New Life for Outdated Trademark Registrations

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.

Requirements:

  • 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.

European Union Trademarks Goods and Services Examined

International Registrations designating the European Union (CTM/OHIM) previously relied upon the International Bureau (WIPO) for compliance with proper goods and services classification. There are differences between what is acceptable by WIPO, and would be acceptable by OHIM for directly filed applications. For all International Registrations designating the European Union after October 1, 2014, OHIM will now examine all goods and services listed in the international registration for compliance with OHIM requirements. In particular, this addresses the issue of vague and uncertain terms and requiring designations of goods and services that are clear and precise. Should OHIM determine that the goods and services lack clarity or precision, it will issue a notification of provisional refusal with respect to said registration.

We refer our readers to information about goods and services as well as the pitfalls of using class headings in the United States.

There is a clear trend amongst trademark offices to require clear and precise descriptions of goods and services. The USPTO has been more particular in this respect than many other trademark offices. As the world keeps getting “smaller” with more and more opportunities to engage in business throughout the world, it is important to establish a trademark protection program that properly focuses the registrations on precisely what products and services the brand owner is using its mark on.

The Pitfalls of Using Class Headings in USPTO Trademark Applications.

I have been filing trademark registrations for international clients for more than twenty-seven years. For trademark filings based on international clients’ “home country” applications or registrations, problems frequently arise when their U.S. applications simply repeat the generalized descriptions and identifications of goods and classes of goods that are often acceptable overseas.

The Nice classifications (either all goods in class or the class headings) are not sufficiently specific for a successful application in the US Patent and Trademark Office. Rather, it is necessary to describe the claimed goods with a greater degree of specificity in their ordinary commercial terms. A failure to narrow descriptions of goods and classes sufficiently can lead to delays and even refusals to register. A textbook example of this can be seen in the Bottega Veneta application for its famous, and soon-to-be-registered, leather weave. When the application was first filed in June 2007, the description of goods in Class 18 encompassed a major part of the heading for class 18:

Leather and imitations of leather, and goods made of these materials and not included in other classes; animal skins; hides; trunks and traveling bags.

After a number of office actions (which attacked the application on multiple grounds), in January 2009, Bottega Veneta finally amended the class 18 description (at the PTO’s urging) in keeping with its actual intended use:

wallets, purses, handbags, shoulder bags, clutch bags, tote bags, business card cases, credit card cases, key cases, cosmetic cases sold empty, briefcases, attache cases, valises, suitcases and duffle bags, all made in whole or in substantial part, of leather” in Class 18.

Bottega Veneta’s specific list of items fell within the plain meaning of the general language in the original filing (i.e., “goods made of these materials and not included in other classes,” and “trunks and traveling bags”). However, the use of the class heading can also prevent a later amendment, as it did recently in In re Fiat, 109 USPQ2d 1593 (Serial No. 79099154 TTAB 2014)

There, the applicant requested an amendment to the scope of its services from the class 35 heading (“Advertising; business management; business administration; office functions”) to “advertising services; retail store and on-line retail store services featuring a wide variety of consumer goods of others.” In deciding whether to accept an amendment, however, the Trademark Office looks at the “plain meaning” of the initial description to determine whether it encompasses the added goods or services. In other words, an applicant may amend an application to clarify or limit the identification of goods or services, but not to broaden it. Looking at the original description, the TTAB held that the addition of “retail store and on-line retail store services featuring a wide variety of consumer goods of others” was an impermissible expansion of the scope of the original recitation, despite the fact that those services are properly included within class 35. The “plain meaning” rule, the TTAB explained, “is necessary to provide the public with notice as to the scope of goods and/or services for which applicant is seeking registration and to enable the USPTO to reach informed judgments concerning likelihood of confusion.”

The U.S. practitioner who takes on a registration for international clients under the Madrid Protocol or international convention — Section 44(d) (based on an application) and Section 44(e)) (based on a registration) — must be aware of these issues, among many others, in order to avoid delays and refusals which may cost the client both time and money — and even loss of trademark protection in the United States.

Trademark Holding Companies: Speculative Benefits, Certain Pitfalls

From time to time clients ask us whether they should “protect” their trademarks from their company’s liabilities by setting up a separate trademark holding company. Often they have heard about tax savings or read something online suggesting that any company with substantial trademark assets to protect ought to be segregating them into a separate corporate entity. Except in exceptional circumstances, however, the trademark holding company is a bad idea.

Trademark holding companies were originally devised by lawyers as tax-saving devices — specifically to reduce an operating company’s corporate franchise tax liabilities in the state or states of operation. (Corporate franchise taxes are the taxes a corporation pays to a state for the privilege of doing business there.) Theoretically, the savings could be substantial. The holding company is typically set up in Delaware or Nevada, where there is no corporate income tax on intangibles (like trademarks). The parent company transfers its trademarks to the holding company, which then licenses them back in return for a royalty. The royalty is then treated as an expense to the operating company and tax-free income for the holding company. This sleight of hand may still work in some jurisdictions, but in many places, the courts have already caught on.

