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.