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10th Circuit Falls into Line on Exceptionality Doctrine in Lanham Act Cases

Addressing whether the term “exceptional case” in the Patent Act differs in meaning from the same term used in the Lanham Act, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld an award of attorneys’ fees granted under a motion filed under 15 U.S.C. 1117(a) and clarified that the exceptional case standard in the Lanham Act parallels the standard in the Patent Act. Derma Pen, LLC v. 4EverYoung Limited, et al., Case No. 19-4114 (10th Cir. June 8, 2021) (Lucero, J.)

In 2013, Derma Pen sued several companies for infringement of the “DERMAPEN” mark. Four years later, Derma Pen was granted a permanent injunction prohibiting the companies and “their officers, agents, servants, employees, attorneys, licensees, and anyone in active concert or participation with, aiding, assisting, or enabling Defendants” from using the mark. A few months later, Derma Pen filed for an order of contempt against one of the defendants, Stene Marshall, alleging that Marshall, with the help of other actors (related parties), had been violating the earlier-issued injunction. During the subsequent proceedings, despite being the plaintiff, Derma Pen routinely failed to meet its discovery obligations, causing the related parties to file as many as six discovery motions and resulting in the imposition of sanctions on Derma Pen.

Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court found Marshall in contempt of the injunction, but concluded that the related parties took no part in Marshall’s violation. Subsequently, the related parties moved for attorneys’ fees incurred in the contempt proceeding under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1117(a). The district court granted the motion and awarded more than $190,000 in fees based on application of the “exceptional case” standard set forth in the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2014 decision in Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness. Specifically, the district court decided that the case was “exceptional” because:

  • Derma Pen produced “no evidence of damages.”
  • “[T]he evidence showed [Derma Pen] had no right to enforce the injunction.”
  • “[T]he evidence showed that [the] trademark was abandoned.”
  • “[M]onetary sanctions were imposed on” Derma Pen for misconduct and delay during discovery.
  • Derma Pen was “entitled to no relief against the [related parties].”

Derma Pen appealed.

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding and fees award for the related parties, noting Derma Pen’s misconduct and delay during discovery. In so doing, the Court adopted the Octane Fitness standard as applicable to cases brought under the Lanham Act.

Practice Note: The 10th Circuit noted that it was acting consistently with other circuits that have considered application of the Octane standard to fee disputes under the Lanham Act, citing LHO Chicago River, L.L.C. v. Perillo (7th Cir. 2019) (collecting cases); Xereas v. Heiss (DC Cir. 2021); and Safeway Transit LLC v. Disc. Party Bus, Inc. (8th Cir. 2020).




Ninth Circuit Withdraws Opinion That Signaled Shift in Arbitration Landscape for Non-Signatories

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an order withdrawing its opinion in Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya, where the Court affirmed the denial of a non-signatory’s bid to arbitrate its claims for trademark infringement against one of the signatories to a contract under Indian law. Setty v. Shrinivas Sugandhalaya LLP, Case No. No. 18-35573 (9th Cir. June 8, 2021). The Court did not provide any reasoning for the withdrawal but indicated that a new disposition will be filed in due course.




IP Ownership Considerations in Multi-jurisdictional Software Development Agreements

As a result of the healthcare sector’s growing dependence on software, health IT companies are increasingly taking advantage of globalisation to engage contractors in low wage jurisdictions to develop their user-facing software applications. This can trigger unforeseen legal risks owing to the differing laws across jurisdictions related to the ownership and transfer of intellectual property (IP) rights.

At the most extreme end, best practices in some jurisdictions are unenforceable or even impermissible in others. In view of these issues, it is strongly recommended that a company looking to take advantage of cross-border contracting for critical development eorts should carefully consider the choice of law provisions in their agreements, and engage with local counsel to ensure proper vesting of intellectual property rights.

An inability to demonstrate proper ownership of such rights can be a substantial obstacle for later financings or in corporate activities. Depending on the jurisdictions involved, a contracting company may need to concern itself with at least three types of IP in the software that is developed on its behalf: copyrights, moral or author’s rights, and patents.

Click here to read the full article in our latest edition of International News.




Confused? How Do You Factor That?

Considering the eight-factor likelihood of confusion test, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding on all factors, concluding that two competing marks in the transportation logistics industry are overlapping to the extent that consumers would likely be confused. AWGI, LLC v. Atlas Trucking Co., LLC, Case No. 20-1726 (6th Cir. May 18, 2021) (Cook, J.)

