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Secondary Meaning: Consumers Connect Product with Single Anonymous Source

Reversing and remanding a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of an accused trade dress infringer, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit explained that trade dress does not need to be linked to a particular company. If consumers link the trade dress to any single (even anonymous) source or company, that is enough to constitute secondary meaning. P and P Imports LLC v. Johnson Enterprises LLC, DBA Tailgating Pros, Case Nos. 21-55013; -55323 (9th Cir. Aug. 24, 2022) (Tashima, Lee, Cardone, JJ.)

P&P makes and sells a jumbo red-white-and-blue Connect 4 game. Johnson sells a game almost identical in color, style and size. P&P sought to block Johnson from selling its game and sued for trade dress infringement under Lanham Act § 43(a) and unfair competition. During the district court proceeding, P&P’s expert submitted a consumer survey showing that most consumers associated P&P’s trade dress with a single source or company. He also submitted evidence of intentional copying and noted P&P’s advertising efforts as support for secondary meaning. The district court granted summary judgment for Johnson, ruling that P&P failed to present sufficient evidence of secondary meaning. The district court relied on the Ninth Circuit’s 2011 decision in Fleischer Studios v. A.V.E.L.A. to dismiss the survey evidence as irrelevant because the results showed a belief that P&P’s product is from a single source or company but did not show that trade dress was associated with P&P itself. P&P appealed.

The question before the Ninth Circuit was whether a manufacturer’s red-white-and-blue jumbo rendition of Connect 4 qualified as a protectable trade dress. This required the Court to determine whether P&P’s trade dress had acquired secondary meaning. Secondary meaning exists when “in the minds of the public, the primary significance of [the trade dress] is to identify the source of the product rather than the product itself.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the district court applied an incorrect legal standard for determining secondary meaning and that P&P presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment. The Court explained that many factors determine whether secondary meaning exists, including “direct consumer testimony; survey evidence; exclusivity, manner, and length of use of a mark; amount and manner of advertising; amount of sales and number of customers; established place in the market; and proof of intentional copying by the defendant.” The Court also noted that in the past it had found the presence of intentional copying and survey evidence sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Turning to the evidence presented by P&P, the Ninth Circuit explained that the district court’s analysis (which required consumers to both recognize P&P’s trade dress and be able to name P&P as the source) conflicted with the Court’s “long-established precedent[] requiring association with only a single—even anonymous—source,” and thus the district court erred by requiring evidence of specific association for secondary meaning. The Court also found strong suggestions that Johnson intentionally copied the P&P game, including the fact that Johnson conducted market research, ordered a copy of the [...]

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Bayou Jambalaya: Sanction Motions, Motions to Vacate and Trade Dress Injunctions

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a three-part ruling that affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to vacate as void the judgment based on Rooker-Feldman doctrine because the earlier state and district court decisions were not “inextricably intertwined,” affirmed the district court’s permanent injunction because the district court based it on the Fifth Circuit’s prior decision, and affirmed the denial of a motion for Rule 11 sanctions because the filed motion was different from the Rule-11-mandated notice that was originally served. Uptown Grill, L.L.C. v. Camellia Grill Holdings, Inc., Case No. 21-30639 (5th Cir. Aug. 23, 2022) (Higginbotham, Higginson, Oldham, JJ.)

This dispute arises from three agreements between Uptown Grill and Camellia Grill: the “Cash Sale, the Bill of Sale and the License Agreement. The Cash Sale and Bill of Sale transferred property from Camellia Grill to Uptown Grill. The License Agreement granted a license to Uptown Grill to use certain trademarks and trade dress. In 2011, Camellia Grill sued Uptown Grill for breach of the License Agreement in state court. The state court found that the appellee breached the license and restored to the appellant all rights to the marks. The court did not, however, construe the Bill of Sale.

While the state court litigation was on appeal, Camellia Grill sued Uptown Grill in federal court for trademark infringement. The district court found that the Bill of Sale transferred the trademarks to Uptown Grill before execution of the License Agreement, and therefore found that Camellia Grill’s infringement claim failed. However, the district court also found that the License Agreement limited Uptown Grill’s use of the trade dress to a single restaurant, and the court issued an injunction to that effect. The Fifth Circuit affirmed these findings in a 2019 decision in Uptown Grill, LLC v. Camellia Grill Holdings, Inc., but remanded the issue of whether Uptown Grill’s use of the Camellia grill trade dress at the new restaurant location constituted a breach of the License Agreement.

