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A Primer on Practice at the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board

In a precedential decision rendered in an opposition proceeding, the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (Board) took the lawyers for each side to task for ignoring Board rules in presentation of their case, but ultimately decided the case on a likelihood of confusion analysis. The Board found that the parties’ marks and goods were “highly similar” and sustained the opposition. Made in Nature, LLC v. Pharmavite LLC, Opposition Nos. 91223352; 91223683; 91227387 (June 15, 2022, TTAB) (Wellington, Heasley and Hudis, ALJs) (precedential).

Pharmavite sought registration of the standard character mark NATURE MADE for various foods and beverages based on allegations of bone fide intent to use in commerce. Made in Nature (MIN) opposed on the ground that Pharmavite’s mark so resembled MIN’s registered and common law “Made In Nature” marks as to cause a likelihood of confusion when used on the goods for which registration was sought.

In its brief to the Board, Pharmavite raised, for the first time, the Morehouse (or prior registration) defense. MIN objected to the Morehouse defense as untimely. The Board agreed, noting that defense is “an equitable defense, to the effect that if the opposer cannot be further injured because there already exists an injurious registration, the opposer cannot object to an additional registration that does not add to the injury.” The party asserting a Morehouse defense must show that it “has an existing registration [or registrations] of the same mark[s] for the same goods” (emphasis in original).

Here, the Board found that this defense was not tried by the parties’ express consent and that implied consent “can be found only where the non-offering party (1) raised no objection to the introduction of evidence on the issue, and (2) was fairly apprised that the evidence was being offered in support of the issue.” In this case, Pharmavite did introduce into the record its prior NATURE MADE registrations but only for the purpose of supporting Pharmavite’s “[r]ight to exclude; use and strength of Applicant’s mark.” The Board found that this inclusion did not provide notice of reliance on the Morehouse or prior registration defense at trial.

In sustaining the opposition, the Board commented extensively on the record and how it was used, “[s]o that the parties, their counsel and perhaps other parties in future proceedings can benefit and possibly reduce their litigation costs.”

Over-Designation of the Record as Confidential

The Board criticized the parties for over-designating as confidential large portions of the record, warning that only the specific “exhibits, declaration passages or deposition transcript pages that truly disclosed confidential information should have been filed under seal under a protective order.” If a party over-designates material as confidential, “the Board will not be bound by the party’s designation.”

Duplicative Evidence

The Board criticized the parties for filing “duplicative evidence by different methods of introduction; for example, once by Notice of Reliance and again by way of an exhibit to a testimony declaration or testimony deposition.” The Board noted that such practice is viewed “with disfavor.”

Overuse of [...]

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First Sale Defense Bars Trademark Infringement Where Trademarked Component Is Adequately Disclosed

A US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel vacated a grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff, holding that the first sale doctrine applies when a trademarked product is incorporated into a new product. Bluetooth SIG Inc. v. FCA US LLC, Case No. 21-35561 (9th Cir. Apr. 6, 2022) (per curiam).

Bluetooth SIG administers standards for Bluetooth technology. SIG owns and licenses the trademarks below to product manufacturers:

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) makes cars that contain Bluetooth-equipped head units. The head units are made by third-party suppliers that have been qualified by SIG, but FCA has not taken steps to qualify the Bluetooth capabilities in its cars. FCA uses the SIG trademarks on its head units and publications.

SIG sued FCA under the Lanham Act for trademark infringement. In its defense, FCA asserted the first sale doctrine. Under the doctrine, the right of a producer to control the distribution of its trademarked product does not extend past the first sale of the product. For example, a purchaser who stocks, displays and resells a producer’s product under a producer’s trademark violates no trademark rights under the Lanham Act. The district court granted partial summary judgment for SIG on the first sale issue, finding that the first sale doctrine was inapplicable because FCA’s conduct went beyond “stocking, displaying, and reselling a product.” FCA appealed.