No Tax Savings in New York.

Under New York law, trademark holding companies have been consistently disregarded as a means of reducing taxes. The lead case regarding tax liability is Sherwin-Williams Co. v. Tax Appeals Tribunal, 2004 NY Slip Op 07737 [12 AD3d 112] October 28, 2004. There, the New York Court of Appeals (New York State’s highest court) upheld a determination that Sherwin-Williams (an Ohio corporation) was required to report the income earned by its trademark holding company (a Delaware corporation) formed for the purpose of holding some 500 Sherwin-Williams domestic trademarks. The establishment of the holding company and the licenses back to the parent company, the court said, lacked any valid business purpose apart from tax avoidance.

Sherwin-Williams argued that it formed the holding company to: (1) improve quality control oversight with regard to its many licensees and franchisees; (2) enhance its ability to enter into third-party licensing arrangements at advantageous royalty rates; (3) insulate its  trademarks from the parent company’s liabilities; and (4) have flexibility in preventing a hostile takeover. To accomplish those purposes, the holding company established separate office space in Delaware and named as President an individual who had no previous association with the parent company. The tax tribunal and New York courts found these reasons unpersuasive. Not only did the parent company call the shots on management of the trademarks, but the President of the trademark holding company was a person who had no prior experience as a trademark manager. Thus the deduction for royalties that Sherwin-Williams’ operating company paid to its subsidiary holding company was disallowed and the combined income of both entities — the operating company and the holding company — was found subject to New York state corporate franchise tax.

The Sherwin-Williams case is only the most recent New York case to reach this conclusion regarding the reduction of tax liability via trademark holding companies. How would Sherwin-Williams have fared in a lawsuit in which it was sued for trademark infringement or in which the operating company was sued for breach of contact by a licensee or by a consumer for product liability?

Limitations on Liability.

Sherwin-Williams argued to the New York courts that it formed its trademark holding company in part to “insulate the trademarks from the parent’s liabilities,” but the court found ample reason to find the two companies were simply alter egos — at least from the standpoint of tax liability – including the fact that control over the quality of the Sherwin-Williams’ goods came from the parent company, rather than its subsidiary. That finding would not bode well for other types of claims. Automobile Insurance Co. of Hartford v. Murray, Inc., 04-CV-770A (LGF), a 2008 decision from the U.S. District Court, Western District of New York, bears this out. In that case, a lawnmower manufacturer that was sued for product liability attempted to defend itself on the basis that its trademark holding company was the actual owner and licensor of the trademark and therefore the wrong party had been sued. The court examined the organization and function of the holding company, however, and determined that it was formed “with no other business purpose … except to hold and license” the operating company’s trademarks. Consequently, the operating company was found to be the “de facto” or “actual” licensor.

Indeed, in most situations it is doubtful that a trademark holding company would be effective at protecting anything. The operating company/”licensee” will not be able to insulate itself from trademark infringement claims of its subsidiary holding company / “licensor.” Any such lawsuit would almost of necessity be brought against both companies, since both would have played a part in the alleged infringement. Nor is the trademark holding company/”licensor” likely to get away with pointing to its “licensee” (which is usually the licensor’s parent company!) as the sole party liable for breaches of contract or product liability. As one of the leading experts on trademark law has said, “in general, it is accurate to conclude that there is a very substantial risk that a trademark licensor … will be held liable for the torts of licensees…” McCarthy § 18:74 under the theory that the the licensee is a related company. This is especially true where the two companies share board members, management and/or office space. Notwithstanding Murray, where only the operating company was sued, it is the customary practice for attorneys when filing suit to include as many different entities and individuals as could be liable or capable of paying a judgment. In short, whether the claim is asserted against the operating company or its holding company, piercing the corporate veil would not be difficult.

The only possible protection that a holding company might afford to the trademark is an instance in which the operating company is sued for reasons unrelated to its licensing and business activities — for example, if the operating company defaulted on a mortgage or lease, or was sued for some kind of tortious (non-product-related) conduct — but even there, if the operating company’s assets were insufficient to satisfy the judgment, the trademarks might still be reachable as assets of the operating company.