On remand, Camellia Grill moved for summary judgment that Uptown Grill breached the License Agreement by using the Camellia Grill trade dress after the termination of the License Agreement. Uptown Grill moved for partial summary judgment on the trade dress injunctions, arguing that Camellia Grill lacked standing since Uptown Grill was not using any trade dress at any new locations. Camellia Grill also filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, under which “inferior federal courts do not have the power to modify or reverse state court judgments’ except when authorized by Congress.” Finally, Uptown Grill moved for sanctions against Camellia Grill for “abusive and harassing conduct.” The district court denied both Camellia Grill’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and Uptown Grill’s motion for sanctions. The district court determined that Uptown Grill had breached the License Agreement’s post-termination provisions. The court also decided that the trade dress elements should be limited to that which is protectable under [...]

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Yes, and It Counts! Single Purchase in Forum Establishes Personal Jurisdiction over Infringer

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed exercise of personal jurisdiction over a foreign online retailer for a trademark infringement claim where the trademark owner purchased the only allegedly infringing article sold in the forum. NBA Properties, Inc. v. HANWJH, Case No. 21-2909 (7th Cir. Aug. 16, 2022) (Ripple, Scudder, JJ.)

NBA Properties owns the trademarks for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and NBA teams. HANWJH is a China-based online retailer that sells allegedly infringing NBA branded products on a well-known e-commerce site. HANWJH offered 205 allegedly infringing products that were available for purchase in Illinois, the forum state. HANWJH’s only online order in Illinois was made by an investigator for NBA Properties who purchased a pair of basketball shorts for delivery to an Illinois address. The shorts were delivered to the Illinois address before NBA Properties filed suit against HANWJH.

NBA Properties sued HANWJH for trademark infringement and counterfeiting under 15 U.S.C. § 1114 and false designation of origin under 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) in the Northern District of Illinois. NBA Properties sought and received a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, including a temporary asset restraint on HANWJH’s bank account. After HANWJH failed to timely answer the complaint, NBA Properties moved for default judgment. HANWJH moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, arguing the following:

  • Operating a website is not sufficient on its own to establish personal jurisdiction.
  • A single transaction by the plaintiff cannot support the exercise of personal jurisdiction.
  • Even if the exercise of personal jurisdiction were otherwise appropriate, such exercise would offend the traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

The district court denied HANWJH’s motion to dismiss and entered a default. HANWJH failed to object to the motion for default judgment, and the district court entered a final judgment. HANWJH appealed.

The Seventh Circuit reviewed the “minimum contacts” International Shoe criterion before turning to a more recent line of cases applying this standard to online retailers. Citing its 2020 decision in Curry v. Revolution Laboratories, the Court noted that the minimum contacts requirement is satisfied if “the defendant reasonably could foresee that its product would be sold in the forum.” The Court reasoned that allowing customers to order products from a website to the forum and then fulfilling an order to the forum can form the basis of personal jurisdiction—even when the only orders to the forum were made by the plaintiff, as long as the orders were made before filing suit. Applying these principles, the Court found that HANWJH had purposefully directed conduct at Illinois by establishing an online store, demonstrating a willingness and capacity to ship goods to Illinois and intentionally shipping an infringing product to an Illinois address. The Court explained that it was irrelevant that only a single allegedly infringing article was sold in Illinois and that it was purchased by the plaintiff, because the proper focus of the analysis was on HANWJH’s purposeful conduct. The Court also concluded that HANWJH’s [...]

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Can’t Dismiss Lanham Act Claim Based on FDCA Preemption

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed-in-part and vacated-in-part a district court ruling dismissing claims under the Lanham Act and Massachusetts consumer protection law based on statements on a website regarding compliance with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). Azurity Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Edge Pharma, LLC, Case No. 21-1492 (1st Cir. Aug. 12, 2022) (Barron, Howard, Thompson, JJ.)

