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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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Supreme Court: Profit Disgorgement Available Remedy for Trademark Infringement, Willful or Not

Resolving a split among the circuits regarding whether proof of willfulness is necessary for an award of a trademark infringer’s profits, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous decision holding that the plain language of the Lanham Act has never required a showing of willful infringement in order to obtain a profits award in a suit for trademark infringement under §1125(a). Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc., et al. Case No. 18-1233 (Supr. Ct. Apr. 23, 2020) (Gorsuch, Justice) (Alito, Justice, concurring) (Sotomayor, Justice, concurring).

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PTO’s Financial Benefits from IPR Don’t Render PTAB Unconstitutional

A split panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that the structure and functions of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) survived yet another constitutional challenge, this time based on the PTAB’s fee and compensation structure, lack of director review over the institution decision and applicability of the Takings Clause. Mobility WorkX, LLC v. Unified Patents LLC, Case No. 20-1441 (Fed. Cir.) (Dyk, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

With the dust barely settled after the Supreme Court’s ruling in US v. Arthrex, Inc. that the PTAB’s rendering of final written decisions without director review violated the Appointments Clause, this case presented a whole new slate of potential deficiencies with the PTAB. Although none of these deficiencies were initially raised with the PTAB, the Court exercised its discretion to nonetheless consider the challenges based on publicly available records that it could judicially notice.

The first challenge, already made in many other cases, was that the Federal Circuit remand for the director to consider a rehearing petition in view of Arthrex. This remedy, already afforded in other post-Arthrex challenges, was a simple grant. Yet, here, Mobility asked for something more, arguing that because the director did not resolve the inter partes review (IPR) within the 12-month statutory period, the director must confirm the claims or dismiss the IPR. The Court declined to rule on this issue, instructing Mobility to raise the issue on remand.

The issue receiving the most attention by the Federal Circuit was Mobility’s claims that the PTAB’s fee structure and bonus payments to administrative patent judges (APJs) based on their workload violated the Due Process Clause. According to Mobility, the APJs have a financial incentive to institute IPRs (i.e., significant fees), which provide a significant benefit to the agency. But the Court concluded that the APJs (even the leadership APJs) have only an attenuated role in budget control and thus have an insignificant interest in the financial health of the US Patent & Trademark Office as a whole. Because Congress holds the purse strings and the more significant budget responsibilities fall on the director and the president, the majority held that little connection existed between institution decisions and the agency’s overall financial health, which was consistent with the Court’s own precedent regarding reexaminations and other circuits’ precedents regarding executive agency fee collection. This attenuated connection differentiated the PTAB’s collected fees from Supreme Court cases that found due process violations based on the structure of certain executive courts presided over by a mayor who also held concomitant budget responsibilities.

Similarly, the Federal Circuit held that the APJs’ incentive to render a certain number of decisions—i.e., APJs receive bonus payments if they earn at least 84 decisional units, and the number of decisions is part of performance evaluation—did not provide an unconstitutional incentive to institute. The majority reasoned that ample alternative means existed for the APJs to earn their bonuses, namely, the ability to volunteer for non-America Invents Act (AIA) decisions (such as [...]

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Party May Not Veil EU Individual’s Information under GDPR at the TTAB

In a rare precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (TTAB, Board) ruled that the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) does not apply in Board proceedings. Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Inc. v. Intercontinental Exchange Holdings, Inc., Opposition Nos. 91235909; 91254514 (T.T.A.B. Sept. 27, 2021) (Faint, Interlocutory Attorney).

This was a consolidated proceeding between Chicago Mercantile Exchange and New York Mercantile Exchange (collectively, CME) and Intercontinental Exchange Holdings (ICE) and brought before the TTAB. CME sought to amend the Board’s standard protective order (SPO) to allow in-house access to information and materials designated by ICE as “Confidential – Attorney’s Eyes Only” and asked the TTAB to find that the EU GDPR does not apply in the proceedings.

The Board’s SPO is automatically imposed in all inter partes proceedings. In order for the Board to disturb their SPO, CME needed to show that protection of ICE’s trade secrets will impair CME’s prosecution of its claims. ICE asserted that CME failed to show good cause for modification of the SPO and the Board agreed. As an initial matter, CME failed to provide information sufficient for the Board to determine in-house counsel’s responsibilities, including whether those responsibilities included competitive decision-making such that disclosure to in-house counsel would competitively harm ICE. Secondly, CME failed to clearly demonstrate that there was a need for access to the highly sensitive competitive information to adequately prepare its case. Accordingly, the Board denied CME’s motion to amend the protective order.

