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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.




Thank You to Our Readers

We greatly appreciate our readers over the past year and are pleased to share that we were recently recognized for our intellectual property thought leadership in the 2021 JD Supra Readers’ Choice Awards, which acknowledge top authors and firms for their thought leadership in key topics during all of last year.

Sarah Bro, a regular contributor to IP Update, was recognized as “Top Author” for trademarks. She focuses her practice on trademark prosecution, enforcement and brand portfolio management, as well as licensing, due diligence, copyright, right of publicity and domain name matters. Through our various blogs and thought leadership pieces, we are dedicated to maintaining our position as a leading firm for intellectual property work and keeping clients abreast of significant and relevant topics in the industry.




Waiver in PTO Trademark Appeals Applies “Per Decision, Not Per Case”

Addressing a “narrow question of statutory interpretation,” the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of a trademark case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that a party that appeals a Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (TTAB) decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit may, after remand to and issuance of a new decision by the TTAB, seek review of the new decision in federal district court. Snyder’s-Lance, Inc. v. Frito-Lay N.A., Inc., Case No. 19-2316 (4th Cir. Mar. 17, 2021) (Wynn, J.)

Princeton Vanguard, a snack food producer, applied to register its mark “Pretzel Crisps” on the principal register. Frito-Lay opposed. The TTAB denied Princeton Vanguard’s application, concluding that the mark was generic.

Under the Lanham Act, Princeton Vanguard could appeal the TTAB’s original decision to either the Federal Circuit under 15 USC § 1071(a) or federal district court under § 1071(b). Princeton Vanguard elected a direct appeal to the Federal Circuit pursuant to § 1071(a), thus waiving its right to district court review. The Federal Circuit concluded that the TTAB applied the wrong legal standard in evaluating whether Princeton Vanguard’s mark was generic and remanded the case to the TTAB. The TTAB again concluded that Princeton Vanguard’s mark was generic. This time, Princeton Vanguard appealed to a federal district court pursuant to § 1071(b).

The district court sua sponte dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding that Princeton Vanguard’s appeal of the original decision to the Federal Circuit pursuant to § 1071(a) precluded Princeton Vanguard from appealing the second decision to a district court pursuant to § 1071(b). Princeton Vanguard appealed.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the statutory text of the Lanham Act supported Princeton Vanguard’s argument in favor of jurisdiction. The Court explained that Princeton Vanguard’s waiver of its right to district court review of the original TTAB decision pursuant to § 1071(a) did not apply to any subsequent decisions in the same case, and that the waiver applied “per decision, but not per case.”

The Court rejected Frito-Lay’s argument that Princeton Vanguard was taking a second bite at the apple by seeking re-review in federal district court of issues already decided by the Federal Circuit, reasoning that Princeton Vanguard was seeking district court review of the second, separate decision that had not been reviewed by the Federal Circuit. The Court stressed, however, that the Federal Circuit’s review of the TTAB’s original decision was binding as to issues it decided.

Practice Note: If the TTAB issues multiple decisions in the same proceeding, each decision is considered a separate decision for purposes of waiver under §§ 1071(a) (b), even if the decisions implicate similar issues.




Can’t Camouflage Express Trademark Contract Terms

Addressing a range of trademark licensing issues, including discretionary approval, exculpatory contract clauses and third party beneficiary standing, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the US Army, finding that the Army abided by the terms of a trademark licensing agreement with a brand management company that sold clothing bearing the Army logo. Authentic Apparel Grp., LLC v. United States, Case No. 20-1412 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 4, 2021) (Lourie, J.)

In a 2010 licensing agreement, the Army granted Authentic Apparel, a brand management company that licenses merchandise, a non-exclusive license to manufacture and sell clothing bearing the Army’s trademarks in exchange for royalties. The licensing agreement gave the Army sole and absolute discretion on whether to approve any products and marketing materials bearing the Army’s trademarks. The licensing agreement also included exculpatory clauses exempting the Army from liability for exercising this discretion. From 2011 to 2014, Authentic submitted 500 requests for product approval, and the Army disapproved of only 41. After a series of late or unpaid royalty payments, Authentic sent notice that it would not pay 2014 royalties. The Army then terminated the license to Authentic. In 2015, Authentic and its chairman, Ron Reuben, sued the US government for breach of contract of the licensing agreement. The alleged breaches included denial of the right to exploit the goodwill associated with the Army’s trademarks, refusal to permit Authentic to advertise its contribution to certain Army recreation programs, delay of approval for a financing agreement for a footwear line, and denial of approval for advertising featuring the actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgment to the US government and dismissed Reuben as a co-plaintiff for lack of standing. Authentic appealed.

