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Sole Searching: Trade Dress Hopes Booted as Functional, Nondistinctive

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment grant in a trademark dispute, finding that the district court did not err in concluding that a subset of design elements lacked distinctiveness in the public’s view. TBL Licensing, LLC v. Katherine Vidal, Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Case No. 23-1150 (4th Cir. Apr. 15, 2024) (Quattlebaum, Gregory, Benjamin, JJ.)

TBL Licensing is commonly known as Timberland, the prominent footwear manufacturer. Timberland tried to register specific design elements of its popular boot as protected trade dress with the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO). In its application, Timberland provided a detailed written description of the boot design elements it sought to register as protectable trade dress. Timberland also included a drawing of these design elements.

The PTO rejected Timberland’s application, finding that the design was functional and lacked distinctiveness. Timberland appealed to the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board, which affirmed. Timberland then challenged the Board’s decision in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the PTO because Timberland’s design was functional and had not acquired distinctiveness. Timberland appealed.

Timberland argued that the district court improperly segmented the design during its functionality analysis. Timberland argued that the district court failed to meaningfully consider the design as a whole, and even if it did, the court erred in considering specific factors, including the availability of alternative designs and the design’s simplicity in manufacturing. The court also relied on inapposite patents and advertisements as evidence to support its functionality finding, an analysis that Timberland argued was improper.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. While acknowledging the potential error in the district court’s failure to analyze the design holistically, the Court ultimately found that the limited design elements Timberland sought to register lacked secondary meaning – a crucial element for trade dress protection. The Court employed a secondary meaning analysis to assess public perception of Timberland’s design and considered various factors, including advertising expenditures, consumer studies, sales success, unsolicited media coverage, attempts at imitation and length of exclusive use.

Applying each factor, the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court did not clearly err in finding that the design elements lacked distinctiveness. The Court explained that the district court highlighted flaws in Timberland’s consumer survey, noting suggestive questions and a lack of focus on the claimed design features. The district court also emphasized that Timberland’s advertising expenditures did not effectively link the claimed design features with Timberland in consumers’ minds. Timberland’s arguments regarding sales success, media coverage and attempts at plagiarism were also found insufficient to establish secondary meaning. Lastly, the presence of similar-looking boots from other manufacturers undermined Timberland’s claim of exclusivity in using the design.

Lacking direct consumer survey evidence, the Fourth Circuit determined that Timberland’s circumstantial evidence failed to [...]

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If at First You DuPont Succeed, Try a Different Factor

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit remanded a Trademark Trial & Appeal Board decision, finding that the Board incorrectly analyzed several DuPont factors, improperly disregarded the DuPont factor regarding third-party registration on similar goods, permitted the opposer to succeed without a showing of identical marks for identical goods used in the marketplace and predicated its comparative analysis on the incorrect mark. Spireon, Inc. v. Flex Ltd., Case No. 22-1578 (Fed. Cir. June 26, 2023) (Mayer, Reyna, Dyk, JJ.)

Spireon filed a trademark application for the mark FL FLEX for use in connection with “[e]lectronic devices for tracking the locations of mobile assets in the nature of trailers, cargo containers, and transportation equipment using global positioning systems and cellular communication networks.” After the Examining Attorney approved the application, Flex opposed registration on grounds of priority and likelihood of confusion with Flex’s previously registered marks: FLEX, FLEX (stylized) and FLEX PULSE.

The Board sustained Flex’s opposition based on its analysis of the DuPont factors for evaluating likelihood of confusion. There are a total of 13 factors that together form the underlying factual findings upon which the legal conclusion of likelihood of confusion is made. Not all factors are relevant in every case.

