Posts Tagged ‘trademark’

Likelihood of Confusion

Sunday, March 15th, 2020

As discussed in a much earlier post, it is important to select a strong trademark. The purpose of a trademark is to distinguish an owner’s goods and services from another’s goods or services. Since the purpose of a trademark is to act as a source indicator, it is important that two trademarks are not so similar, that the consuming public believes them to be related, or confuses them, this is known as likelihood of confusion. Under §2(d) of the Lanham Act, marks that are found to be confusingly similar are unregistrable with the USPTO.

When determining likelihood of confusion, the key factors an examining attorney relies on are known as the Dupont Factors. The two most important factors to consider are: (1) The similarity or dissimilarity of the marks in their entireties as to appearance, sound, connotation and commercial impression. (2) The relatedness of the goods or services as described in the application and registration(s).  When looking at these two factors, the order in which they are considered is important, because the more similar the marks are, the less related the goods or services need to be in order to support a finding of likelihood of confusion.  The following are the remaining seven factors that should be considered if applicable and relevant: (3) The similarity of established, likely-to-continue trade channels. (4) The conditions under which and buyers to whom sales are made, i.e., “impulse” vs. careful, sophisticated purchasing. (5) The number and nature of similar marks in use on similar goods. (6) The existence of a valid consent agreement between the applicant and the owner of the previously registered mark. (7) Fame of the prior mark. (8) Nature and extent of any actual confusion. (9) Concurrent use without evidence of actual confusion: length of time and conditions. It is important to note that not all of these factors will be applicable in every case.

When determining likelihood of confusion, the standard is confusingly similar. Two marks need not be identical to support a finding of likelihood of confusion. This means that a new mark may be confusingly similar to a previously registered mark even if it is not identical. There is no guarantee that changing or removing portions of a new mark will make it sufficiently distinguishable and therefore registrable with the USPTO.

Registration Refusals for Geographically Deceptive Marks

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

The previous post discussed marks that are geographically deceptive. Marks that are primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive under §2(e)(3) and those that are deceptive under §2(a) are the same. Therefore, marks that are primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive of goods or services are considered deceptive and deemed unregistrable with the USPTO under §2(e)(3) of the Lanham Act.  There is a three-prong inquiry to determine whether a mark is primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive in connection with the goods for which it is being used: (1) The primary significance of the mark is a generally known geographic location; (2) The goods do not come from the place named in the mark, but the relevant public would be likely to believe that the goods originate there; and (3) The misrepresentation is a material factor in the purchaser’s decision to buy the goods in question.  Following is an example of a geographical deceptiveness refusal which was affirmed by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

In a 2020 non-precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal for registration of the geographically deceptive mark EMPORIO ITALIA, for “bedsheets; pillowcases; comforters; bedspreads,” finding the mark to be primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive. The applicant made two non-compelling arguments that the Board quickly dismissed. The applicant first argued that the mark merely suggested goods of high quality or style, and second, due to the high price of Italian bedding, only a select number of consumers would make the connection between Italy and bedding.  Before applying the three-prong analysis to determine whether or not a mark is primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive, and therefore unregistrable under §2(e)(3) of the Lanham Act, the Board determined that the doctrine of foreign equivalents applied in this case, where the mark, EMPORIO ITALY translated into EMPORIUM ITALY. The Board found that not only would Italian-speakers stop and translate the mark, but also, “non-Italian speaking American consumers would readily perceive the mark as ‘Emporium Italy’ because the English translation is substantially similar in appearance and sound to Applicant’s mark EMPORIO ITALY.”

Starting with the first prong of the inquiry the Board found that, when considering the mark in its entirety, the primary significance of EMPORIO ITALIA is the generally known geographic location, Italy.  The examining attorney provided internet and gazetteer evidence showing that bedding and textiles are among Italy’s main exports. In submitting such evidence, he met the initial burden of establishing a goods/place association between the applicant’s goods and the generally known location, Italy. The applicant argued that his mark was “suggestive, arbitrary, or fanciful, such as when a geographic mark may indicate that a product is stylish or of high quality, i.e. HYDE PARK or NANTUCKET for clothing, and FIFTH AVENUE for a car.” The Board did not accept the reasoning

The second prong of the inquiry considers whether the relevant public would be likely to believe that the goods originate from the location identified in the mark, though they do not. This prong was satisfied with the applicant’s statement that the goods will originate from India. “The goods are not and will not be manufactured, packaged, shipped from, sold in or have any other connection with the geographic location named in the mark.”  Therefore, given this statement and the satisfaction of the first prong, it is likely that relevant consumers would believe the goods originated from the place identified in the mark. The third and final prong of the test, which questions the materiality of the misrepresentation, was satisfied as well. The Board said, “We infer from this evidence that a substantial portion of customers in the market for ‘bedsheets; pillowcases; comforters; bedspreads’ will be motivated to purchase Applicant’s goods because of the mistaken belief that the goods originate in Italy.”  In light of the evidence provided, the Board affirmed the refusal for registration under §2(e)(3) of the Lanham Act.