The Ninth Circuit found that the lower court erred when it took a narrow view of the Ninth Circuit’s 1995 decision in Sebastian Int’l, Inc. v. Longs Drugs Stores Corp., in which the Court stated that “it is the essence of the ‘first sale’ doctrine that a purchaser who does no more than stock, display, and resell a producer’s product under the producer’s trademark violates no right conferred upon the producer by the Lanham Act.” The panel noted that the Sebastian Court never purported to articulate the outer bounds of the first sale doctrine; instead it simply captured the unauthorized resale of genuine goods.

The Ninth Circuit explained that the first sale doctrine also applies when a trademark is used to refer to a component incorporated into a new end product as long as the seller adequately discloses how the trademarked product was incorporated. The Court cited to the 1925 Supreme Court precedent in Prestonettes, Inc. v. Coty, which effectively extends the first sale doctrine beyond the examples stated in Sebastian. In Prestonettes, the Supreme Court held that trademark law did not prohibit a manufacturer from using a trademark, not to indicate the goods, but to say that the trademarked product was a component in a product being offered as new and changed. The Ninth Circuit also noted its 1998 holding in Enesco Corp. v. Price/Costco, in which it found that the first sale doctrine protected a retailer that resold dolls in allegedly inadequate packaging to the extent the repackaging was disclosed. The Enesco Court explained that if the public was adequately informed that [...]

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Big Little Lies: Guidelines for Challenging Trademark Acquired Distinctiveness Claims

For the second time, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit examined the standard for demonstrating fraud in a party’s claim of a trademark’s acquired distinctiveness for purposes of registration under Section 2(f) of the Lanham Act. The Federal Circuit found that a party challenging an applicant’s Section 2(f) claim based on substantially exclusive use of that trademark does not need to establish secondary meaning in its own mark to undercut the applicant’s claim of substantially exclusive use. The Court also found that use of the mark by any party, regardless of its relationship to the challenger, may undercut a trademark applicant’s claim of substantially exclusive use. Galperti, Inc. v. Galperti S.R.L., Case No. 21-1011 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 12, 2021) (Taranto, J.)

Galperti S.R.L. (Galperti-Italy) filed a US trademark registration for the mark GALPERTI in 2008. In an effort to overcome the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (PTO) initial refusal to register the trademark as “primarily merely a surname” (and therefore not registrable unless the mark has become distinctive of the applicant’s goods in commerce), Galperti-Italy asserted acquired distinctiveness of the GALPERTI mark under Section 2(f) and stated that the mark had become distinctive of Galperti-Italy’s metal hardware goods through its substantially exclusive and continuous use in commerce for the five years prior to the trademark registration. In 2013, Galperti-USA, a US company unrelated to Galperti-Italy that operates in the similar business of metal flanges and related products, petitioned to cancel Galperti-Italy’s registration on various grounds, including fraud in Galperti-Italy’s claim of substantially exclusive use of the GALPERTI trademark during the years 2002 – 2007. Galperti-USA claimed that it and other third parties also used the mark during that time, undercutting Galperti-Italy’s “substantially exclusive use” claims.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (Board) rejected Galperti-USA’s cancellation claims, including the fraud claim. Galperti-USA filed its first appeal, and the Federal Circuit vacated the Board’s determination that Galperti-USA failed to prove the falsity of Galperti-Italy’s Section 2(f) claim. The Court remanded to the Board to assess whether the other uses of GALPERTI noted by Galperti-USA were significant or inconsequential, which would impact the proof of falsity of Galperti-Italy’s representations to the PTO. On remand, the Board again found that Galperti-USA failed to prove significant—rather than inconsequential—uses of GALPERTI between the years 2002 – 2007 so as to make Galperti-Italy’s representations of “substantially exclusive use” false. Galperti-USA filed its second appeal.