In its consideration of the first DuPont factor (the similarity of the marks), the Board addressed the strength of Flex’s marks, including the marks’ conceptual and commercial strength. The Board weighed five marks—FLEX (in three relevant commercial contexts), LOAD FLEX VALUE FLEX—and concluded that the third-party evidence did not show that Flex’s marks were either conceptually weak or inherently distinctive. The Board then considered the similarity of the marks, analyzing Spireon’s FL FLEX against FLEX, FLEX (stylized) and FLEX PLUS (rather than the actual mark FLEX PULSE). The Board found the marks highly similar and concluded that the first DuPont factor supported a finding of likelihood of confusion. The Board also addressed three other DuPont factors that it considered relevant, but no others. Spireon appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed. The Court found that the Board erred in not considering the sixth DuPont factor, “[t]he number and nature of similar marks in use on similar goods.” This factor requires an evaluation of conceptual strength and commercial strength. Conceptual strength focuses on the degree to which a mark is descriptive in that it “directly and immediately convey[s] some knowledge of the characteristics of products.” Commercial strength focuses on the “marketplace recognition value of the mark.”

The Federal Circuit explained the relevance of third-party registrations and their bearing on a mark’s conceptual strength, noting that the Board erred in assigning a low probative value to 15 composite marks of record. The Court explained that composite third-party marks are relevant to resolving the question of whether the “shared segment—in this case, ‘flex’—has a commonly understood” meaning in the pertinent field and to the crowded nature of the field in which the flex root is used. As the Court explained, proof of use or non-use is material because the sixth DuPont factor only considers [...]

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Injunctive Relief Available Even Where Laches Bars Trademark Infringement, Unfair Competition Damage Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed a district court’s conclusion that laches barred an advertising and marketing company’s claims for monetary damages for trademark infringement and unfair competition, but remanded the case for assessment of injunctive relief to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between two similarly named companies operating in the advertising sector. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, Inc. v. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, LLC, Case No. 19-15167 (11th Cir. Aug. 2, 2021) (Branch, J.)

Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Illinois) is an Illinois-based company and owner of two registered trademarks including the name “Pinnacle.” Pinnacle Illinois learned of a Florida-based company operating under almost the same name that was also in the advertising and marketing space—Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Florida) —through potential clients and a magazine’s accidental conflation of the two unrelated companies. Several years later, Pinnacle Illinois sued Pinnacle Florida for trademark infringement, unfair competition and cybersquatting. Pinnacle Florida filed a counterclaim seeking to cancel Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark registrations and also alleged that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches.

Following a jury trial, the district court granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on Pinnacle Illinois’s cybersquatting claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Pinnacle Illinois on its claims for trademark infringement and unfair competition, awarding Pinnacle Illinois $550,000 in damages. The district court then granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on its laches defense, concluding that Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark infringement and unfair competition claims were barred by laches because it waited more than four years to bring suit after it should have known that it had a potential infringement claim against Pinnacle Florida. The district court also cancelled Pinnacle Illinois’s registrations because it concluded that Pinnacle Illinois’s marks were merely descriptive and lacked secondary meaning. Pinnacle Illinois appealed.

Pinnacle Illinois argued that the district court abused its discretion in finding that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by laches, and that even if laches did bar Pinnacle Illinois’s claims for money damages, the district court should have considered whether injunctive relief was proper to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between the two companies. Pinnacle Illinois also argued that the district court erred when it cancelled its registrations without regard to the jury’s findings of distinctiveness and protectability or the presumption of distinctiveness afforded to its registered marks.

The 11th Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that laches barred Pinnacle Illinois from bringing its trademark infringement and unfair competition claims for monetary damages. Pinnacle Illinois sued after the Florida four-year statute of limitations had passed, and the Court found that the company was not excused for its delay because it did not communicate with Pinnacle Florida about the infringement until it filed suit. Pinnacle Florida also suffered economic prejudice because it invested significant time and money, including around $2 million, in developing its business under [...]

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Double Meaning Can Make Mark Distinctive

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment invalidating a service mark for lacking distinctiveness, finding that a reasonable jury could understand the mark to entail a double meaning and therefore making it sufficiently distinctive to receive trademark protection. Engineered Tax Servs., Inc. v. Scarpello Consulting, Inc., Case No. 18-13690 (11th Cir. May 14, 2020) (Newsom, J.).

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