Posts Tagged ‘spectrum of distinctiveness’

A Case in Which Two Marks Are Not Confusingly Similar

Sunday, March 29th, 2020

In the past two posts, two examples of likelihood of confusion were examined. In both cases, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the decision for refusal to register under §2(d) of the Lanham Act. In the first case, and in the second case, the first two Dupont Factors weighed heavily against the applicant and weighed in favor of finding a likelihood of confusion refusal. However, in the case below, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board dismissed the opposition and found that the two marks were not confusingly similar.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board dismissed a §2(d) opposition against the mark FULL OF FLAVOR FREE OF GUILT for “vegetable based food products, namely, vegetable based snack foods; meat substitutes.” Prior to the case the applicant, Outstanding Foods, disclaimed FULL OF FLAVOR. The Board found that the opposer, Yarnell Ice Cream, failed to prove likelihood of confusion with their registered mark GUILT FREE for frozen confections. Turning first to the fifth Dupont Factor, the number and nature of similar marks in use on similar goods, the opposer submitted 15 additional registrations for GUILT FREE in correlation with an array of other products to show that their mark was licensed for use on a diverse array of products. However, not only did the applicant object to the consideration of any products aside from Yarnell’s frozen confections, the Board refused to consider them because the opposition had not informed the applicant that they intended to rely on the additional registrations. Moving onto the third Dupont Factor, the similarity of established likely-to-continue trade channels, the opposer submitted evidence of a single website depicting vegetable-based snacks and frozen confections being sold under the same mark. But the Board found there was “no testimony or evidence showing what sort of commercial impact these products have made.” The opposer relied solely on the fact that parties’ goods were “snacks,” but it did not convince the Board that the involved goods were related.

In looking at the channels of trade, the Board presumed that “both parties offer vegetable based snacks or frozen confections in all channels of trade normal for those products and they are available to all classes of consumers for those products.” However, the Board found that this factor weighed very little in favor of the opposer because there was no evidence to show that the same consumers would encounter the products in close proximity, given that they are entirely different products. In this case, although the products are sold in similar trade channels, it does not mean that they would be near each other in the market. Therefore, it would be hard to find them confusingly similar. In a quick glance at the fourth Dupont Factor, the conditions under which and buyers to whom sales are made, i.e., “impulse” vs. careful, sophisticated purchasing, the Board agreed with the opposer that both parties’ goods were low-cost items and purchased with less care than expensive products. The Board then turned to the strength of the opposer’s mark, which encompasses the seventh Dupont Factor, the fame of the prior mark. The Board found that when the opposer used GUILT FREE in relation to “frozen confections or frozen dairy confections, it suggests that a person may enjoy the frozen treat [without] remorse, shame or guilt due to the calories in the frozen treat.” The applicant submitted 25 third-party registrations incorporating the word “Guilt” used in connection with food, and 13 websites using marks that invoked the “Guilt Free” commercial impression. As mentioned previously, the opposer licensed others to use the GUILT FREE mark, however, the uses were such that the Board found them “unlikely to point to Applicant as the source of the products.” Ultimately, given the commercial impression of the mark GUILT FREE, on the spectrum of distinctiveness, it would be suggestive. In considering the marks commercial strength, through the opposer’s evidence of sales of GUILT FREE frozen confections and its advertising and marketing efforts, the mark made “little, if any, commercial impact.” This commercial impact circles back to the seventh Dupont Factor. When looking at the fame of the prior (or registered) mark, it was found that there was hardly any. In many cases, the first Dupont Factor, the similarity or dissimilarity of the marks in their entireties as to appearance, sound, connotation and commercial impression, weighs heavily in a finding of likelihood of confusion. However, not all of the factors must be considered and there is no order in which the factors must be examined. In this case, the Board found that the marks created similar commercial impression but there were obvious differences between the two that weighed against this factor. When compared in their entireties, the Board ultimately found that the Applicant’s mark was distinguishable from the opposer’s mark. In conclusion, given the narrow scope of protection afforded to suggestive marks, including the opposer’s mark GUILT FREE, the Board dismissed the opposition and found the marks different enough to avoid being confusingly similar.

Genericness Cases

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

The previous post discussed generic marks, which are the weakest type of mark on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness. Generic marks are not registrable on either the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register. A mark is considered generic if the mark is comprised wholly, or partially of a term(s) that the public primarily associates with a genus of goods or services.

