The Line Between Merely Descriptive Marks and Suggestive Marks

Distinguishing a merely descriptive mark and a suggestive mark is crucial to determining whether protection is afforded under the Lanham Act. Since the categorization is a question of fact, each case must be analyzed based on its own merit. If a trademark examining attorney deems a mark merely descriptive an applicant may respond and argue that the mark is suggestive. If the Examiner maintains the refusal, the applicant may appeal to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. The TTAB will either affirm the original decision or reverse it in favor of the applicant. Two types of cases with similar considerations and different outcomes are presented below:

The first set of examples pertain to considerations relating to terms in the dictionary. Simply because a term is not found in the dictionary, does not control whether or not it is eligible for registration. If an examining attorney can show that the term has a well understood and recognized meaning, it may be merely descriptive. Moreover, if the term is found in the dictionary, the matter at hand is establishing what the term means to consumers and its current usage, which may hold more weight than an older definition.

In a 2017 precedential opinion by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the decision by an examining attorney that the mark WELL LIVING LAB was merely descriptive was affirmed. Starting with “lab,” defined as a “room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research…” the Board agreed that the term simply referred to the location where the applicant’s research services were held. Regarding the phrase “well living,” its meanings in the Oxford Dictionary are all similar, for example, “the action or fact of leading a good life, especially with respect to moral virtue.” Though the definitions included remarks referring to the outdatedness of that meaning, the Board turned to evidence provided by the examining attorney that the term “well living” was essentially synonymous with the descriptive phrase “health and wellness” in the mind of the consumer. The Board held that the mark WELL LIVING LAB constituted “no more than the sum of its parts.”

By way of contrast, in a 2020  non-precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found the mark ORIGINAL GRAIN suggestive. The Board analyzed both terms in the mark that was being used to distinguish an applicant’s restaurant service, separately. First looking at the noun, “grain,” the Board in concurrence with the examining attorney found that the term in itself was merely descriptive because the average consumer would find the term to mean a type of food in the context for which it was being used, both in a commercial light and as listed on the applicant’s menu. In regard to the word “original,” the examining attorney argued that the term, understood by others in the food and beverage industry and by consumers, referred to whole grains or unrefined grains. However, the Board found that there was insufficient evidence to show that the consuming public would automatically associate the mark ORIGINAL GRAIN with whole grains or unrefined grains. Conclusively, the Board found that taken as a whole, the term may be suggestive of “wholesome grain-based menu items” or “healthy eating” based on the grains served at the applicant’s restaurant.

The second set of examples relate to the consideration of terms with more than one meaning. When determining descriptiveness, the trademark examining attorney must look at the mark in relation to the goods or services for which registration is sought. If the term’s primary significance is descriptive in relation to at least one of the owner’s goods or services and does not create either a double entendre or an incongruity, then the mark is merely descriptive.

In a 2019 non-precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal for registration of the merely descriptive mark ARKIVE, for a data sharing and cloud computing backup service. Unlike the previous cases which involved dictionary meanings, the applicant, in this case, did not try to dispute that ARKIVE was simply a misspelling of the defined term “archive.” The applicant argued that the term was a unique combination of the two terms “ark” and “archive” which together, created a double entendre. The applicant reasoned that the term “ark” in reference to the Ark of the Covenant and Noah’s Ark, would convey a sense of security and stability in the minds of the consuming public. However, the Board concurred with the examining attorney that the meaning of the mark, referencing the Ark of the Covenant or Noah’s Ark,  suggested by the applicant, would not be apparent to the consuming public in connection with the services for which the mark was used. ARKIVE was held merely descriptive.

In a 2008 precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board reversed the refusal to register the merely descriptive mark THE FARMACY, in connection organic herbs and products sold in the equivalent of a pharmacy. The examining attorney argued that the mark was simply a phonetic misspelling and merely descriptive of the location where the goods were sold. The applicant contended that the mark was intended to be a “whimsical term” playing on the two words “pharmacy” and “farm.” The mark was meant to convey the idea that the applicant sold “…natural, pure and completely unprocessed products.” The Board agreed with the applicant that mark held a dual meaning in regard to the nature of the goods and the combination of the two separate terms “pharmacy” and “farm” thereby creating the double entendre FARMACY. In this fashion, the Board held that the mark was suggestive.

The four cases detailed above highlight the thin line between marks that are merely descriptive and those that are suggestive. The considerations to mere descriptiveness determine whether a mark is eligible for registration on the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register. A merely descriptive mark may still be eligible for registration if it acquires secondary meaning. A suggestive mark is afforded greater protection under the Act because it is eligible for registration on the Principal Register without acquiring a secondary meaning.

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