In this appeal, Galperti-USA challenged the Board’s conclusions that (1) Galperti-USA had to show that it acquired secondary meaning in its own GALPERTI trademark during the relevant time period, and (2) Galperti-USA could not undercut Galperti-Italy’s claims of substantially exclusive use with evidence of use by third parties with no privity to Galperti-USA. The Federal Circuit determined that both of the Board’s premises for its fraud analysis were incorrect as a matter of law, and it was therefore unclear whether the Board’s determination was affected by these errors. Taking a closer look at the Board’s conclusions, the Court found that [...]

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US Lawyers Aiding Scam Trademark Applications May Face Sanctions

As reported by the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) this past summer, since mid-2020 trademark applications from US and foreign applicants have “surged to unprecedented levels.” In December 2020 alone, the PTO received 92,608 trademark applications, an increase of 172% over December 2019. Not only has this extraordinary volume of applications created a backlog and delay in the procedural review of new US trademark application filings, but the PTO is experiencing a notable increase in what it calls “suspicious submissions ranging from inaccurate to fraudulent.”

These illegitimate trademark filings harm the quality and integrity of the trademark register and have significant legal and financial impact on legitimate brand owners whose applications may be blocked by fraudulent filings for marks that are identical or similar to their real brands. Faced with a legal obligation to defend and enforce their trademarks, legitimate brand owners are forced to dispute such illegitimate filings with letters of protest, by filing oppositions or cancellation actions in the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board, and even by taking action in the federal courts. Such enforcement and defensive actions can clog up these forums and force brand owners to take on costs that would not otherwise be necessary, and which may distract from, or reduce the budget for, real trademark disputes.

The PTO outlined various strategies and tools to review, assess, challenge and combat suspicious and fraudulent filings, including aspects of the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020. In 2019, the PTO also implemented a rule requiring any overseas trademark applicant to file with a US lawyer. The requirement for a US lawyer appears to have resulted in many foreign applicants (primarily from China) making up fake names, addresses and bar credentials for the US lawyers named in their applications. Not all named US lawyers are fake, however, as the PTO’s investigations into certain lawyers lodging a high volume of trademark filings for Chinese-based applicants have revealed that some US-based lawyers may be taking on clients from China without conducting proper diligence as to the veracity of the client’s trademark application information. For example, the PTO’s investigation of some potentially illegitimate filings from applicants in China reveal doctored or disingenuous specimens of use, including e-commerce listings for products that may not actually exist or are no longer “in stock” (and likely never were “in stock”).

In September 2021, the PTO’s investigations into US lawyers with a high volume of filings for Chinese applicants resulted in two sanctions orders. The first was issued against a lawyer found to have filed thousands of applications for overseas parties deemed fraudulent by operating as a US-based agent for a centralized “filing gateway” platform located in India. The sanction order includes a 12-month probationary period and required ethics and trademarks classes. The second sanction against a US-based lawyer specifically noted that the lawyer did not do enough to properly review the applications that they signed on behalf of an applicant based in China. It has [...]

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Texas Hammer Nails Trademark Infringement Appeal

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of an initial confusion trademark complaint, finding that the plaintiff alleged a plausible claim of trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. Adler v. McNeil Consultants, LLC, Case No. 20-10936 (6th Cir. Aug. 10, 2021) (Southwick, J.)

Jim Adler is a personal injury lawyer who trademarked and used several terms, including JIM ADLER, THE HAMMER and TEXAS HAMMER, to market his business, including via keyword advertisements. McNeil Consultants, a personal injury lawyer referral service, purchased keyword ads using Adler’s trademarked terms, which allowed McNeil’s advertisements to appear at the top of any Google search of Adler’s trademarked terms. McNeil’s advertisements used generic personal injury terms, did not identify any particular law firm and clicking on the ads placed a phone call to McNeil’s call center rather than directing the user to a website. The call center used a generic greeting so consumers did not realize with whom they were speaking.

Adler filed suit against McNeil, asserting Texas state law claims as well as trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. McNeil moved to dismiss, arguing that its keyword ads did not create a likelihood of confusion. The district court agreed and dismissed Adler’s complaint. Adler appealed.