CME next raised the issue of whether ICE may redact names, email addresses and other information from documents and electronically stored information (ESI) originating in the European Union prior to its production on the basis that the GDPR requires such redaction. CME argued that because ICE waited more than 18 months to assert this objection, the objection is waived, that CME will be severely prejudiced if ICE’s objection stands and that the GDPR does not apply in inter partes Board proceedings.

For background, the GDPR is an EU regulation made effective May 25, 2018, in order to protect the privacy and security of EU citizens’ personal data by limiting the transfer of such information among member states of the European Union, as well as between the European Union and other countries, including the United States. The broad definition given to “personal data” in the GDPR encompasses “any information relating to an identified or identifiable person.” However, this class of information (an individual’s name, position, job title and email address) is generally required to be produced in discovery pursuant to the Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 26(b)(1).

In this precedential decision, the Board, citing the 1987 Supreme Court case Societe Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale v. U.S. Dist. Court, established that a foreign country’s law precluding disclosure of evidence in US courts and tribunals will generally not deprive those courts and tribunals of “the power to order a party subject to its jurisdiction to produce evidence even though the act of production may violate that statute.”. Additionally, the GDPR does not per [...]

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Federal Circuit Lacks Appellate Jurisdiction over Standalone Walker Process Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ordered the transfer of a case asserting standalone Walker Process antitrust claims involving an unenforceable patent to the regional circuit, in this case the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Chandler v. Phoenix Services LLC, Case No. 20-1848 (Fed Cir. June 10, 2021) (Hughes, J.) The case originated in the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, over which the Fifth Circuit has appellate jurisdiction. The decision to transfer was based on a subject matter jurisdiction analysis for Walker Process claims. The Federal Circuit reiterated that its precedent does not mandate exclusive Federal Circuit jurisdiction over all Walker Process cases.

In 2006, Phoenix Services and Mark Fisher (collectively, Phoenix) acquired a company called Heat On-The-Fly and its patent to protect a purported proprietary fracking process. Heat-On-The-Fly, and later Phoenix, sought to enforce the patent against numerous parties. During the patent application process, however, Heat On-The-Fly had failed to disclose numerous public uses of the fracking process prior to the application filing. In 2018, in an unrelated case, Energy Heating, LLC v. Heat On-The-Fly, the Federal Circuit, held that “failure to disclose prior uses of the fracking process rendered the . . . patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.” The plaintiffs in the case at hand, Ronald Chandler, Chandler MFG., Newco Enterprises and Supertherm Heating Services (collectively, Chandler), alleged that Phoenix’s continued enforcement of the patent violated Walker Process pursuant to § 2 of the Sherman Act.

Walker Process monopolization claims originate from a 1965 Supreme Court decision that recognized an antitrust cause of action under the Sherman and Clayton Acts when a party fraudulently obtains a patent for the purpose of attempted monopolization. Walker Process Equipment, Inc. v. Food Machinery & Chemical Corp. To succeed on a Walker Process claim, a plaintiff must satisfy two elements:

  • The plaintiff must show that the defendant obtained the patent through knowing and willful fraud on the US Patent & Trademark Office and enforced that patent with knowledge of its fraudulent procurement.
  • The plaintiff must be able to satisfy all other elements for a Sherman Act monopolization claim.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(1), the Federal Circuit retains jurisdiction over any civil case arising under any act of Congress relating to patents. In this instance, the Federal Circuit stated that Walker Process antitrust claims may relate to patents “in the colloquial use of the term,” but under 1988 Supreme Court precedent, Christianson v. Colt Indus., the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction only extends to cases where the cause of action is created under federal patent law, or where the plaintiff’s right to relief “necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal patent law.”

Here, the Federal Circuit relied on its own 2018 precedent where it analyzed subject matter jurisdiction for Walker Process claims. Xitronix Corp v. KLA-Tencor Corp. (Xitronix I). Xitronix I involved alleged fraud by the defendants to obtain a patent. The Court acknowledged [...]

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