The two main issues on appeal were whether Authentic provided sufficient evidence to show there was a genuine dispute of material fact that the Army breached the terms of its contract or any implied duty of good faith, and whether Reuben was a third party beneficiary to have standing as a plaintiff to the suit.

As to the first issue, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the government because Authentic was unable to provide sufficient evidence that the Army breached the trademark licensing agreement. The Court found that:

The contracting parties contemplated the terms of the contract and voluntarily decided to include express language of broad discretionary approval and exculpatory clauses exempting liability for disapproval, and therefore they should be held to the express terms for which they bargained.

The Army did not act unreasonably or violate its duty of good faith and fair dealing in exercising its discretion because it did approve more than 90% of Authentic’s products.

Authentic’s argument that the Army’s discretion was too broad and restricted Authentic’s use of the trademarks to solely “decorative purposes” was without merit because (1) the Court was not evaluating the validity of the trademarks here, (2) Authentic still [...]

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The Steep Price of Not Being Exceptional

Addressing the appropriate standard for determining what makes a trademark case sufficiently exceptional to warrant an award of attorney fees, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the denial of a renewed motion for attorneys’ fees under the Octane Fitness standard. LHO Chicago River, LLC v. Rosemoor Suites, LLC, Case No. 20-2506 (7th Cir. Feb.19, 2021 (Kanne, J.)

Some say that imitation is the highest form of flattery—but not in the world of trademarks. And certainly not according to LHO Chicago River. In 2014, LHO rebranded one of its Chicago hotels as “Hotel Chicago.” Two years later, Rosemoor did the same to its hotel on the west side of Chicago. LHO sued Rosemoor for trademark infringement (among other claims). Ultimately, LHO dropped the lawsuit after an unsuccessful motion for preliminary injunction. Rosemoor’s quest for attorneys’ fees, however, lived on.

Rosemoor’s initial request for attorneys’ fees amounted to $500,000. According to Rosemoor, the case was exceptional as defined by the Lanham Act and therefore justified reimbursement of its attorneys’ fees. Rosemoor’s first request was denied. Rosemoor appealed, arguing that the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees was based on an incorrect standard as to what makes a trademark case exceptional. The renewed request for attorneys’ fees totaled $630,000. Once again Rosemoor was left to cover its own fees, and once again it appealed, but to no avail.

In denying Rosemoor’s initial request for attorneys’ fees, the district court used the “abuse-of-process” standard as explained in Burford v. Accounting Practice Sales. According to Rosemoor, the district court should have used the standard articulated in Octane Fitness v. ICON Health & Fitness to determine whether the case was exceptional. The Seventh Circuit agreed with Rosemoor regarding the appropriate standard, but did not agree that the case was exceptional.

Under Octane, “a case can be ‘exceptional’ if the court determines, under the totality of the circumstances, that it ‘stands out from others with respect to [1] the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (considering both the governing law and the facts of the case) or [2] the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.'” Relevant considerations for a party’s litigating position “include ‘frivolousness’ and ‘objective unreasonableness.'”

The Seventh Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that the case was not exceptional and did not warrant fee shifting. The Court explained that LHO’s preliminary injunction pleading was not “frivolous or unreasonable,” LHO provided evidence of actual customer confusion, the disputed mark was “not plainly unworthy of protection,” LHO provided evidence of the mark’s secondary meaning, and Rosemoor failed to show that LHO engaged in exceptional litigation misconduct.

Practice Note: When the post-litigation dust settles, practitioners should help their clients evaluate whether their case truly is exceptional within the meaning of the Lanham Act and would thus warrant an award of attorneys’ fees. Appealing a disappointing judgment without strong “exceptional” grounds may end up costing more than it is worth.




Click Fraud: Predicate to False Designation of Origin

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed that pay-per-click advertisers may be liable under the Lanham Act for “click fraud.” WickFire, LLC v. Laura Woodruff et al., Case No. 17-50340 (5th Cir. Feb. 26, 2021) (Owen, J.)

WickFire and TriMax Media are advertisers that compete in the pay-for-performance search engine marketing business, also known as pay-per-click marketing. In this type of marketing, every time a user clicks on an advertisement, the advertiser pays the search engine (i.e., Google) a small fee. If the user makes a purchase on the merchant’s site, the merchant pays the advertiser a commission. When a pay-per-click campaign runs smoothly, the advertiser pays a small amount for a click, the click results in a sale, and the commission to the advertiser is more than the advertiser paid for the click.

