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Injunctive Relief Available Even Where Laches Bars Trademark Infringement, Unfair Competition Damage Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed a district court’s conclusion that laches barred an advertising and marketing company’s claims for monetary damages for trademark infringement and unfair competition, but remanded the case for assessment of injunctive relief to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between two similarly named companies operating in the advertising sector. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, Inc. v. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, LLC, Case No. 19-15167 (11th Cir. Aug. 2, 2021) (Branch, J.)

Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Illinois) is an Illinois-based company and owner of two registered trademarks including the name “Pinnacle.” Pinnacle Illinois learned of a Florida-based company operating under almost the same name that was also in the advertising and marketing space—Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Florida) —through potential clients and a magazine’s accidental conflation of the two unrelated companies. Several years later, Pinnacle Illinois sued Pinnacle Florida for trademark infringement, unfair competition and cybersquatting. Pinnacle Florida filed a counterclaim seeking to cancel Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark registrations and also alleged that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches.

Following a jury trial, the district court granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on Pinnacle Illinois’s cybersquatting claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Pinnacle Illinois on its claims for trademark infringement and unfair competition, awarding Pinnacle Illinois $550,000 in damages. The district court then granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on its laches defense, concluding that Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark infringement and unfair competition claims were barred by laches because it waited more than four years to bring suit after it should have known that it had a potential infringement claim against Pinnacle Florida. The district court also cancelled Pinnacle Illinois’s registrations because it concluded that Pinnacle Illinois’s marks were merely descriptive and lacked secondary meaning. Pinnacle Illinois appealed.

Pinnacle Illinois argued that the district court abused its discretion in finding that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by laches, and that even if laches did bar Pinnacle Illinois’s claims for money damages, the district court should have considered whether injunctive relief was proper to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between the two companies. Pinnacle Illinois also argued that the district court erred when it cancelled its registrations without regard to the jury’s findings of distinctiveness and protectability or the presumption of distinctiveness afforded to its registered marks.

The 11th Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that laches barred Pinnacle Illinois from bringing its trademark infringement and unfair competition claims for monetary damages. Pinnacle Illinois sued after the Florida four-year statute of limitations had passed, and the Court found that the company was not excused for its delay because it did not communicate with Pinnacle Florida about the infringement until it filed suit. Pinnacle Florida also suffered economic prejudice because it invested significant time and money, including around $2 million, in developing its business under [...]

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Third Circuit Orders Second Look at Delays and Disgorgement of Profits

In a long-running trademark dispute between two charitable organizations, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the appellee did not preserve its challenge to the district court’s denial of summary judgment on its trademark cancelation claims, the appellant waived any challenge to the validity of the defendant’s mark and the district court did not abuse its discretion by declining to award enhanced monetary relief or prejudgment interest. Kars 4 Kids Inc. v America Can!, Case Nos. 20-2813; -2900 (3rd Cir., August 10, 2021) (Shwartz, J.) The Court also vacated-in-part and remanded for the district court to reexamine its laches and disgorgement conclusions under applicable law.

As charitable organizations that sell donated vehicles to fund children’s programs, both America Can (as CARS FOR KIDS) and Kars 4 Kids have used similar trademarks since their respective starts in the early- to mid-1990s. In 2003 and 2013, America Can sent cease and desist letters to Kars 4 Kids after seeing its advertisements in the state of Texas. In 2014, Kars 4 Kids sued America Can for federal and state trademark infringement, unfair competition and trademark dilution claims. Less than one year later, America Can filed its own suit—alleging the same claims—plus a petition to cancel a Kars 4 Kids trademark registration and seeking a nationwide injunction and financial compensation.