Azurity is a specialty pharmaceutical company that markets a hydrochloride vancomycin drug that received pre-market approval from the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Edge Pharma is a drug compounding company that also markets a hydrochloride vancomycin drug that competes with Azurity’s drug but has not yet received FDA approval. In 2020, Azurity filed suit against Edge in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts under both the Lanham Act and a Massachusetts consumer protection law based on statements that Edge allegedly made on its website. Azurity argued that these statements represented or conveyed the impression that Edge was not in violation of Section 503B of the FDCA, which authorizes drug compounders that meet certain conditions to market their drugs without first obtaining FDA approval. Azurity alleged that these statements were literally false and/or misleading and that other statements holding out Edge’s drug as superior to Azurity’s were similarly false and/or misleading. Edge moved to dismiss Azurity’s claims for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

The district court granted Edge’s motion as to Azurity’s Lanham Act claim on the ground that the FDCA precluded Azurity’s claim. The district court stated that the claim would require it to interpret the meaning of Section 503B in a way that would interfere with the FDA’s authority to administer and enforce the FDCA. The district court also ruled that Azurity’s consumer protection claim failed because it was premised on the same allegations as Azurity’s Lanham Act claim. Azurity appealed.

The FDCA requires FDA pre-approval to market any drug. However, there are exemptions for “compounded” drugs and “outsourcing facilities” that manufacture compounded drugs. The FDCA provides registration and compliance requirements to be considered an “outsourcing facility.”

Edge made several statements on its website regarding alleged FDCA compliance, FDCA registration and other commercially available options for its compounded drug. The First Circuit referred to these as compliance statements, registration statements and superiority statements, respectively. With respect to Edge’s compliance and registration statements, the Court did not find that the FDCA precluded Azurity’s claims and instead adopted the framework used by the Ninth and District of Columbia Circuits. The First Circuit noted that those circuits established that, “[a]bsent a clear and unambiguous ruling from a court or agency of competent jurisdiction, statements by laypersons that purport to interpret the meaning of a statute or regulation are opinion statements, and not statements of fact,” and thus, as such, are “not generally actionable under the Lanham Act.” The Court found that Azurity’s reliance on a non-binding FDA guidance document regarding “essentially a copy” provision of Section 503B was not a [...]

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Rebuttal Presumption of Irreparable Harm Still Alive When Assessing Trademark Preliminary Injunctions

In one of the first decisions to construe the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020 (TMA), the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that a district court properly applied the TMA’s rebuttal presumption of irreparable harm when it denied a trademark owner’s motion for a preliminary injunction. Nichino America, Inc. v. Valent U.S.A., LLC, Case No. 21-1850 (3rd Cir. Aug. 12, 2022) (Bibas, Matey, Phipps, JJ.)

Nichino and Valent sell pesticides for farming. Since 2004, Nichino has offered a trademarked product known as CENTAUR. Valent trademarked a competing product called SENSTAR in 2019, giving it a logo resembling CENTAUR’s colors, fonts and arrow artwork. Both pesticides are used in the same geographic areas against many of the same insects, and both are sold to farmers through distributors. SENSTAR is a liquid and uses a unique combination of two active chemicals. It costs $425 per gallon and ships in cases containing four one-gallon containers. CENTAUR is manufactured as a solid and sold by the pallet, with each pallet containing 622 pounds of pesticide packed into bags and cases. CENTAUR costs $24 per pound.

Nichino sued Valent for trademark infringement and sought a preliminary injunction against SENSTAR’s launch, arguing that Valent’s use of the SENSTAR mark would create confusion among consumers. The district court found that Nichino narrowly demonstrated that its infringement claim would likely succeed but explained that “there is not an abundance of evidence of likelihood of confusion” between the products. As part of its injunction analysis, the district court applied the TMA to presume Nichino would suffer irreparable harm without an injunction. However, the court noted that the presumption was rebuttable. The court credited Valent’s evidence of a sophisticated consumer class that makes careful purchases and noted the lack of any evidence of actual consumer confusion. The court also found that Nichino failed to proffer any affirmative evidence that it would suffer irreparable harm. Accordingly, the district court found that the presumption of irreparable harm was rebutted, and therefore denied the injunction request. Nichino appealed.

Nichino argued that the TMA precluded the district court from finding no irreparable harm. The Third Circuit, however, found that the district court “admirably navigated” the TMA’s rebuttable presumption by finding that Valent rebutted the presumption and Nichino did not independently show irreparable harm. The Court explained that the three-step process for applying the TMA’s rebuttable presumption requires the following:

  1. The court must assess the plaintiff’s evidence only as it relates to a likelihood of success on the merits.
  2. If the plaintiff’s evidence establishes likely trademark infringement, the TMA is triggered, and the burden of production shifts to the defendant to introduce evidence sufficient for a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the consumer confusion is unlikely to cause irreparable harm.
  3. If a defendant successfully rebuts the TMA’s presumption by making this slight evidentiary showing, the presumption has no further effect.