Atlas Movers owns the “Atlas” mark and a federal registration for the mark for “freight forwarding services and transportation of household goods of others.” It first used the mark “Atlas Van Lines” in 1948 for transportation and logistics services. In 2007, it revised its name to Atlas Relocation Services and marketed its services under “Atlas Logistics.”

Atlas Trucking, a part of Eaton Steel, manufactured and distributed steel under its Atlas Trucking mark starting in 1999. Later, in 2003, Eaton expanded its services to ship other goods under the mark Atlas Logistics. Eaton admitted it knew of Atlas Van Lines for logistics before it began using the mark.

Atlas Movers sued Eaton for infringement of its “Atlas” mark and Eaton counterclaimed that it owned the Atlas Logistics mark.

The district court found that Eaton’s use of “Atlas” creates a likelihood of confusion with Atlas Movers. The court went through the eight-factor likelihood of confusion test, considering: (1) strength of the plaintiff’s mark; (2) relatedness of the goods or services; (3) similarity of the marks; (4) evidence of actual confusion; (5) marketing channels used; (6) likely degree of purchaser care; (7) defendant’s intent in selecting the mark and (8) likelihood of expansion of the product lines or services “Atlas” marks. The court ultimately found for Atlas Movers on its trademark infringement claim. Eaton appealed.

The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s analysis. First, on commercial strength, the district court found Atlas Movers’ mark to be commercially strong because of its significant advertising expenditures, exposing consumers to its trademark with public recognition. Eaton tried to demonstrate weakness of the mark by presenting evidence of third parties’ use of similar marks, but the lower court rejected the argument, noting the other marks did not use “Atlas” for transportation and logistics. The court found this factor favored Atlas Movers.

The Sixth Circuit also agreed with the district court on the second factor, relatedness of goods and services, concluding buyers would be likely to believe the parties’ respective goods and services, which relate to the same industry and are directed to common consumers, come from the same source or are connected with a common company. The court found this factor also favored Atlas Movers.

Third, as to similarity of the marks, the lower court gave weight to pronunciation, appearance and verbal translation of the marks in their entirety, finding the dominant potion of the mark (“Atlas”) was identical. Again, this factor favored Atlas Movers.

Fourth, on the issue of actual confusion, the lower court considered evidence of five people experiencing actual confusion from Eaton’s use of its “Atlas” mark. There were also consumer [...]

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Initial Confusion? Relax, Eighth Circuit Has Your Number

Addressing a novel issue regarding when confusion must occur for it to be actionable, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that initial-interest confusion was a viable infringement theory. Select Comfort Corp. v. Baxter, Case No. 19-1113 (8th Cir. May 11, 2021) (Melloy, J.)

Select Comfort owns registered trademarks, including “SELECT COMFORT,” “SLEEP NUMBER” and “WHAT’S YOUR SLEEP NUMBER,” for adjustable air mattresses, which it sells online and in stores across the United States. Baxter sells competing air mattresses online and through a call center. Select Comfort brought a suit asserting trademark infringement, trademark dilution and false advertising theories against Baxter. Select Comfort alleged that Baxter used Select Comfort’s registered trademarks in an identical or confusingly similar manner to advertise Baxter’s mattresses and divert consumers to its website and phone lines instead of Select Comfort’s. Select Comfort also alleged that Baxter made false representations about its products and failed to dispel consumer confusion about the products. At trial, Select Comfort pointed to similar terms in Baxter’s online advertising text, graphics and domain addresses, in addition to examples of actual confusion about the products in Baxter’s call-center transcripts.

Earlier in the case, in connection with summary judgment, the district court found that the relevant consumers were sophisticated as a matter of law, and, citing Eight Circuit precedent, rejected application of a theory of initial-interest confusion. The district court instead instructed the jury that in order to prevail on its trademark infringement claim, Select Comfort had to prove likelihood of confusion at the time of purchase. Based on this limiting instruction, the jury rejected Select Comfort’s trademark infringement claims. Select Comfort appealed.

The Eighth Circuit reversed. The Court explained that the district court erred on the availability of an initial-interest confusion as an infringement theory. For trademark infringement claims, the likelihood of confusion test is a fact-intensive inquiry with many factors. However, circuit courts have not definitively agreed on when confusion must exist. Must confusion occur only at the time of ultimate purchase, or can it also exist during pre-sale? The theory of initial-interest confusion involves the latter scenario, namely, when confusion about a product’s ownership causes a customer to have initial interest in the product, even if there is no actual sale at the time of the confusion. Actionable initial infringement protects competitors from getting a free ride on the goodwill of an established mark if a consumer falsely infers an affiliation between the companies.

