and the District Court found in Abercrombie’s favor. Levi Strauss appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the District Court’s requirement for applying the TDRA (i.e., that the two marks be so similar so as to be essentially the same mark) was in error. The Ninth Circuit agreed, ruling that neither a finding that the two marks were essentially the same, nor even a finding of confusing similarity, was required before Abercrombie could be found guilty of violating the TDRA. Abercrombie’s mark only needed to be similar enough in the court’s eyes, based on such criteria as the degree of fame and distinctiveness of the mark. Levi Strauss ultimately won the case, but had the Arcuate mark not been famous, the lower court decision would have stood. (The back-pocket design for which Levi Strauss went after our client wasn’t even a tenth as close to the Arcuate mark as Abercrombie’s mark was.)
The United States Department of Commerce looked at the issue of trademark bullying in 2010-2011, but concluded that if there was any overreach, it was better dealt with by Rule 11 sanctions (for bringing a frivolous lawsuit) or awarding of attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties. Three factors make this suggestion rather unhelpful. First, courts are reluctant to decide what is frivolous when a claim is “colorable” (i.e., not stark raving mad). Second, the “American rule” provides that legal fees are not awarded to a prevailing party unless expressly authorized by statute, this wasn’t the most helpful of suggestions. Section 35(a)(3) of the Lanham Act provides that courts “may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party” in exceptional cases, but courts rarely find that a case is “exceptional,” and many require evidence of fraud or bad faith (e.g., evidence that the plaintiff knew that it had no case and brought it anyway for malicious reasons).
The issue of trademark bullying is still alive, however, and there is probably greater awareness today of the problem of trademark bullying with websites such as www.lumendatabase.org, dedicated to exposing overreaching practices of (mostly) economically powerful trademark holders. In 2014, the Supreme Court visited the issue of when legal fees should be awarded to a defendant in a patent case, involving a statute with the exact same discretionary language as in the Lanham Act. In Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health and Fitness, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 1749 (2014), the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit’s definition of the “exceptional case” as one which was, by clear and convincing evidence, “objectively baseless” and brought in “subjective bad faith.” (In support of its decision, the Supreme Court pointed to the Federal Circuit’s decision Noxell Corp. v. Firehouse No. 1 Bar-B-Que Restaurant, 771 F.2d 521 (D.C. Cir. 1985), a trademark case that defined “exceptional” under the Lanham Act as “uncommon” or “not run-of-the-mill.” Oddly enough, the Federal Circuit didn’t even discuss Noxell in its decision in Octane Fitness.)
While the reasoning in Octane Fitness has found its way into a few Lanham Act cases in which attorneys’ fees have been granted to defendants (see, e.g., Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F. 3d 303 (3d Cir. 2014) (where the complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to establish trade dress infringement); and Renna v. County of Union N.J., 2015 WL 93800, (D.N.J. 2015) (awarding legal fees to party who displayed the un-registrable seal of Union County, NJ, during a public access TV exposé regarding government shenanigans — but that really was an egregious case), in the Second Circuit (covering New York, Connecticut and Vermont) the prevailing test for awarding legal fees in trademark cases still appears to be the presence of smoking-gun evidence of fraud or bad faith. This is an almost impossible standard to meet except in the worst of circumstances.
If you receive a cease and desist letter and think you are being bullied, don’t simply roll over and sign any document that is demanded by the aggrieved trademark owner. Rather, contact an attorney experienced in handling these matters. (You can contact us. We regularly handle trademark claims of all kinds in addition to bringing trademark infringement lawsuits.) Many times, with a little pushback, satisfactory settlements can be reached or, at any rate, damage can be contained.