Both parties appeal from a denial of their respective summary judgment motions as well as (1) the jury finding that Kars 4 Kids willfully infringed America Can’s trademark rights in Texas, (2) the rejection of America Can’s petition for cancellation of a KARS FOR KIDS trademark registration finding that the registration was not knowingly procured by fraudulent means, (3) the conclusion that laches did not apply against America Can’s claims, (4) disgorgement of Kars 4 Kids profits in Texas totaling about $10.6 million, (5) rejection of enhanced monetary relief and (6) an injunction against Kars 4 Kids with respect to use of its trademark in Texas and from using the carsforkids.com domain name. On appeal, Kars 4 Kids also renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, including an argument that America Can’s trademark is invalid.

The Third Circuit rejected Kars 4 Kids’ effort to overturn the jury’s liability verdict, concluding that Kars 4 Kids failed to preserve its challenge to the validity of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark when it left that issue out of its Rule 50(a) motion. Instead, evidence of America Can’s continuous use of the CARS FOR KIDS mark well prior to 2003 predated Kars 4 Kids’ first use of its trademark in Texas in 2003 and established America Can’s ownership of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark in Texas.

However, after examining the laches claim, the Third Circuit explained that it considered (1) the plaintiff’s inexcusable delay in bringing suit and (2) prejudice to the defendant as a result of the delay. With no statute of limitations under the Lanham Act, the parties agreed that their claims are properly analogized to New Jersey’s six-year [...]

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What You Say Can and Will be Used Against You – Prosecution History and Prior Infringement Arguments

Noting patent owner’s prior litigation statements, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a district court ruling that a clear and unmistakable disclaimer in the prosecution history affected claim construction of an asserted patent. SpeedTrack, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., Case No. 20-1573 (Fed. Cir. June 3, 2021) (Prost, J.)

In 2009, SpeedTrack filed suit against various online retailers alleging infringement of its patent directed to a method for accessing files in a filing system leveraging “category descriptions” to aid in organizing the files. The patent describes associating category descriptions with files using a “file information directory.” A “search filter” then searches the files using their associated category descriptions. A limitation that “the category descriptions hav[e] no predefined hierarchical relationship with such list or each other” was added during prosecution to overcome a prior art reference that leveraged hierarchical field-and-value relationships.

The district court initially adopted a proposed claim construction that lacked any reference to a field-and-value relationship, noting that the construction “account[ed] for the disclaimers made during prosecution.” Following a motion by SpeedTrack, the court concluded there was still a fundamental dispute about the scope of the claim term. After further analyzing SpeedTrack’s prosecution history, the court concluded that the history “demonstrate[d] clear and unambiguous disavowal of category descriptions based on hierarchical field-and-value systems” and issued a second claim construction order explicitly disclaiming “predefined hierarchical field-and-value relationships” from the scope of “category descriptions.” SpeedTrack subsequently stipulated to noninfringement under the second claim construction and appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit stressed that prosecution-history disclaimer can arise from both claim amendments and arguments. Here, the prosecution history showed that the applicants “repeatedly highlighted predefined hierarchical field-and-value relationships” as a difference between the prior art and the patent claims in no uncertain terms. That SpeedTrack distinguished the prior art on other grounds did not moot its disclaimer statements.

The Federal Circuit also noted that SpeedTrack argued in litigation against another defendant that the purpose of the amendment was to distinguish the category descriptions from attributes that “have a ‘hierarchical’ relationship between fields and their values.” While the Court agreed with SpeedTrack that such litigation statements were not a disclaimer on their own (since they were not the inventors’ prosecution statements), these litigation statements further supported not accepting SpeedTrack’s arguments. The Court reminded SpeedTrack that it has cautioned (in Aylus and Southwall) that “the doctrine of prosecution disclaimer ensures that claims are not ‘construed one way in order to obtain their allowance and in a different way against accused infringers.’”

After assessing SpeedTrack’s prior statements, the Federal Circuit considered whether the disclaimer was clear and unmistakable. The Court concluded it was. In rejecting SpeedTrack’s argument that prior decisions not expressly finding disclaimer supported that prosecution statements were not clear and unambiguous, the Court noted the construction had not been fully considered in those judgments. Similarly, the Court rejected the notion that the district court’s issuance of a second claim construction order showed there was no clear and [...]