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.

The End of the Disparagement Clause

Saturday, February 8th, 2020

Under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, there are certain types of marks that may never be registered with the USPTO. Last week, one of the posts discussed deceptive marks, under Section 2(a), which is one type of mark that may not be registered. Under 15 U.S.C. §1052(a) other marks that may not be registered include those which consist or are comprised of “immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute; or a geographical indication which, when used on or in connection with wines or spirits, identifies a place other than the origin of the goods …”

The Disparagement Clause was brought into question in the case Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017).  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Disparagement Clause violates the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech Clause and that it is no longer a valid ground on which to refuse registration or cancel a registration.

In 2015, Simon Tam applied to register his trademark THE SLANTS for the name of his Asian-American band. The registration was denied under §2(a) of the Lanham Act because it was considered disparaging to those of Asian descent. When determining whether or not a mark is potentially disparaging, an examining attorney conducts a two-prong test, (1) The likely meaning of the mark at issue and, “if that meaning is found to refer to identifiable persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols,” the examining attorney will move to the second part of the test, (2) “Whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group …” If the examiner finds that a “substantial composite, although not necessarily a majority, of the referenced group would find the proposed mark…to be disparaging in the context of contemporary attitudes,” a prima facie case for disparagement is created. At that point, it is the applicant’s burden to prove that the trademark is not disparaging.

Tam argued that he was using the mark to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity. Regardless, his mark was denied, and he appealed to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that affirmed the refusal for registration. Ultimately, Tam appealed to the Supreme Court that concluded that the Disparagement Clause was unconstitutional. The majority found that the clause: “engages in viewpoint-based discrimination, regulates the expressive component of trademarks, and consequently cannot be treated as commercial speech and that the clause is subject to and cannot satisfy strict scrutiny.”(Citation omitted) Justice Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, said: “We have said time and again that ‘the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.’”

In Matal the central issue was how the public would perceive the potentially offensive mark. While Tam’s goal was to “reclaim” the disparaging phrase, the USPTO originally denied the trademark registration because it was worried that instead of helping dissolve the negative connotation of the term “slant,” it would have the opposite effect for those who identified as Asian American. Something of note that this case has brought to light, is the portion of the two-prong disparagement test which says, “…to be disparaging in the context of contemporary attitudes.” In 2017, 71 years after the Disparagement Clause was written, contemporary attitudes may be shifting and by finding the Disparagement provision a violation of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech Clause, it can potentially help in contributing to a more liberal marketplace of ideas.

One of the most immediate and potent effects of the Supreme Court’s official ban on the Disparagement Clause under §2(a) of the Lanham Act, was in regard to the Washington Redskins football team. The Washington Redskins, founded in 1932, was originally named the Boston Braves until they relocated to Washington, D.C. and took on their current moniker in 1933. Between 1967 and 1990, the USPTO registered six trademarks affiliated with the Washington Redskins, each trademark containing the term REDSKIN. Since 1992, the registrations, the previous team owners and current owner, Dan Snyder, have been in constant legal battle with Native American groups who’ve opposed the name and contended that it is in fact disparaging. In 2015, a federal judge canceled the trademark registrations and revoked their trademark protections. However, in light of the 2017 Matal decision, in 2018,  the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated the decisions that had previously canceled the Washington NFL team’s federal trademark registrations.

In wake of the Matal decision, the portions of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP) §1203, that specifically apply to the disparagement provision no longer apply. The USPTO Examination Guide 01-17  provides examination guidance after Matal v. Tam for the Disparagement Clause and was issued on June 26, 2017. The guide states: “Applicants that received an advisory refusal under the disparagement provision and were suspended pursuant to Examination Guide 01-16 will be removed from suspension and examined for any other requirements or refusals. If an application was previously abandoned after being refused registration under the disparagement provision, and is beyond the deadline for filing a petition to revive, a new application may be filed.”

After the official barring of the Disparagement Clause, another trademark case, Iancu v. Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. 2294 (2019), was heard before the Supreme Court. The trademark, FUCT,  was previously deemed unregistrable under §2(a) which bars registration of marks that consist of or comprise immoral or scandalous matter.   On June 24, 2019, the Supreme Court held that the Scandalous Clause violates the First Amendment of the Constitution because it “impermissibly restricts free speech.” Much like the Disparagement Clause, the Supreme Court held that the scandalous provision was unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech Clause because it was facially viewpoint-based. On July 3, 2019, the USPTO issued Examination Guide 2-19 which provides guidance for §2(a)’s Scandalous Marks Provision after Iancu v. Brunetti. The Examination Guide states: “that a mark may consist of or comprise “immoral” or “scandalous” matter is no longer a valid ground on which to refuse registration or cancel a registration.”  As stated by the Harvard Law Review, “If other provisions are invalidated due to their content-based nature, there will be little left for the government to use as a basis for restricting trademarks.” 133 Harv. L. Rev. 292 (2019)


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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