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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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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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