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Patent Extension Requires Board or Court Reversal, Multiple Examiner Actions Not Enough

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment for the Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), holding that the statutory language authorizing so-called “C-delay” patent term adjustment requires an adverse patentability finding that is reversed by a court or the Patent Trial & Appeal Board. Chudik v. Hirshfeld, Case No. 20-1833 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 8, 2021) (Taranto, J.) C-delay adds to a patent’s term to account for delay experienced during appellate review of an adverse patentability finding. C-delay does not apply when the examiner reopens examination after final rejection (in this case, four times over an 11-year period) because appellate review is not triggered when an examiner, and not the Board or a court, undoes a final unpatentability decision by reopening examination.

Chudik filed a patent application, and the examiner rejected all pending claims as unpatentable. Chudik declined to appeal, instead filing a request for continued examination. Over the next eight years, the examiner issued four more final rejections. After each rejection, Chudik filed a notice of appeal and opening brief, and after each notice of appeal, the examiner reopened prosecution rather than answering the appeal. The patent finally issued more than 11 years after Chudik filed the application. The PTO added time to the term of the patent for A-delay (where the PTO fails to meet certain prescribed deadlines) and B-delay (each day that the patent application’s pendency extends beyond three years), but not C-delay.

The C-delay provision of the Patent Act provides for a patent term adjustment where the delay is due to “appellate review by the [Board] or by a Federal Court in a case in which the patent was issued under a decision in the review reversing an adverse determination of patentability.” Chudik challenged the PTO’s calculation of the patent extension, arguing that he was entitled to C-delay patent term adjustment for the time his four notices of appeal were pending in the PTO. Chudik argued that the C-delay provision’s “appellate review” included the examiner’s decision to undo her final action through a reopening of prosecution. The PTO rejected that argument, concluding that the C-delay provision did not apply because the Board’s jurisdiction over the appeals never attached and no Board or reviewing court reversed an adverse determination of patentability.

Chudik then sued the PTO director in federal district court, again arguing that “appellate review” referred to the Board’s entire review process, starting when the notice of appeal is filed. Chudik also argued that “a decision in the review reversing an adverse determination of patentability” covered an examiner’s own decision, through a reopening of prosecution. Although characterizing it as “based on a reasonable construction of statutory text,” the court rejected Chudik’s challenge. Applying Chevron, the district court held that the PTO’s position must be affirmed because that position was reasonable. Chudik appealed to the Federal Circuit.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, finding that the PTO’s interpretation of the C-delay provision’s statutory language was [...]

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Fairness Is the Limit for Asserting False Advertising Claims

Addressing whether Lanham Act claims for false advertising or false association under § 43(a) (15 USC § 1125(a)) are subject to a statute of limitations, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that the sole time limit on bringing such claims is the equitable doctrine of laches. Belmora LLC v. Bayer Consumer Care AG, Case No. 18-2183 (4th Cir. Feb. 2, 2021) (Floyd, J.)

The facts of the underlying dispute are straightforward. Bayer has sold the pain reliever naproxen as FLANAX in Mexico since 1972 and in the United States as ALEVE. Belmora began selling naproxen under the name FLANAX in the United States in 2004, where it used similar packaging and described the drug as one sold successfully in Mexico. Both companies tried to register the mark with the US Patent & Trademark Office, where proceedings unfolded. Ultimately, in April 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board cancelled Belmora’s trademark registration, finding that Belmora had blatantly misused FLANAX by drawing on the popularity of Bayer’s Mexican product. Two months later, Bayer brought claims against Belmora under § 43(a) of the Lanham Act and California unfair competition law in the US District Court for the Central District of California. The suit was transferred to the Eastern District of Virginia, where Belmora moved to dismiss, arguing that § 43(a) and state law claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Bayer replied that § 43(a) had no statute of limitations, and that the time to bring the state law claims had been tolled during the Board’s proceedings. The district court granted both of Belmora’s motions, and the appeal followed.