Legal Pitfalls of Licensing through Trademark Holding Companies

In deciding whether to pierce the corporate veil of a trademark holding company, the courts will consider a number of factors, including whether the two companies have common directors or officers; whether the parent corporation owns all or most of the stock in the subsidiary; whether the parent finances the subsidiary; whether the subsidiary has any business with any entities other than the parent; whether the subsidiary has any assets other than those conveyed to it by the parent; and whether employees, officers and directors of the parent (and not the holding company) are the ones controlling the quality of the goods sold under the marks owned by the holding company. In principal, setting up a holding company is easy. But forming and operating one that will be recognized by the courts as an independent entity is time-consuming and expensive. And there is no bulletproof formula for success. In the cases cited above, the holding companies had different management, their own offices, and multiple licensees (i.e., various sources of income), but still failed in their purported objectives. A trademark holding company owned by a parent operating company is by its very nature suspect, but an “independent” holding company owned personally by the owners of a parent operating company is no better. In addition to these problems, there is the legal risk that a trademark holding company just might put a company’s trademarks at risk.

Although trademark holding companies are common, not only have they not been fully endorsed by the courts, but they have also caused damage to trademark owners. Not long ago, one of our clients sued two trademark infringers. The client’s trademarks are owned by a holding company (established by predecessor counsel, not us). One of the defenses mounted by the other side in a countersuit for invalidity is that the licensor holding company doesn’t exercise sufficient control over its licensees. Rather, they argued, control is exercised by the holding company’s parent corporation and the holding company has therefore made a “naked license.” The remedy for a naked license is for the court to declare that the trademark in question was abandoned by the trademark owner. In CNA Financial Corp. v. Brown, 922 F. Supp. 567 (M.D. Fla. 1996), reconsideration den. by 930 F. Supp. 1502 (M.D. Fla. 1996), aff’d, 162 F.3d 1334 (11th Cir. 1998), a court did just that. CNA lost its trademark because the court found that it did not actually control the quality of the services offered by its licensees, but only controlled how the marks themselves were used. (The issue in our client’s case was never addressed by the court, as the case was subsequently settled in our client’s favor.)

This is not the only risk. A holding by a court that an operating company is the de facto or actual licensor of the trademark, as in the Murray case cited above, opens the door to the corollary conclusion that the holding company’s trademark applications and maintenance filings in the PTO were fraudulent, since the holding company may not be the true owner of the trademark. That would be an additional ground for cancellation of trademark registration.

There are still other complications, including how a court or the PTO will view a transfer of a trademark to a holding company, without a transfer of the accompanying “goodwill.” Under U.S. law, trademarks cannot be assigned “in gross” but must be assigned together with the business (i.e., the goods and services) represented by the trademarks. In other words, because the “goodwill” is created by the business, a trademark cannot exist independently of it. A transfer of a trademark to a holding company may thus be considered an assignment in gross, which is voidable and subjects the trademark to cancellation. Indeed, if the holding company does no business other than licensing, it may be very difficult to claim that any goodwill at all is associated with the legal owner of the mark.

These latter issues have not been directly addressed either by the courts or the PTO. However, the risk of losing one’s trademarks by transferring them to a U.S. holding company, when weighed against some very speculative benefits, hardly seems worth it.

(In a future posting, I will deal with a slightly different scenario: where the trademark holding company is located outside the United States.)

Ads Follow Web Users, and Get More Personal

It is interesting that the New York Times would publish an article titled “Ads Follow Web Users, and Get More Personal.” See The July 30, 2009 business story.
What is a truly fascinating development here is how web companies are now trying tie legacy data banks of highly personal information to online information in order to figure out how to get consumers to spend more money on products by constantly presenting to them highly focused relevant advertisements based upon their likes, dislikes, socio-economic profile, etc. Couple this with all of the innovative work being done in the field of predictive modeling and you have a prescription for producing something highly useful and beneficial on the one hand, to something that could be abused, or worse yet, used against individuals. If you have ever used Pandora, you will see a good use of predictive modeling.
Having done a great deal of research and work in the area of privacy, I am particularly sensitive to this aggregation of information. We dealt with a number of interesting and complicated issues long before the Internet age, and many of the issues we were researching then are relevant today. Suffice it to say, we each need to be cognizant that the advertisements presented to us are not the same as may be to our neighbor. So the next time you click on an advertisement, think about how you are leaving a breadcrumb trail of interests for the next marketer to exploit.

Facebook places your Trademarks at risk

Starting June 13, 2009 Facebook users can create personalized URLs for their Facebook pages. http://www.facebook.com/username/ where “username” is the name that you register. These personalized URLs are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis. The intention is that “friends” can go directly to your personalized URL.

Because this is just another avenue for infringers to try and steal trademarks from rightful owners, and since the law on this area is developing we are recommending that our clients immediately create accounts on facebook and register their trademarks as personalized URLs. For example, I have registered: http://www.facebook.com/WebTM. There is nothing particularly interesting at my facebook wall, but it is there.

So if you go and try and register your trademark as a personalized URL, and it is taken, Facebook is providing a means to complain by its “Notice of Intellectual Property Infringement (Non-Copyright Claim)”.If someone adopts your trademark as a personal URL on Facebook, report it immediately. Should you require any assistance in dealing with this, please contact me directly.