To successfully plead a trademark infringement claim under Fifth Circuit law, the holder of a protectable trademark must establish that the alleged infringing use “creates a likelihood of confusion as to source, affiliation, or sponsorship.” To determine whether a likelihood of confusion exists, the Court weighs a non-exhaustive list of several confusion factors, including the similarity of the marks, the similarity of the products, the defendant’s intent and the care exercised by potential consumers.

The Fifth Circuit explained that Adler alleged initial interest confusion, which exists where the confusion creates consumer interest in the infringing party’s services even where no sale is completed because of the confusion. The Court noted that this case presented the first opportunity for the Fifth Circuit to consider initial interest confusion as it pertains to search engine keyword advertising. Relying on Ninth Circuit precedent and parallel reasoning to its own opinions on initial interest confusion in the context of metatag usage, the Court concluded that Adler’s complaint alleged a plausible claim of trademark infringement under the Lanham Act.

The Fifth Circuit noted that initial interest confusion alone is not enough to raise a Lanham Act claim. The Court explained that if a consumer searches TOYOTA and is directed to search results containing a purchased ad clearly labeled as selling VOLKSWAGEN products, a consumer who clicks on the VOLKSWAGEN ad has been distracted, not confused or misled into purchasing the wrong product. Distraction does not violate the Lanham Act. However, the Court explained that where the use of keyword ads creates confusion as to the source of the advertisement—not mere distraction—an infringement may have occurred. Because McNeil’s advertisements were admittedly generic and could have been associated with any personal injury law firm, the Court found that the keyword [...]

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Pardon My French: France Wins Trademark Dispute Using Sovereign Immunity

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a district’s court denial of sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA) and remanded the case to be dismissed with prejudice, holding that France was immune from a trademark infringement claim in the United States brought by the former owner of the domain name France.com. France.com, Inc. v. The French Republic, Case No. 20-1016 (4th Cir. Mar. 25, 2021) (Motz, J.)

Jean-Noel Frydman and his company France.com, Inc. (collectively, Frydman) purchased and registered the domain name France.com and trademarked the name in the United States and in the European Union. In 2015, the Republic of France (RoF) intervened in an ongoing lawsuit between Frydman and a third party, asserting the exclusive right to the use of the term “France” commercially. The RoF also insisted that the use of “France” by a private enterprise infringed on its sovereignty. The Paris District Court agreed and ordered the transfer of the domain name to the RoF.

Frydman filed suit for trademark infringement, expropriation, cybersquatting and reverse domain name hijacking, and federal unfair competition in a Virginia district court against the RoF. The RoF moved to dismiss the claim based on the FSIA. The district court denied the motion, stating that the FSIA immunity defense would be best raised after discovery. The RoF appealed.

The Fourth Circuit first determined, based on Supreme Court precedent, that sovereign immunity was a threshold question to be addressed “as near to the outset of the case as is reasonably possible” and not to be postponed until after discovery.

The Court next considered whether the RoF was immune to suit. The FSIA provides a presumption of immunity for foreign states that can only be overcome if the complaint provides enough information to satisfy one of the specified exceptions. Frydman argued that the commercial activity and expropriation exceptions applied.

The commercial activity exception removes immunity where a foreign state has commercial activity in, or that has a direct effect in, the United States. Essentially, a court must determine whether the actions of the foreign state are those of a sovereign or those of a private party engaged in commerce. The Fourth Circuit first identified that the actual cause of the injury at issue to Frydman was the French court’s ruling that the domain name belonged to the RoF, and found that all claims of wrongdoing by the RoF flowed form the French court’s decision. Additionally, even if it was solely the transfer of the domain name that harmed Frydman, and not the French court’s judgment, the transfer was still based on the French court’s judgment that provided the basis for RoF to obtain the domain name. Because the cause of action was based on the powers of a sovereign nation (the foreign judgment) and not the actions of a private citizen in commerce, the Fourth Circuit found that the commercial activity exception did not apply.

The Fourth Circuit next rejected Frydman’s assertion of the expropriation exception. This exception [...]