Because there is no express statute of limitations for a § 43(a) claim, the question before the Court was whether to assume that Congress intended that the most analogous state law statute of limitations apply, or to apply either the most analogous federal statute or common law laches doctrine. “Conclud[ing] that § 43(a) is one such federal law for which a state statute of limitations would be an unsatisfactory vehicle for enforcement,” the Court held that laches was more appropriate, for primarily two reasons. First, the statutory text provides that § 43(a) damages are subject to the principles of equity, which would include the doctrine of laches. Second, the Court found persuasive the law of the Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuits, which each apply laches as to restrict the timeliness of as § 43(a) action. That said, the Court emphasized that on remand, the district court should consider the period for bringing a similar state action as part of the laches analysis, especially because the Fourth Circuit employs a presumption that claims brought after the expiration of the most-analogous statute-of-limitations are barred by laches.

The Court noted that Bayer could overcome a presumption of laches, and cited three factors for the district court to consider:

  • Bayer’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of Belmora’s adverse use
  • Whether Bayer’s delay was inexcusable or unreasonable
  • Whether Belmora had been unduly prejudiced by [...]

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No Appellate Jurisdiction to Review Post-Verdict Appeal of Previously Denied SJ Motion

In a closely watched trademark/counterfeiting case, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment for contributory infringement, award of permanent injunction and monetary damage award against a commercial landlord found to have been willfully blind to trademark infringement and counterfeiting occurring on its leased property. Omega SA v. 375 Canal, LLC, Case No. 19-969 (2d Cir. Jan. 6, 2021) (Menashi, J.) (Lohier, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part). The Court also concluded that it could not consider a post-verdict appeal on a legal issue raised in a denied summary judgment motion (i.e., whether the landlord needed to know of a specific vendor involved in the counterfeiting) when the appellant failed to file a timely notice of appeal and did not seek an interlocutory appeal or file a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue.

375 Canal LLC is a commercial landlord with properties in Manhattan, including 375 Canal Street. Omega SA is a watch company. Omega sued Canal for contributory trademark infringement, alleging that Canal had continued to lease space at 375 Canal Street to vendors despite knowing that the vendors were selling counterfeit Omega goods. After discovery, Canal moved for summary judgment, contending that Omega did not identify a specific vendor to which Canal continued to lease property despite knowing or having reason to know that the specific vendor was selling counterfeit goods. Omega argued that its primary theory of willful blindness did not require identification of a specific vendor. The district court denied Canal’s motion, agreeing that Omega was not required to identify a specific vendor.

The jury found that Canal had contributorily and willfully infringed Omega’s trademarks, and awarded $1.1 million in statutory damages. The district court amended the final judgment to include a permanent injunction prohibiting Canal from infringing and taking other actions with respect to Omega’s marks, even outside of 375 Canal Street. Canal appealed, arguing that the district court erred by not requiring Omega to identify a specific vendor that Canal knew or should have known was infringing Omega’s trademarks. Canal raised this argument by appealing the pre-trial order denying Canal’s motion for summary judgment and the jury instructions.

The Second Circuit dismissed Canal’s appeal of the summary judgment denial and affirmed the jury instructions on the merits. On Canal’s challenge to the summary judgment denial, the Court began with the premise that a party generally cannot appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits because of its interlocutory character, which is not within appellate jurisdiction. The denial of Canal’s summary judgment motion did not qualify for an exception allowing review, such as situations where Congress has provided for review of certain interlocutory decisions, or where the Supreme Court has construed certain denials of summary judgment, such as those on the basis of qualified immunity, as final decisions permitting review. But even if it had qualified, Canal would have been required to file a notice of appeal within [...]

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Logic to Modify: Even Deceptive Intent Does Not Bar Inventorship Correction

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court invalidity determination finding that judicial estoppel prevented a patent owner from relisting an inventor previously removed for strategic litigation purposes. Egenera, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., Case Nos. 19-2015, -2387 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 28, 2020) (Prost, C.J.).