Below, are two recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decisions affirming refusal for registration under §§ 2(e)(1) and 2(f) of the Lanham Act:

In a 2019 precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal for registration of the generic mark MALAI, for ice cream. The Board ultimately found that the relevant public would understand the term MALAI to refer to a critical part of “ice cream, gelato, dairy-free ice cream, frozen yogurt, frozen desserts, ice cream sandwiches, sorbet, freezer pops and ice cream sundaes.” The Board applied the two-part inquiry set forth in H. Marvin Ginn Corp. v. Int’l Ass’n of Fire Chiefs, Inc., 782 F .2d at 990, 228 USPQ at 530 (Fed. Cir. 1986) to determine whether or not a mark is generic. For the first part of the inquiry, asking what the genus of the goods or service at hand is, there was no argument that the applicant’s identification of his goods satisfied this prong. In this case, the relevant consuming public consists of ordinary consumers who eat and purchase ice cream and equivalent products. The Board then looked at the second prong of the inquiry that asks how the relevant public perceives the term MALAI in the context of the applicant’s goods. Supporting evidence for genericness, included a dictionary definition of the term and a Wikipedia entry for “Ras Malai” as a kind of dessert as well as several articles, recipes and internet materials that identified the term as a cream.  Both pieces of evidence showed that the word MALAI “is commonly used in the English language as a genus of rich, high-fat creams commonly used in Indian and South Asian culinary dishes, especially dishes with a sweet taste.” The Board agreed with the examining attorney that the evidence showed that “malai” has its own English meaning for cream as a cooking ingredient. The Board agreed that there is no hard-and-fast rule the name of any ingredient in a product would be considered generic, but in this specific case, the public comprehends the ingredient name “to refer to a key aspect or sub-category of the genus of the goods, it is generic for those goods;” see Royal Crown, 127 USPQ2d at 1046; see also In re Empire Tech. Dev. LLC, 123 USPQ2d 1544 (TTAB 2017). In light of this, the Board affirmed the refusal to register on the Supplemental Register under §23 of the Lanham Act.

In a 2020 non-precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal for registration of the generic mark FIDGET CUBE on the Supplemental Register, for “stress relief exercise toys.” (Note that FIDGET was previously disclaimed.) The Board found that the term was a “generic name of the subgenus or subcategory of Applicant’s identified goods.” As a main defense, the applicant argued that he was the first user of the term FIDGET CUBE. However, the fact that no third-party registrant had used the term, does not negate a finding of genericness. The examining attorney submitted dictionary definitions of equivalent words, third-party registrations disclaiming “fidget,” and Internet product reviews, online retailer advertisements and online articles referring to “fidget cubes.” The Board remarked that there was no ban on evidence taken from Internet forums or blogs. The Board then turned to evidence that showed the term FIDGET CUBE generic for a type of stress-relieving toy. In a final, and unconvincing, argument, the applicant attempted to argue that there were other names for the type of product, including terms such as “fidget dice, infinity cube, fidget box, stress cube, stress block and dodecahedron.” In light of these alternative names, the applicant rationalized that there was no need for competitors to use the term FIDGET CUBE to describe their products. The Board was quick to remind the applicant that there can be more than one generic term for a particular genus of goods or services. In summation, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal to register under §23 and §45 of the Lanham Act.

Generic marks may not be registered on the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register in any case. If the mark is comprised wholly, or in part, by generic material, where the generic term(s) retain significance to the relevant public, the mark is generic. When conducting the two-part inquiry, an examining attorney must look at the mark as a whole. Unlike other marks on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness, generic marks cannot acquire distinctiveness, nor can an applicant argue first use as an immunization against genericness.

Generic Marks

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

As discussed in an earlier article, under the Spectrum of Distinctiveness, there are five distinct types of marks. The weakest type of mark is a generic mark. These are terms that the relevant purchasing public understands foremost as the common identification for goods or services. Under §§1,2 and §45 of the Lanham Act a generic term may never be registered on the Principal Register, nor may it be registered on the Supplemental Register under §§23(c) and 45. Generic words are incapable of functioning as source identifiers.  The purchasing public will never come to associate the generic term for just one source of goods or services.

A mark may be deemed as generic if its primary connotation to the relevant public is the class or category of goods or services on or in connection with which it is used. In determining genericness, the relevant public refers to the consuming public for the identified goods or services. H. Marvin Ginn Corp. v. Int’l Ass’n of Fire Chiefs, Inc., 782 F .2d at 990, 228 USPQ at 530 (Fed. Cir. 1986) sets forth a two-part inquiry to determine whether a mark is generic: (1) What is the genus of goods or services at issue? (2) Does the relevant public understand the designation primarily to refer to that genus of goods or services? When looking at the second portion of the test, the inquiry is not asking whether or not the relevant public uses the term to refer to the genus, but whether or not the relevant public would understand the term to be generic.