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Triple Trouble: Unauthorized Trademark Use among Organizations with Nearly Identical Name

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed a district court ruling that the use of nearly identical marks by a military order, a related foundation and a funding organization was likely to cause confusion. Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation, Inc. v. Military Order of the Purple Heart of the United States of America, Inc., Case No. 19-7167 (DC Cir. Mar. 16, 2021) (non-precedential).

This case involved a dispute among three entities: the Military Order of the Purple Heart of the United States of America, Inc. (Order); the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation, Inc. (Foundation); and the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation Holdings, LLC (Holdings). The Order provides charitable services to veterans, and the Foundation funds the Order’s operations. Holdings is owned by the Foundation and licensed the Order to use Holdings’ “Purple Heart” word mark in connection with charitable fundraising for specific approved projects. The funding agreement between the parties was made in 2016, and the use of the trademark was agreed to in 2017. Following a warning from the Foundation in 2018 that the Order’s funding might be reduced for 2019 because of financial problems, the Order began fundraising on its own, at times purposely diverting funds away from the Foundation while using the “Purple Heart” mark without Holdings’ permission.

The Foundation and Holdings sued the Order for breach of the 2016 funding agreement, breach of the 2017 licensing agreement, and trademark infringement. The Order filed its own suit for breach of the funding agreement. The cases were consolidated and the district court ruled that the Order’s use of the mark without permission violated the licensing agreement and two provisions of the Lanham Act. The Order appealed.

The DC Circuit agreed that the Order’s use of Holdings’ mark was in plain violation of the parties’ 2017 agreement. The agreement stated that the Order could use the mark “only in connection with charitable fundraising for specific projects that are approved by [Holdings] and are consistent with [the Order’s] mission statement.” Thus, the Order’s fundraising advertisements using the mark without permission were inconsistent with the agreement.

The DC Circuit also found that the Order’s use of the “Purple Heart” mark was likely to cause confusion. Not only are the names of these entities nearly identical, but the Order’s national commander admitted at trial that the public frequently confuses the Order and the Foundation. Citing its 1982 Foxtrap precedent, the Court concluded that consumer confusion is likely where the marks in issue are identical and the record contains evidence that the businesses are sufficiently related so as to be connected in the mind of the relevant public.




The Naked Truth About Trademark Cancellation: Only Harm, No Proprietary Interest Required

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that a contracting party that contractually abandoned any proprietary interest in a mark may still bring a cancellation action if it can “demonstrate a real interest in the proceeding and a reasonable belief of damage.” Australian Therapeutic Supplies Pty. Ltd. v. Naked TM, LLC, Case No. 19-1567 (Fed. Cir. July 24, 2020) (Reyna, J.) (Wallach, J., dissenting).

Australian sold condoms with the marks NAKED and NAKED CONDOMS, first in Australia in early 2000, then in the United States in 2003. Two years later, Australian learned that Naked TM’s predecessor had registered a trademark NAKED for condoms in September 2003. Australian and Naked TM communicated by email regarding use of the mark for a few years. Naked TM contended that the parties reached an agreement; Australian disagreed and said no final terms were agreed upon. Australian filed a petition to cancel the NAKED trademark registration. Ultimately, and after trial, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) concluded that Australian lacked standing because it had reached an informal agreement that Naked TM reasonably believed was an abandonment of any right to contest Naked TM’s registration of NAKED. Thus, the TTAB found that Australian lacked a real interest in the proceeding because it lacked a proprietary interest in the challenged mark. Australian appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed. First, the Court clarified that the proper inquiry was a matter of proving an element of the cause of action under 15 USC § 1064 rather than standing. The Court explained that, contrary to the TTAB’s conclusion, “[n]either § 1064 nor [its] precedent requires that a petitioner have a proprietary right in its own mark in order to demonstrate a cause of action before the Board.” Assuming without deciding that the TTAB correctly determined that Australian had contracted away its rights, the Court found that fact irrelevant. Ultimately, even though an agreement might be a bar to showing actual damages, a petitioner need only show a belief that it has been harmed to bring a petition under § 1064.