Egenera sued Cisco for infringement of a patent directed to a reconfigurable virtual network that included a “logic to modify” and transmit received messages. In response Cisco petitioned for inter partes review (IPR). During the IPR’s pendency, Egenera realized that all claim limitations were conceived of before inventor Schulter began working at the company, and petitioned the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to remove Schulter as a listed inventor. The Patent and Trial Appeal Board (PTAB) declined to institute Cisco’s IPR, and the PTO granted Egenera’s petition to remove Schulter shortly thereafter.

During the litigation, the district court construed the patent claims’ “logic” terms as means-plus-function elements and concluded that the “logic to modify” limitation corresponded to a “tripartite structure” described in the specification. Cisco then asserted invalidity under pre-America Invents Act (AIA) § 102(f), contending that Schulter invented the tripartite structure, and that the patent therefore did not list all inventors. Egenera attempted to re-correct inventorship to include Schulter, but the court rejected the attempt. The district court found the patent invalid under § 102(f), reasoning that judicial estoppel precluded Egenera from “resurrecting” Schulter’s inventorship. Egenera appealed both the means-plus-function construction and the judicial estoppel finding.

The Federal Circuit first addressed whether Egenera could correct inventorship absent any judicial estoppel. The Court looked to the plain meaning of post-AIA § 256, which provides that “the error of omitting inventors . . . shall not invalidate the patent . . . if it can be corrected.” Notably, post-AIA § 256 removed the requirement that an inventorship error occur “without . . . deceptive intent.” The Federal Circuit stated it plainly: “‘Error’ is simply the incorrect listing of inventors” and does not exclude even deceptive intention. The Court explained that the inequitable conduct rules provide a safety valve for such actions, not § 256. The Court also noted that at the time Egenera removed Schulter as an inventor, no one had argued that “logic to modify” was means-plus-function language, which it presumptively was not. Egenera’s preferred construction of that term was consistent with its assertion that Schulter was not an inventor. The omission of Schulter as inventor was thus an “error” within the scope of § 256.

The Federal Circuit next turned to whether Egenera was judicially estopped from relisting Schulter as an inventor. Applying the First Circuit’s New Hampshire factors, the Federal Circuit looked to whether Egenera’s positions were inconsistent, whether its first position was successfully accepted by the court, and whether Egenera would derive an unfair advantage if not estopped. The Federal Circuit found that the district court erred in finding Egenera’s changing inventorship positions inconsistent. The Court explained that inventorship is complex and can depend on claim [...]

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GOOGLES Wins Right to Sue Google

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s dismissal of a trademark dispute for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, noting that the dispute arose under contractual standing, which is not a jurisdictional issue. SM Kids, LLC v. Google LLC, Alphabet Inc., Case No. 19-cv-2547 (2d Cir. June 25, 2020) (Parker, J.).

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Prior Art-Based Invalidity Analysis May Be Possible for Indefinite Claim

Addressing a decision by the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (Board) declining to find certain claims unpatentable because they contained means-plus-function elements without any corresponding disclosed structure, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s decision except as to one challenged claim where the means-plus-function element was recited as an alternative to a non-means-plus-function element. Cochlear Bone Anchored Solutions AB v. Oticon Medical, AB, Case Nos. 19-1105, -1106 (Fed. Cir. May 15, 2020) (Taranto, J.).

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CBD Products in the Time of COVID-19: Best Practices for Making Your (Trade)mark

In the midst of an unprecedented and unsettling global pandemic, one constant remains: certain entrepreneurial-minded folks will not miss the opportunity to file trademark applications for new “brands” that align with the latest news cycle. COVID-19 is no different. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has experienced a swell of new US trademark applications for COVID-related trademarks, with many of the marks using descriptive terms or phrases that have become commonplace in a shelter-in-place, #wfh and social distancing world.

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