In applying the two-part inquiry, the examining attorney bears the burden of proving that the term is generic. This evidence may be gathered from including dictionary definitions, research databases, newspapers and other publications. When determining whether or not a term is generic, it is not relevant that there may be more than one generic term for a particular category of goods or services. Any term that the relevant public understands to refer to the category is considered generic.

A generic mark is not limited to one-word designations, the two-part inquiry is the same for compound terms and phrases. If possible, the examining attorney should include evidence showing the use of the mark as a whole. Yet, if there is no evidence of third-party use of the exact compound term or phrase, that does not, alone, negate a finding of genericness for a particular mark.  An examining attorney may find that a mark comprised of a compound or shortened term is generic by showing evidence that each portion of the mark is generic and that when joined, each portion of the mark retains its generic meaning. In re WM. B. Coleman Co., Inc. 93 USPQ2d 2019 (TTAB 2010) the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the finding that ELECTRIC CANDLE COMPANY was merely the combination of two generic terms put together to create a compound mark. As stated above, if both portions of the term retain their generic significance, then the mark may be deemed generic.

Aside from compound and telescoped words, mnemonic telephones numbers and Internet domain names are studied as well. In regard to mnemonic telephone numbers, an examining attorney must show that the relevant public would perceive the mark as a whole to have a generic significance. In reference to Internet domain names, an examining attorney must determine whether or not all parts of the name, including the Internet domain name, are generic, and if in sum, the mark itself is generic. In certain isolated instances, the addition of a top-level domain indicator (“TLD”) may make an otherwise generic mark, distinct. An example of this is In re, 415 F .3d 1293, 1299, 75 USPQ2d 1420, 1423 (Fed. Cir. 2005). In this case, the Federal Circuit reversed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s decision that STEELBUILDING.COM was generic for “computerized on-line retail services in the field of pre-engineered metal buildings and roofing systems.” In this rarified instance, the Court chastised the Board for looking at each piece of the mark individually, but not as a whole. When adding the “TLD” it expanded the meaning of the mark beyond that of just selling steel buildings. With the addition of the “TLD,” the mark took on the meaning of internet services as well, including beforehand modeling’s of the buildings and price calculations. This again reinforces the notion that the relevant public must take the entire mark to have generic significance, therefore an examining attorney must focus on the mark as a whole, rather than multiple generic components.

As stated by the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP), the expression “generic name for the goods or services,” is not contained to noun forms, but also captures “generic adjectives” as well; see Sheetz of Del., Inc. v. Doctor’s Assocs. Inc., 108 USPQ2d 1341 (TTAB 2013) which held FOOTLONG generic for sandwiches, excluding hotdogs. In a comparable manner, evidence that shows a singular form of a term to be generic can suffice to demonstrate that the plural is also generic.

In conclusion, generic marks are the weakest types of mark and may not be registered with the USPTO either on the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register. A mark may be deemed generic whether it is comprised of a phonetically spelled term, multiple generic terms, mnemonic telephone numbers, Internet domain names or generic adjectives. An examining attorney must use the two-part inquiry to determine whether a mark is generic, and the mark must be examined as a whole. If, as a whole, the mark retains its generic significance to the public, it may be considered generic, and therefore unregistrable on either the Principal Register under §§1,2 and §45 of the Lanham Act or the Supplemental Register under §§23(c) and 45 of the Lanham Act.

Deceptively Misdescriptive Marks

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

Under §2(e)(1) of the Lanham Act, there are several types of marks that may not be registered with the USPTO: merely descriptive marks, deceptively misdescriptive marks, primarily geographically descriptive marks, geographically deceptively misdescriptive marks, marks that are primarily a surname and marks that compromise any matter, used wholly, is functional. This article will explore marks that are deceptively misdescriptive. A mark is deceptively misdescriptive if it immediately conveys a certain idea, but the idea is false, although plausible. Simply, a mark may not be registered, if people who encounter the mark, in connection with the goods or services for which it is being used, are likely to believe the misrepresentation. Deceptively misdescriptive marks fall somewhere between marks that consist of (or) comprise immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter, which may not be registered under §2(a), and arbitrary marks which may be registered on the Principal Register.

The Federal Circuit devised a two-prong test to determine whether a mark is deceptively misdescriptive or merely deceptive.

The trademark examining attorney must first decide if the term is misdescriptive of the character, quality, function, composition or use of the goods or services for which it is being used.  It is the examining attorney’s job to record evidence demonstrating why the mark is misdescriptive. Specifically, the record must show the meaning of the term in question, and that the identification indicates that the applicant’s goods or services do not have the feature or characteristic. Several examples of evidence are dictionary definitions, Internet websites, point-of-purchase displays, advertising materials, product information sheets, hang tags and trade journals. An applicant’s statement in reference to his/her goods or services may also satisfy the first component of the test. An example of a misdescriptive term is APPLE for computer products. However, the consuming public is unlikely to believe the misrepresentation conveyed through the mark. This would make the misdescriptive term an arbitrary mark.