The Third Circuit found that the district court correctly followed this three-step analysis in finding that Valent rebutted the TMA’s [...]

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Seal of Disapproval: TTAB Refuses Registration of County Logos

The Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (Board) issued a precedential decision affirming the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Examining Attorney’s refusal to register two different logo marks filed by southern California’s County of Orange because the marks consisted of and comprised, respectively, an insignia of a municipality. The Board found that a logo adopted by a government entity does not have to be “official” to constitute an insignia for which trademark registration is prohibited under Section 2(b) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §1052(b). In re County of Orange, Ser. Nos. 87419378; 87639750 (TTAB, Aug. 4, 2022) (Shaw, Coggins, Allard, Administrative Trademark Judges).

The County applied to register two logo marks. The US trademark applications described one mark as “a circle with the image of three oranges in front of an orange grove and . . . mountains with the words ‘COUNTY OF ORANGE’ . . . and . . . ‘CALIFORNIA’ . . . [around] the circle” (Circle Mark). The second logo mark featured a park ranger badge design that encompassed the Circle Mark in its entirety.

The PTO examining attorney refused registration of both logo marks under Section 2(b), which imposes an absolute bar on registration on either the Principal or Supplemental Register of a mark that “[c]onsists of or comprises the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation thereof.”. This section reflects the sentiment that such symbols are indicia of government authority that ought to be reserved solely for signifying the government, and which should not be registered as symbols of origin for commercial goods and services.

On appeal to the Board, the County argued that the logo marks did not constitute “insignia” because they were not an “official” seal of the County, and, even if they were, registration should not be precluded because the County is not a “municipality.” Considering both of these arguments in turn, the Board provided analysis specific to both the circle and badge iterations of the applied-for logos.

The County argued first that the proposed marks could not constitute an insignia of Orange County, California, because the County created and adopted an official seal (a design of an orange having a stem with three leaves) more than a century ago, in accordance with the applicable state government code requiring a two-step process for adopting an official seal.

The Board found this argument unpersuasive, noting that although the Circle Mark had not undergone the state’s two-step process to become an “official” seal, Section 2(b) does not distinguish between “official” and “unofficial” insignia. Therefore, formal adoption of an “official” seal is not required for an insignia to otherwise fall under the Section 2(b) bar to registration.

The Board explained that the County uses the Circle Mark for a plethora of official government business and [...]

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Veil Piercing Under Lanham Act Requires Specific Showing of Liability

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court decision granting summary judgment of liability under the Langham Act, finding that the plaintiffs failed to apply the correct standards for piercing the corporate veil and individual liability in a false advertising and false endorsement dispute. Edmondson et al. v. Velvet Lifestyles, LLC, Case No. 20-11315 (11th Cir. Aug. 4, 2022) (Jordan, Pryor, Marcus, JJ.)

Miami Velvet operated as a swingers’ nightclub in Miami, Florida. Miami Velvet was owned, operated and managed by Velvet Lifestyles, LLC. Joy Dorfman was the president, manager and a salaried employee of Velvet Lifestyles. My Three Yorkies, LLC, was the managing member of Velvet Lifestyles, and Dorfman was, in turn, the managing member of Yorkies. She was also the president of Yorkies and received the management fees that Velvet Lifestyles paid Yorkies. Approximately 30 individuals sued Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman for false advertising and false endorsement under the Lanham Act. The individuals alleged that Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman used the individuals’ images in advertisements without their consent, without any compensation and in such a way that implied they were affiliated with and endorsed Miami Velvet.

The district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman’s use of the plaintiffs’ images constituted false advertising and false endorsement. The plaintiffs’ motion treated all three defendants as effectively a single entity, and the district court made no finding that either My Three Yorkies or Dorfman had any direct involvement in the advertising. The district court did not apply the individual liability standard to Dorfman and instead treated all three defendants as a single entity as the plaintiffs’ motion had done. A jury awarded damages at trial. After post-trial motion practice, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman appealed.

