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Déjà vu Decision on Likelihood of Confusion

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a trademark suit that was essentially identical to a previous lawsuit that was dismissed based on a finding of lack of confusion. Springboards to Education, Inc. v. Pharr San Juan Alamo Independent School District, Case No. 21-40336 (5th Cir. May 10, 2022) (Willett, Engelhardt, Wilson, JJ.)

Springboards sells products to school districts in connection with its “Read a Million Words Campaign.” The campaign builds excitement around reading by incentivizing school children to read books through promises of induction into the Millionaire’s Reading Club and access to rewards, such as t-shirts, backpacks and fake money. Springboards’ goods may typically bear any combination of trademarks that it registered with the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO), including “Read a Million Words,” “Million Dollar Reader,” “Millionaire Reader” and “Millionaire’s Reading Club.”

Pharr San Juan Alamo (PSJA) is a public school district in Hidalgo County, Texas. Springboards sued PSJA in 2016 in federal court, alleging trademark infringement based on the school district’s use of “millionaire”-themed reading incentive programs allegedly “using products and services bearing marks and branding identical to or confusingly similar to Springboards’ marks.” While the case was pending, the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in Springboards to Education, Inc. v. Houston Independent School District, where it found that another public school district’s summer reading program did not infringe Springboards’ trademarks. Observing the parallels between the Houston case and the PSJA case, the district court granted PSJA’s motion for summary judgment that it did not infringe any of Springboards’ trademarks. Springboards appealed.

Calling it “déjà vu all over again,” the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that PSJA’s use of Springboards’ marks was not likely to cause confusion. The Court explained that distinguishing between Springboards’ catalog of “millionaire”-themed goods and unaffiliated “millionaire”-themed goods that other educational entities have elected to deploy is not difficult, and unique imprints on “millionaire”-themed reading challenges are widespread in the educational field. The Court noted that as in Houston, Springboards did not allege that PSJA itself is in the business of competing with Springboards by selling its own “millionaire”-themed products to the school districts that make up Springboards’ customer base. The Court thus concluded that PSJA’s use of a million-word reaching challenge did not confuse and was not intended to confuse the sophisticated school districts that Springboards targets with its marks.

Springboards tried to distinguish the Houston case by arguing that the Houston school district had one summer reading program whereas PSJA has had several year-long reading programs and that the requirements of PSJA’s reading program are identical—and not merely similar to—Springboards’ model program. Springboards also noted that its founder worked his entire career in Hildago County (where PSJA is located) and visited schools, teachers and administrators in the district—unlike Houston, which was over 300 miles away. The Court found that these facts did not move the needle, in light of its finding that sophisticated school district customers can [...]

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

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

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

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

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

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Eye Don’t: No Counterfeiting Without Likelihood of Confusion

Referring to the act of counterfeiting as “hard core” or “first degree” trademark infringement, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for the first time confirmed that the Lanham Act requires a likelihood of confusion in order for the trademark holder to prevail on a counterfeiting claim. Arcona, Inc. v. Farmacy Beauty, LLC, et al., Case No. 19-55586 (9th Cir. Oct. 1, 2020) (Lee, J.) In doing so, the Court affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Farmacy Beauty in a counterfeiting action brought by skin care brand Arcona.

Arcona’s counterfeiting claims (which remained in the district court action after Arcona requested dismissal of its trademark infringement and unfair competition claims) stemmed from Farmacy Beauty’s use of the term EYE DEW on its skincare products, which Arcona asserted to be counterfeit versions of its eye cream sold in the United States under the registered EYE DEW trademark. The district court, however, found that dissimilar packaging and branding made it “implausible” that consumers would be tricked into believing that Farmacy’s EYE DEW product was actually one of Arcona’s skin care products, and granted partial summary judgment for Farmacy on the counterfeiting claim. Arcona appealed.

Arcona argued that it was not required to show a likelihood of consumer confusion with respect to the parties’ EYE DEW eye creams in order to pursue its trademark counterfeiting claim. The Ninth Circuit starkly disagreed, finding that the plain language of the Lanham Act, 15 USC § 1114, expressly states that likelihood of confusion is a requirement for a counterfeiting claim.