In the precedential 2010 Eighth Circuit case Sensient Techs. v. Sensory Effects Flavor, the Court neither rejected nor adopted the initial-interest/pre-sale confusion theory. Instead, it merely found that the theory did not apply where consumers were sophisticated (i.e., where they exercise a high degree of care in purchasing products, a factor weighing against likelihood of confusion). Here, influenced by Lanham Act amendments and other circuit courts, the Court addressed the issue previously left open: whether the initial-interest confusion may be actionable in the Eighth Circuit in cases where the jury is left to [...]

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Use is ACTUALLY Measured by Benefit

Addressing whether a service mark owner had established a protectable interest in his marks through actual or analogous use, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed in part the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the alleged infringer, explaining that by focusing on sales, the district court applied the wrong legal standard for analyzing actual use. Underwood v. Bank of Am. Corp., Case Nos. 19-1349, 20-1087 (10th Cir. Apr. 30, 2021) (Matheson, J.)

In 2010, Erik Underwood and My24HourNews.com (collectively, Underwood) applied for, and were granted, registration of a service mark in Georgia for a computer-animated woman named Erica who verbally reports the news through cell phones and computer programs. In 2012, Underwood registered the domain name for a website, my24erica.com. On the website, E.R.I.C.A. could answer questions and offer recommendations regarding movies and television shows. In 2016, Bank of America filed an intent to use application with the US Patent and Trademark Office for ERICA, a mark for goods and services including voice-controlled information, personal assistant banking and finance services. Underwood sued Bank of America, alleging common law service mark infringement of two marks, E.R.I.C.A. and my24erica.com.

The district court granted summary judgment for Bank of America, concluding that Underwood had not established a protectable interest in either of the marks through actual or analogous use. Underwood appealed.

The 10th Circuit concluded that the district court applied the wrong legal standard and committed two legal errors in its analysis of the issue of actual use of the E.R.I.C.A. mark. First, the district court erred by assuming that in order to establish actual use, Underwood’s customers must have purchased the services offered or Underwood must have generated revenue, because actual use is measured by benefit—not sales to third parties. Second, the district court erred by limiting the services at issue to those listed on the Georgia registration (i.e., newscasting). Instead, the district court should have considered all services identified by the mark, including those on the my24erica.com website (i.e., search engine and personal assistant services). The Court remanded the issue of actual use to permit the district court to address the factual issues under the correct legal standard.

Analogous use of a mark is use in commerce that is non-transactional, e.g., promotional efforts for the goods or services, such as advertising brochures, catalogs, newspaper ads, and articles in newspapers and trade publications. Although actual use need not have a substantial impact on the purchasing public, analogous use must be “of such a nature and extent as to create public identification of the target term with the [user’s] product or service.” To qualify as analogous use, the use must be open and notorious, i.e., “of such a nature and extent that the mark has become popularized in the public mind so that the relevant segment of the public identifies the marked goods with the mark’s adopter.” Because the analogous use in terms of the E.R.I.C.A. mark had large gaps in time; consisted only of PowerPoint presentations at [...]

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Reverse Confusion Suit Not Ironclad, but SmartSync Lives On

In a split decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated a district court’s summary judgment and remanded the case for trial in an action brought under the Lanham Act in order to resolve material issues of fact on likelihood of confusion/reverse confusion factors that remain in dispute. Ironhawk Technologies, Inc. v. Dropbox, Inc., Case No. 19-56347 (9th Cir. Apr. 20, 2021) (Smith, J.) (Tashima, J., dissenting)

Ironhawk developed computer software designed to transfer data efficiently in “bandwidth-challenged environments” and has marketed the software since 2004 using the name “SmartSync.” Ironhawk registered the SmartSync mark in 2007. In 2017, Dropbox launched a feature entitled “Smart Sync,” which allowed users to see and access files in their Dropbox cloud storage accounts without taking up space on their hard drive. Ironhawk sued Dropbox for trademark infringement and unfair competition in 2018, alleging that that Smart Sync intentionally infringed upon Ironhawk’s SmartSync trademark and was likely to cause confusion among consumers. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Dropbox, concluding that “a reasonable trier of fact could not conclude that Dropbox’s use of Smart Sync is likely to cause consumer confusion.”

Ironhawk appealed, focusing primarily on its reverse confusion theory of infringement. Reverse confusion occurs where consumers dealing with the holder of the senior mark (Ironhawk) believe they are dealing with the junior (Dropbox). This occurs when someone who is only aware of the well-known junior (Dropbox) comes into contact with the lesser-known senior (Ironhawk) and incorrectly believes the senior is the same as, or affiliated with, the junior user because of the similarity of the two marks.