The second component of the test examines whether the idea conveyed is plausible, and how likely the consuming public would be to believe the misrepresentation of the mark in connection with goods or services for which it is being used. In order to prove this prong of the test, an examining attorney must provide evidence that the description conveyed by the mark is plausible by demonstrating that potential consumers regularly encounter goods or services that contain the features or services in the mark. For example, in a 1988 Federal Circuit case, an applicant attempted to register the mark LOVEE LAMB for seat covers that were not made of the lamb. In order to demonstrate the believability of the idea conveyed in the mark, the examining attorney provided evidence that seat covers can be made of lambskin and sometimes are made of lambskin, therein proving that the consuming public would be likely to believe the misrepresentation conveyed by the mark. Much like the first prong, an applicant’s hangtags, labels, advertising and product information may also provide evidence of the believability of the misdescription.

Furthermore, the fact that the true nature of the goods or services is revealed by other elements on the labels, advertisements or other materials with which the mark is connected does not preclude a determination that a mark is deceptively misdescriptive.

Following is an example of a mark that was refused registration because it was deceptively misdescriptive under §2(e)(1) of the Lanham Act.

In a 2006 precedential opinion by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the Board affirmed refusal for registration of the deceptively misdescriptive mark SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, for books and media services. The examining attorney provided evidence that established that the date of Sept. 11, 2001, “acquired special significance in America.” The examining attorney went on to clarify that the date was used as a common reference to the terrorist attacks that occurred on that date. In satisfying the first prong of the two-prong test, the Board determined that the term was misdescriptive in connection to the applicant’s goods which did not in any way cover the events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. In a similar fashion, the second prong was satisfied when the Board ruled that in light of the many books, articles and shows about the events that took place on that date, it would be likely for consumers to believe the misdescription of the mark. The Board concluded, “While the nature of the misdescription would become known after consumers studied applicant’s books and entertainment services, that does not prevent the mark from being deceptively misdescriptive.”

Marks that have been refused registration under §2(e)(1) of the Lanham Act on the ground of deceptive misdescriptiveness may be registerable under §2(f) of the Act if they have acquired distinctiveness, or on the Supplemental Register if appropriate. Marks that have been found deceptive under §2(a) of the Act may not be registered on either the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register in any case.


Merely Descriptive Marks

Monday, January 20th, 2020

Under the Trademark law, merely descriptive marks are not entitled to registration on the Principal Register. Merely descriptive marks are marks that describe an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the specified goods or services. Unlike suggestive marks that take a certain amount of thought to associate the mark with a good or service, merely descriptive marks convey an immediate idea of an ingredient, quality, characteristic, feature, function, purpose or use of the goods or services in question. Both types of marks (Descriptive and Suggestive) are discussed at length in the post on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness.

As discussed in the post on Secondary Meaning, a merely descriptive mark may not be afforded the protections afforded under the Lanham Act without having acquired distinctiveness. Simply because an owner may be the first and only user of a mark that may be descriptive does not mean the mark is entitled to registration by the U.S. Trademark Office or even protection by the courts.

When determining whether a mark is merely descriptive or not, the decision must be made in direct relation to the goods and services with which the mark is used. An Examining Attorney at the Trademark Office must look at the possible significance that the mark would have to the general consumers of the goods or services in the marketplace. When searching for the context in which a mark may be used, sources include websites, publications, labels, packages, advertising material, explanatory text on specimens for the goods or services and consumer surveys.  Marks that are merely descriptive, are often terms that could be used to describe an entire category of goods or services; therefore, they are not inherently associated with one specific brand of goods or services. For example:

In 2016, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed an examining attorney’s decision in finding the mark “BEST PROTEIN,” merely descriptive of the owner’s dietary and nutritional supplements. In addition to other elements, the examining attorney pointed out that protein is a common and heavily promoted element in dietary and nutritional supplements, he furthered his argument documenting several products that included the term protein not only in the marks themselves but listed on the ingredients label as well.