WickFire filed a lawsuit against TriMax, alleging that TriMax violated Section 43 of the Lanham Act by committing “click fraud” through repeatedly clicking on WickFire’s ads without any intent to make a purchase, and created false advertisements that were made to appear as though they belonged to WickFire, among other state law claims. Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act prohibits a person from making, “in connection with any goods or services,” a “false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which . . . is likely to cause confusion . . . as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities.” WickFire alleged that the ads included a trademark and links to a WickFire website designed to aggregate coupons for online merchants.

The case went to trial, and a jury found for WickFire with respect to the state law claims and the false advertising claim (although it did not award any damages for violation of the Lanham Act). The jury determined that TriMax misrepresented WickFire as the source of advertisements by placing ads containing identifying information distinct to WickFire in a manner that was likely to cause confusion. TriMax filed for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial. The district court denied the motions and entered judgment. TriMax appealed.

On appeal, TriMax alleged that WickFire’s Lanham Act claim was foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dastar v. Twentieth Century Fox. The Fifth Circuit disagreed. The Court explained that WickFire was not concerned with protecting an original idea, as Fox attempted to do in Dastar. Instead, WickFire was trying to protect the genuineness of its brand.

TriMax next argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the jury did not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for WickFire. The Fifth Circuit thought otherwise, holding that it did not need to decide whether the evidence was sufficient as a matter of law because the jury did not award WickFire damages to the claim. The Court noted that since the jury found that there were no damages, WickFire [...]

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Colorful Non-Functionality Argument Misses the (Design) Mark

Addressing the functionality of colors in design marks, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s entry of judgment for a trademark owner on its unfair competition and trademark claims, ruling that where color is used as an indicator of size or parts matching, it is functional and does not qualify as trade dress. Sulzer Mixpac AG v. A&N Trading Co., Case No. 19-2951 (2d Cir. Feb. 18, 2021) (Pooler, J.)

Sulzer Mixpac and A&N Trading are competitors that manufacture and supply mixing tips, which dentists use to create impressions of teeth for dental procedures. Mixpac obtained trademarks for the colors yellow, teal, blue, pink, purple and brown (collectively, the Candy Colors) as applied to mixing tips. Mixpac filed suit against A&N, claiming unfair competition; common law trademark infringement; and trademark infringement, trademark counterfeiting and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act. A&N countersued, claiming that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors on mixing tips was functional and therefore not entitled to trademark protection. The district court concluded that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors was non-functional (based in part on the increased cost of adding color to the mixing tips, and noting that other competitors used clear tips), and entered judgment and a permanent injunction in favor of Mixpac. A&N appealed.

The Second Circuit reversed, explaining that the district court erred by failing to apply the Louboutin three-part aesthetic functionality test to Mixpac’s marks. Under the Louboutin test, to determine whether a design feature is non-functional and thus entitled to trademark protection, courts look to whether the design feature (1) is “essential to the use or purpose” of the product, (2) “affects the cost or quality” of the product, and (3) has a significant effect on competition. A&N argued that the mixing tips’ color coding helps users identify useful product characteristics, such as diameter, and that it aids users in selecting the correct tip. Applying the Louboutin test in the first instance and citing trial testimony, the Second Circuit concluded that the colors signify diameter, which assists users when selecting the proper cartridge, as the colors “enable users to quickly match the proper mixing tip with the proper cartridge, and (citing Louboutin) thereby ‘improve[] the operation of the goods.'”

Practice Note: In trade dress cases, be sure to apply the Louboutin three-part aesthetic functionality test. Failure to do so may lead to reversal on appeal. In this case, the Second Circuit noted that “[t]he district court erred because it did not apply this test when it considered only that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors adds to manufacturing costs and that other companies use different or no colors.”




That’s So Metal: Ninth Circuit Confirms Standard of Review for Finding Unclean Hands on Summary Judgment

In a trademark infringement dispute over the brand name “METAL,” the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit resolved an issue of first impression in holding that when reviewing a grant of summary judgment on an unclean hands defense in a trademark infringement case, the correct standard of review is abuse of discretion. Metal Jeans, Inc. v. Metal Sport, Inc., et al., Case No. 19-55923 (9th Cir. Feb. 16, 2021) (VanDyke, J.) (Wardlaw, J., concurring).