The plaintiffs argued on appeal that My Three Yorkies and Dorfman had not properly preserved these issues for review on appeal. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument, finding that because the plaintiffs did not properly plead the standards for piercing the corporate veil and individual liability, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman were not obligated to raise or respond to those issues and, therefore, any procedural failures on their part were inconsequential.

Turning to the merits, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the finding of liability on summary judgment. The Court explained that in order for My Three Yorkies to be liable for the actions of Velvet Lifestyles, the plaintiffs had to show that My Three Yorkies was directly involved in the violation of the Lanham Act. The Court found that the plaintiffs failed to show that My Three Yorkies took any action regarding the management of the club or the advertisement in question, and that therefore the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the corporate veil should be pierced. The Court further explained that in order for Dorfman to be liable as an individual, the plaintiffs had to show that she actively participated as the [...]

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Single T-Shirt Sale Can’t Clothe Bare-Bones Personal Jurisdiction Claim

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a trademark infringement suit for lack of personal jurisdiction, finding that the trademark owner failed to allege that the alleged infringer could reasonably anticipate being hauled into court in Missouri. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, LLC v. Zazzle, Inc., Case No. 21-1917 (8th Cir. Aug. 2, 2022) (Smith, Benton, Kelly, JJ.)

Brothers and Sisters in Christ (BASIC) is a Missouri-based clothing company that owns the trademark “love happens.” Zazzle is a California-based online retailer. BASIC sued Zazzle in a Missouri district court for trademark infringement, alleging that Zazzle used its nationally available website to advertise and sell goods in Missouri. BASIC further alleged that in 2019, Zazzle sold and shipped a t-shirt bearing a purportedly infringing “love happens” logo to at least one Missouri resident. The district court granted Zazzle’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2). BASIC appealed.

Reviewing the issue de novo, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. The Court explained that because the Lanham Act does not authorize nationwide personal jurisdiction, the Court was required to apply Missouri’s long-arm statute and the federal due process clause. Given that Missouri’s long-arm statute authorizes personal jurisdiction over defendants who engage in, among other things, the transaction of any business or the commission of a tortious act within the state, the Court’s inquiry focused on whether exercising personal jurisdiction over Zazzle comported with the due process clause. Because BASIC did not allege that Zazzle was subject to general personal jurisdiction in Missouri (i.e., BASIC did not allege that Zazzle was “essentially at home” in the forum state), the question instead turned on whether BASIC had sufficiently pled facts to support a claim of specific personal jurisdiction.

The Eighth Circuit explained that specific personal jurisdiction existed over Zazzle for the purposes of BASIC’s trademark infringement claims if Zazzle had certain minimum contacts with the forum state and BASIC’s claims arose out of or related to those contacts. For specific jurisdiction to apply, the underlying controversy must be connected to the defendant’s activities in the forum state; unconnected activities directed to the forum state, no matter how numerous or systematic, cannot convey specific personal jurisdiction. The Court used a five-factor test previously set forth in Whaley v. Esebag to conduct its analysis: “(1) the nature and quality of [defendant’s] contacts with the forum state; (2) the quantity of such contacts; (3) the relation of the cause of action to the contacts; (4) the interest of the forum state in providing a forum for its residents; and (5) convenience of the parties.”

The Eighth Circuit found that the behavior alleged by BASIC (Zazzle’s operation of a national website that sells and ships goods to Missouri combined with a single specific instance of an allegedly infringing t-shirt being sold and shipped to a Missouri consumer) was insufficient to support a specific jurisdiction claim. Zazzle’s website availability and sales unrelated to the use [...]

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Don’t Dew It: Second Circuit Cans Likelihood of Confusion Argument

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and vacated a district court’s preliminary injunction grant because the district court erred in assessing the strength of a trademark. RiseandShine Corporation v. PepsiCo, Inc., Case No. 21-2786 (2d Cir. July 22, 2022) (Leval, Chin, Menashi, JJ.)

Rise Brewing began selling canned coffee under the registered mark “RISE” in 2016. The registered mark consists of the word “rise” in large, red, regular capital letters with the words “Brewing Co.” below in a smaller, similar font on a horizontal line. The mark appears on every bottle of Rise Brewing’s canned coffee products.

In March 2021, PepsiCo launched a canned energy drink product under the mark “MTN DEW RISE ENERGY,” which contains the word “rise” on the top of each can, followed by the word “energy” running vertically up its side in a much smaller font and the MTN DEW house mark above the word “rise.”