The Federal Circuit found that Australian had a reasonable belief in its own damage and a real interest in the proceedings based on a history of two prior applications to register the mark, both of which the US Patent and Trademark Office rejected on the basis that they would have created confusion with Naked TM’s mark. The Court rejected Naked TM’s argument that Australian’s abandonment of those applications demonstrated there was no harm, instead concluding that Australian’s abandonment of its applications did not create an abandonment of its rights in the unregistered mark. Moreover, as a prophylactic rationale, the Court explained that Australian’s sales of products that might be found to have infringed the challenged registration also create a real interest and reasonable belief in harm.

Judge Wallach dissented. Although he agreed that the TTAB erred by imposing a proprietary-interest requirement to bring suit under § 1064, he disagreed that Australian properly demonstrated an alternative, legitimate interest—i.e., a belief [...]

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Trademark Claim for Profit Damages Means No Jury Trial

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a denial of a jury trial demand in a trademark infringement lawsuit where only a claim of disgorgement of profits was at issue. JL Beverage Company, LLC v. Jim Beam Brands Co., Beam Inc., Case No. 18-16597 (9th Cir. May 27, 2020) (Wallace, J.) (Friedland, J., concurring).

JL sued Jim Beam for trademark infringement. JL manufactured and sold vodka in bottles featuring stylized depictions of lips. Jim Beam also sells vodka in bottles featuring stylized depictions of lips. JL alleged that consumers would confuse its “Johnny Love Vodka” lip mark with Jim Beam’s Pucker line of flavored vodka products.

After JL failed to provide a computation of actual damages during discovery, Jim Beam sought to limit the damages JL could seek at trial. The district court found that JL’s failure prevented Jim Beam from preparing a responsive case and granted Jim Beam’s motion to exclude JL’s claims for actual damages. Jim Beam further argued that JL may not recover a royalty because 1) it is not appropriate in situations, like this one, where the parties did not have a previous royalty agreement and 2) as with actual damages, JL never identified a means of calculating a reasonable royalty or produced evidence upon which a fact finder could determine such a royalty. Again, the court agreed, and limited JL’s damage claims to equitable disgorgement of Jim Beam’s profits, as provided under the Lanham Act.

Without claims for actual damages or royalties, Jim Beam moved to strike JL’s demand for a jury trial. Since the Lanham Act does not afford the right to a jury trial, the district court considered whether the Seventh Amendment affords such a right in a trademark dispute. The Seventh Amendment provides that “[i]n Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.” The district court found controlling law in Ninth Circuit precedent Fifty-Six Hope Road Music, which held that that the Seventh Amendment does not afford the right to a jury calculation of profits for two reasons: disgorgement is an equitable remedy, and the specific issue of profit determination cannot be said to be traditionally tried by a jury. The district court denied JL’s demand for a jury trial, held a two-day bench trial and ultimately determined that Jim Beam did not infringe JL’s marks. JL appealed the district court’s order granting Jim Beam’s motion to strike its jury trial demand and the district court’s judgment.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order and judgment, finding no error in the court’s likelihood of confusion analysis on any of the factors, nor in its denial of the jury trial.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Friedland wrote separately to address the tension between the Court’s holdings in Fifty-Six Hope Road Music (a trademark case) and Sid & Marty Krofft (a copyright case). In Krofft, the Ninth Circuit found a right to a jury trial in a copyright case where there was only a claim [...]

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Don’t SULKA: Trademark Plaintiff Must Demonstrate Intent, Ability to Use Mark

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a complaint seeking a declaration of trademark abandonment, finding that the plaintiff (the co-owner of an online business that sells to customers in India and Thailand) was unable to demonstrate a case or controversy absent evidence that he was prepared to immediately bring his goods to market in the United States. Abdul Rehman Karim Saleh v. Sulka Trading Ltd., et al., Case No. 19-2461 (2d Cir. Apr. 30, 2020) (per curiam).

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