Metal Jeans, an apparel brand claiming ownership of the trademark METAL, brought an infringement claim against Metal Sport, a powerlifting brand with a similar stylized mark that was also used on certain apparel items. In the district court, both parties sought summary judgment on the issue of likelihood of consumer confusion with respect to Metal Sport’s use of the METAL trademark in view of Metal Jeans’ rights in the brand name. The district court determined that material facts on the issue of infringement remained in dispute, and denied both parties’ motions on the merits. However, the district court granted a separate motion for summary judgment filed by Metal Sport claiming that Metal Jeans was barred from pursuing its infringement claim on grounds of unclean hands, while rejecting Metal Jeans’ counter-defense that Metal Sport also acted with unclean hands.

Metal Jeans appealed the unclean hands judgment, which presented an issue of first impression to the Ninth Circuit, namely the standard of review when a district court concludes that a party has acted with unclean hands. The Ninth Circuit noted that its two trademark decisions addressing unclean hands never specified the standard of review applied, and so turned to other cases in which it reviewed district courts’ application of similar equitable doctrines. With this background, the Court found abuse of discretion to be the correct standard of review.

In a separate decision memorandum, the Ninth Circuit explained that to successfully allege unclean hands, a defendant must show that the plaintiff’s conduct (1) is inequitable and (2) relates directly to the subject matter of its claims. The court also noted that factual questions related to the defense of unclean hands may only be resolved on summary judgment if evidence presented by both sides would permit the trier of fact to come to only one conclusion.

The Ninth Circuit assessed the six alleged instances of misconduct on the part of Metal Jeans, which included facts alleging that Metal Jeans provided varying accounts of how it acquired the METAL trademark and provided inaccurate or false information to the US Patent & Trademark Office, along with allegations that Metal Jeans sourced certain products from China despite its use of an “American Made” slogan. The Court determined that many of the factual allegations of unclean hands did not relate directly to Metal Jeans’ trademark infringement claims, nor did such allegations appear to have caused any harm or demonstrate malintent on the part of Metal Jeans.

Applying the abuse of discretion review standard, the Ninth Circuit determined that the district court’s findings [...]

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Agreement to One Is Not Consent to All

Addressing a myriad of issues involving unauthorized use of professional models’ photographs for gentlemen’s clubs’ promotional materials, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the district court erred in its interpretation of “consent,” and vacated and remanded to adjudicate the scope of the consent given. The Second Circuit simultaneously affirmed the district court’s dismissal of claims under the Lanham Act and New York corporate and libel law. Electra v. 59 Murray Enterprs., Case No. 19-235 (2d Cir. Feb. 9, 2021) (Pooler, J.)

Eleven famous female models, including celebrity Carmen Electra, brought claims against three gentlemen’s clubs for using photographs of the models without permission. Plaintiffs had posed for the photographs for modeling agencies and signed release agreements for those agencies to use the photos. The clubs were given these photographs through third-party contractors that used the images to promote social events, including advertisements on the clubs’ website and social media. Plaintiffs never provided the clubs with any authorization or written consent to use their photos, nor were they compensated. Plaintiffs maintained that they do not endorse the clubs and were harmed by the unauthorized use of their likeness in association with prurient activities that the clubs promote. The clubs argued that their contractors obtained the images from a catalogue source that they believed had all rights in the images.

The main issues on appeal were whether plaintiffs had provided their “written consent” to the clubs to use their photos when they signed releases with their own agencies (despite never authorizing the clubs to use the photos), and whether the releases barred their claims.

Of the 11 plaintiffs, only six were not time barred, and of those, only two had disputed terms of their agreements. The Court opined for those two plaintiffs.

Under New York Civil Rights Law §§ 50-51 (statutory right of privacy and publicity), it is a misdemeanor to “use for advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade, the name, portrait or picture of any living person without having first obtained the written consent of such person.” This protects both private individuals and those in the public eye, such as the plaintiffs, if they did not give written permission for that particular use. In deciding whether plaintiffs gave their consent for lawful use, the Second Circuit explained that there is no consent if the use exceeds the terms of the agreement, a factual inquiry into the text and terms of the releases.

The district court granted the clubs summary judgment under § 51 claims, finding that each plaintiff with a timely claim had entered into a “comprehensive” release that “grant[ed] the releasee unlimited rights to the use of the images at issue.” The plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in so finding because the record did not contain releases for the images at issue. The district court did not address whether the releases constituted written consent, but mused that it would be “inconsistent” with the statute for plaintiffs to sign unlimited releases and [...]

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