Furthermore, a term does not have to describe all of the purposes, functions, characteristics or features of a good or service to be considered merely descriptive. It can be classified as such if the term describes one important function, attribute or property. In a similar fashion, the term does not need to describe all of the goods or services identified on the application, so long as it describes one of them. An example of this can be seen in this decision:

In 2018, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed a trademark examining attorney’s decision that the mark “BUYER ENGINE” was merely descriptive in reference to the owner’s real estate marketing services. Along with numerous other reasons, the Board stated that the mark refers “to a significant feature of the services themselves…”

A mark may also be considered merely descriptive if the listed goods or services fall within a subset of the of their respective class identified by the term.

Assessing whether a mark is merely descriptive depends upon the facts in each case.


Our Office can help you determine whether your mark is merely descriptive or suggestive for the goods and services with which it is connected.


Selecting a Strong Trademark

Friday, January 10th, 2020

Not all trademarks are created equal. Certain types of marks are entitled to little or no protection, while others are afforded a strong scope of protection against competing marks. The purpose of a trademark is to inform consumers of the source of the goods or services. Strong trademarks can be used to prevent others from using confusingly similar marks (i.e. source identifiers) in connection with similar goods or services, so the consumer is not confused as to the source. Regardless of whether a mark is a common law mark or a registered mark, the strength of the rights acquired in the mark depends on its level of distinctiveness. There are five categories of trademarks within the spectrum of distinctiveness. Each category will be addressed from the weakest type of mark to the strongest.

Generic Marks: These marks are the weakest and an owner cannot use this type of mark to identify the source of his/her goods or services or register a generic mark with the USPTO. A generic term is one that describes a whole category or a group of goods or services. For example, an owner cannot register the trademark “COLA,” because the generic term describes an entire category of beverages. Because a generic term is simply a descriptor, no one owner can claim exclusive rights to it.

Descriptive Marks: These are the second weakest type of mark and often convey an immediate idea of the ingredients, qualities or characteristics of a good or service. Much like generic terms, these are words or phrases that are commonly used in connection with goods and services and can be difficult to distinguish from one another. An example of a descriptive mark would be “Clean Shower” for a shower cleaning product.  The mark is simply identifying what the product does and uses a descriptive term that is not unique to one specific product. Under the common law, a descriptive mark is entitled to little or no protection, with certain exceptions. The USPTO may not register “merely descriptive” marks. This is because registration would possibly prevent competitors from describing their own products. Sometimes, descriptive marks can become associated with the goods or services with which they are used. After a minimum of five years of using a mark in commerce with goods or services, the mark may be said to have acquired distinctiveness or secondary meaning because purchasers have come to associate the descriptive words with one source for the products or services. At the USPTO, an owner may attempt to show that they used the mark for at least five years exclusively and continuously. If it can be shown that by the fifth anniversary, the mark has acquired distinctiveness/secondary meaning, it may qualify for registration with the USPTO. Two examples of descriptive marks that have acquired a secondary meaning are AMERICAN AIRLINES and KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN. Surnames fall in the descriptive category as well, such as the hotel chain HILTON Hotel. Aside from famous marks, when descriptive marks are afforded protection, it is usually very narrow.

Suggestive Marks: These marks often suggest an aspect or feature of an owner’s goods or services without directly describing the product.  There is sometimes a fine line between suggestive marks and descriptive marks. Suggestive marks require more thought to grasp the connection between the mark and the good or service. They are more vague than descriptive marks, which directly describe the product. Suggestive marks have a higher chance of being approved by the USPTO because standing alone, the word or phrase does not immediately convey the goods or services to which it is connected. These marks, which are more unique or creative, can be afforded a broader scope of protection. An example of a suggestive mark would be “COPPERTONE,” for the brand of sunscreen. The mark “COPPERTONE,” suggests the outcome of the product, without directly describing it. Another example is “PLAYBOY.” Some of the most contentious litigation hinges on whether a mark is descriptive or offensive.

Arbitrary Marks: These are existing words or phrases that would not normally be associated with an owner’s goods or services. These are terms or phrases that are unrelated to the good or service itself. They are the second strongest type of mark because the owner is giving a common word or phrase a new or unique meaning by associating it with his/her product. An example of a strong arbitrary mark would be “UBER” for the ridesharing service. While the term “uber” is now associated mainly with the ridesharing service, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines the term “uber” as, “being a superlative example of its kind or class.” Other examples include “APPLE” for technological products and “CAMEL” for tobacco products.

Coined or Fanciful Marks: These marks are the strongest, and most well-protected marks. A fanciful mark is a made-up term that does not have a previously existing dictionary definition. A coined term is a new and unique combination of words without a previous meaning. Since these terms did not exist prior to their usage, they are extremely difficult, or even impossible to challenge. Examples include: EXXON, ROLEX, LEXUS, XEROX and CLOROX.

In conclusion, when choosing a trademark, it is important for an owner to come up with a creative name for his/her goods or services.

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