Rise Brewing filed a complaint for trademark infringement and filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin PepsiCo from using or displaying the challenged in the market pending trial. The district court granted the motion, finding that Rise Brewing was likely to succeed on the merits regarding likelihood of confusion. PepsiCo appealed.

The Second Circuit explained that the party seeking a preliminary injunction over the use of a trademark can meet the likelihood of success prong of the preliminary injunction standard by showing that a significant number of consumers are likely to be misled or confused as to the source of the products in question. Here, the district court found that there would be a likelihood of reverse confusion—that consumers would mistake Rise Brewing’s coffee products (the prior user) as Mountain Dew products (the subsequent user). The Court disagreed and reversed, finding that the district court erred in the evaluation of the most important factor: strength of the mark.

The strength of a trademark is assessed based on either or both of two components:

  1. The degree to which it is inherently distinctive
  2. The degree to which it has achieved public recognition in the marketplace.

Although the Second Circuit agreed with the district court that the RISE trademark was a suggestive mark, it disagreed on the extent to which it was distinctive. The Court explained that “[t]he district court failed to note that the strong logical associations between ‘Rise’ and coffee represent weakness and place the mark at the low end of the spectrum of suggestive marks.” Because of the legal element in determination of the strength of a given mark, the district court’s mistake constituted a legal error.

The Second Circuit found that the lack of distinctiveness in using the term “rise” to describe coffee products can be demonstrated by the [...]

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Holdover Trademark Licensee Status Can’t Do Heavy Lifting on “Exceptionality”

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit addressed issues of enhanced remedies in a dispute regarding the sale of weightlifting equipment beyond the expiration of a licensing agreement between the involved parties. Pointing to the different standard required to prove a violation and damages, the Court ultimately reduced a trademark infringement award to about a quarter of the amount initially awarded. Max Rack, Inc. v. Core Health & Fitness, LLC, et al., Case No. 20-3598 (6th Cir. July 14, 2022) (Cole, Rogers, Murphy, JJ.)

In 2006, Max Rack exclusively licensed its patents and trademarks relating to weightlifting racks to Star Trac Strength. Core Health subsequently acquired Star Trac and its licensing agreements. The final patent covering the Max Rack equipment expired on November 21, 2015, thereby terminating the licensing agreements between Max Rack and Core Health. The agreements permitted Core Health to sell any remaining Max Rack units for six months following expiration of the license.

Following expiration of the licensing agreements, Max Rack learned that Core Health failed to update web pages, marketing materials and owner’s manuals to reflect the termination of Core Health’s affiliation with Max Rack. Core Health’s failure to scrub references to “Max Rack” extended to third-party sellers’ websites advertising Core Health’s competing “Freedom Rack” product using the Max Rack name. Core Health also sold 271 more units manufactured as Max Racks after the license expired, 238 of which were sold during the six-month grace period. Of the remaining 33 units, 24 were sold after the six-month window had closed, and nine were alleged to have had their labels changed from Max Rack to Core Health’s Freedom Rack. Core Health further failed to pay Max Rack royalties for any of the 271 sales made after the license expired.

Max Rack brought two federal claims under 15 U.S.C. §§ 1114(1)(a) and 1125(a)(1)(A), alleging trademark infringement and unfair competition. Max Rack also brought three claims under Ohio’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act, alleging that Core Health passed off the Max Rack as its own machine and caused a likelihood of confusion regarding the source of the machine and regarding Core Health’s affiliation with the Max Rack trademark. The jury awarded Max Rack $1 million in damages and $250,000 in Core Health’s profits. Ruling on post-trial motions, the district court overturned the $1 million damages award for lack of evidence of any consumer confusion but enhanced the $250,000 award to $500,000 and further awarded Max Rack attorneys’ fees. Both parties appealed.

The Sixth Circuit sidestepped the fact-laden analysis to determine whether Core Health’s actions created a likelihood of consumer confusion, reasoning that the dispute related to the “holdover licensee.” Citing its own precedent and precedent from the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Eleventh Circuits, the Court applied a much more objective standard, finding that unauthorized use of a licensed trademark by a licensee after the license has expired is by itself sufficient to establish a likelihood of confusion in the mind of the consumer.

Although the Sixth Circuit used [...]

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