The Ninth Circuit first defined the relevant consumer market. This issue revolved around whether the relevant market should be limited to Ironhawk’s only active customer, the US Navy, or whether it should include commercial customers. Dropbox argued that the market should be limited to the Navy and that consequently the relevant consumer would be less likely to be confused as to the source or affiliation of SmartSync. In terms of procurement, it was undisputed that the Navy exercised significant care and effort. However, Ironhawk argued that it previously had a commercial customer, and that it actively markets and pursues business with other commercial businesses. The Court held that because Ironhawk had a previous commercial customer and had made recent attempts to acquire more commercial accounts, a reasonable jury could include the potential commercial customers in the relevant market.

The Ninth Circuit next turned to the “highly factual inquiry” of the eight Sleekcraft factors:

  • Strength of the mark
  • Proximity of the goods
  • Similarity of the marks
  • Evidence of actual confusion
  • Marketing channels used
  • Type of goods and likely level of care exercised by purchaser
  • Defendant’s intent in selecting the mark
  • Likelihood of expansion of the product lines.

For the first three factors, the Ninth Circuit found that a reasonable jury could find that:

  • Dropbox’s mark was commercially strong and would be able to swamp Ironhawk’s reputation.
  • The Smart [...]

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School’s Out: Trademark Settlement Agreement Enforceable

Addressing issues relating to jurisdiction, contract enforceability and trademarks, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that two schools that used similar names had a valid and enforceable settlement agreement obligating one school to pay for the other to change its name. The Commonwealth School, Inc. v. Commonwealth Academy Holdings LLC, Case No. 20-1112 (1st Cir. Apr. 14, 2021) (Selya, J.)

It came to the attention of a Boston private school, The Commonwealth School (the School), that a more recently founded private school in Springfield, Massachusetts, was operating under a similar name, Commonwealth Academy (the Academy). In 2016, the School brought suit against the Academy under the federal Lanham Act, claiming that the School had a trademark on its “Commonwealth School” name, and that “Commonwealth Academy” infringed on that trademark. The parties entered into settlement mediation, and agreed that the School would pay the Academy $25,000 and in return the Academy would change its name to “Springfield Commonwealth Academy.”

The district court issued an order that a settlement was reached. Three years passed, and the Academy took steps to change its name in promotional materials and on its website. But the School would not pay the Academy because it claimed the Academy still had the “Commonwealth Academy” name appearing prominently on its students’ basketball jerseys. At a hearing to resolve the dispute, the district court reversed its earlier order: the parties had not actually reached a settlement agreement because there had been no “meeting of the minds” for contract formation, despite the other steps the Academy took to fulfill the agreement. The district court dismissed the case because neither party showed cause to reopen the case. The Academy appealed, arguing that the district court erred in refusing to enforce the settlement agreement.

The First Circuit addressed three main issues on appeal: (1) whether there was appellate jurisdiction to hear the appeal, (2) whether the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the initial settlement agreement dispute, and (3) on the merits, whether the settlement agreement was a validly formed contract.

The First Circuit concluded it had jurisdiction to review the district court’s dismissal order. Generally, under the final judgment rule, only final decisions are appealable. But here, the order at issue was merely interlocutory, meaning it was issued during the course of litigation. The Academy claimed the order was in fact reviewable because the order resulted in the case’s dismissal, and thus it should fall under the merger doctrine exception, where interlocutory orders merge into final judgments. The Court considered this in the context of the School’s failure to prosecute, and whether the order actually fell under an exception to the exception – i.e., where a dismissal is based on a failure to prosecute, it does not fall under the merger doctrine. In its analysis, the Court considered the policy considerations underlying the merger doctrine: to preserve integrity of the final judgment rule by preventing any reward for bad faith tactics. Here, the School, as the [...]

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You Want Some “Metchup” with That?

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found no infringement by a large, well-known company that used the registered mark of an individual whose own use was local and generated only a few sales and minimal profits. The Court vacated and remanded the case to determine whether plaintiff had abandoned the mark. Dennis Perry v. H.J. Heinz Co. Brands, L.L.C., Case No. 20-30418 (5th Cir. Apr. 12, 2021) (Graves, J.)

In 2010, Dennis Perry created a condiment concoction in his home kitchen that he named “Metchup,” constituting a blend of private label mustard and ketchup, and a blend of mayonnaise and ketchup. Perry sold the concoction in the lobby of his small motel in Louisiana. The US Patent & Trademark Office granted registration for his trademark “Metchup” and after five years declared his mark “incontestable.” Perry had slow sales, however, only selling about 60 bottles with $50 total profit over the years. Perry had a Facebook page for his product, but did not advertise or sell the product in stores or online.