The Ninth Circuit also rejected Arcona’s alternative argument, that there should be a presumption of likelihood of confusion based on the parties’ use of the identical mark EYE DEW. The Court explained that in a claim of counterfeiting—even with identical trademarks—there is no presumption of consumer confusion if the products themselves are not identical. Here, evidence demonstrated that the parties sold their respective EYE DEW products in very different packages, with Arcona’s eye cream being in a “tall, cylindrical, silver bottle encased in a slim, cardboard outer box,” and Farmacy’s eye cream sold in a “short, wide, white jar, along with a squarish outer box.” In reviewing the parties’ respective products as a whole, including prominent displays of the respective house marks FARMACY and ARCONA, as well as differences in packaging, size, color, shape and “all other attributes,” the Court determined that the parties’ products were not identical and that there was no presumption of consumer confusion.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that summary judgment of no counterfeiting was proper because there was no genuine dispute of material fact about the likelihood of consumer confusion factor. The Court acknowledged that the parties’ eye cream products do compete in the same space and in the same geographic markets, but explained that a claim of counterfeiting nevertheless requires that the parties’ marks be “considered in their entirety and as they appear in the marketplace.” Noting that the available evidence demonstrated significant differences between [...]

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Diamonds to Dust? Too Many Factual Disputes Precludes Summary Judgment

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a district court’s summary judgment grant in favor of a fine jewelry producer for trademark infringement, counterfeiting and unfair competition because factual disputes exist around whether the accused infringer’s use of the word “Tiffany” was merely descriptive of a particular ring setting, thereby supporting a fair use defense to infringement. Tiffany and Company v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, Case Nos. 17-2798-cv, -19-338, -19-404 (2nd Cir. Aug. 17, 2020) (Livingston, J.).

In 2012, a Costco customer alerted Tiffany that she believed Costco was selling diamond engagement rings advertised as Tiffany rings. When Tiffany approached Costco about the issue in December 2012, Costco asserted that its point-of-sale displays bearing the Tiffany name referred to the diamond setting styles of its rings, and that other similar point-of-sale displays also identified common ring settings such as “bezel” or “cathedral” settings. Costco also claims that within one week after Tiffany’s December 2012 outreach, it voluntarily removed all uses of “Tiffany” from its jewelry displays and has not since used the word “Tiffany” to identify any rings or setting styles.

Nevertheless, in 2013, Tiffany filed suit against Costco for trademark infringement and counterfeiting under the Lanham Act, and unfair competition in violation of New York state law, based on Costco’s sales of otherwise unbranded diamond engagement rings identified by point-of-sale signs containing the word “Tiffany.” In response, Costco raised the affirmative defense of fair use, arguing that its use of “Tiffany” on certain signage for rings was not as a source-identifying trademark, but merely to describe a particular six-prong diamond setting style. Costco also filed a counterclaim seeking to cancel certain federal trademark registrations for the TIFFANY mark as “generic” for a specific jewelry setting, and not entitled to registered trademark protection.

The district court granted Tiffany’s motion for summary judgment finding Costco liable for trademark infringement and counterfeiting as a matter of law. The district court then revised a jury’s damages award finding that Costco was liable for willful or intentional infringement to the tune of more than $21 million. Costco appealed.

On appeal, Costco argued it had successfully raised a question of material fact as to its liability for trademark infringement and counterfeiting and was entitled to present its fair use defense to a jury. The Second Circuit addressed the lower court’s trademark “likelihood of confusion” assessment under its own Polaroid factors and explained that if a factual inference must be drawn to arrive at a particular finding on a Polaroid factor, and if a reasonable trier of fact could reach a different conclusion, the district court may not properly resolve that issue on summary judgment. Here, the Court determined that Costco raised a triable question of fact as to at least three of the Polaroid factors, namely, (1) whether Costco’s customers were actually confused as to the source or affiliation of its diamond engagement rings, (2) whether Costco adopted Tiffany’s trademark in bad faith and (3) whether the relevant population of consumers was sufficiently [...]

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