Meanwhile, Heinz produced a condiment called “Mayochup,” a blend of mayonnaise and ketchup, that it began selling in the United States in 2018. Heinz held an online naming contest to promote its product, and when one participant suggested the name “Metchup,” Heinz posted a mock-up picture with the “Metchup” name, along with other proposals. Heinz’s counsel saw Perry’s trademark registration, but because Heinz was not actually selling a product named “Metchup” and there were so few indications that Perry’s product was actually being sold, Heinz concluded that Perry’s mark was not in use and could be used in its promotion. When Perry saw Heinz’s posting, he sued for trademark infringement.

The district court found that while Perry may have once had a valid trademark registration for “Metchup,” there was no likelihood of confusion with the Heinz product and the mark had been abandoned as a consequence of de minimis use. Perry appealed.

The Fifth Circuit analyzed the dispute based on the eight-factor likelihood of confusion test. The Court found three factors weighed in Perry’s favor:

  • Product similarity: Both products were mixed condiments.
  • Potential purchaser care: Consumers would exercise less care for a low-priced condiment.
  • Mark similarity: Both products used the same word “Metchup,” although the Court noted that the packaging design looked very different.

The Court also found five factors weighed in Heinz’s favor:

  • The type of mark on the spectrum (i.e., whether the name is related to what the product is): Here, the mark was “suggestive” because it was a mash-up of names related to the sauces used.
  • Outlet and purchaser identity: The parties targeted different markets because Perry had limited sales in one motel, while Heinz targeted online and at almost all grocery stores.
  • Advertising identity: Perry did not advertise besides his one Facebook page without online sales, while Heinz had large-scale advertising and sales.
  • Defendant’s intent: Heinz did not intend to infringe because it assumed Perry’s mark was no longer [...]

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Zero Hero: Disclaiming Disputed Term Renders Dispute Moot

The Trademark Trial & Appeal Board redesignated as precedential a decision dismissing a beverage company’s opposition to trademarks using the term “ZERO” for zero-calorie drinks after the trademark applicant disclaimed the term ZERO in its pending applications, the sole remedy requested in the opposition. Royal Crown Co., Inc. v. The Coca-Cola Co., Opposition Nos. 91178927 (Parent Case); 91180771; 91180772; 91183482; 91185755; 91186579; and 91190658 (TTAB May 3, 2019) (redesignated precedential Mar. 30, 2021) (Hightower, ATJ). The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with the Board’s decision, holding that disclaiming the term ZERO rendered the dispute moot. Royal Crown Co., Inc. v. Coca-Cola Co., Case No. 19-2088 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 3, 2020) (Lourie, J.)

Royal Crown and Coca-Cola are competitors in the beverage market. Coca-Cola filed 16 applications to register marks appending the term ZERO to some of its existing beverage brands, such as Coke Zero, Coke Cherry Zero and Sprite Zero. Royal Crown filed oppositions to each of the 16 applications (later consolidated), arguing that the marks were generic or merely descriptive of the beverages’ zero-calorie attributes, and that the registrations should be denied without a disclaimer of the term ZERO. The Board initially held that Coca-Cola’s applications could be registered without a disclaimer of the term ZERO, finding that Royal Crown failed to show that ZERO was generic for zero-calorie products in the genus of soft drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks, and that Coca-Cola proved that the term ZERO had acquired distinctiveness for soft drinks and sports drinks, although not for energy drinks. On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated the decision and remanded the case back to the Board with instructions to apply the correct legal standard for genericness of the term ZERO, including examining whether the term ZERO referred to a key aspect of the genus when appended to a beverage mark, and to make an express finding regarding the degree of the mark’s descriptiveness.

On remand, the Board ordered the parties to rebrief certain issues. Instead, Coca-Cola filed an unconsented motion to amend each of its applications to disclaim the term ZERO. Coca-Cola argued that the disclaimer rendered the remaining issues in the case moot and that no further action was required by the Board. Although disclaimer was the sole remedy Royal Crown originally sought in its oppositions, Royal Crown protested that the disclaimer was procedurally improper and not case-dispositive. Royal Crown argued that its requested relief included a determination that ZERO was generic or merely descriptive, and that while a disclaimer was the manner in which that relief was demonstrated, a disclaimer did not moot the legal issues raised. Royal Crown asked the Board to defer ruling on the motion to amend until it had issued a full decision on the merits.

Agreeing with Coca-Cola, the Board found that since the disclaimer was the relief sought by Royal Crown and the form of the disclaimer was acceptable, entered the disclaimer and dismissed Royal Crown’s opposition.

Practice Note: In the original appeal from [...]

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