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This .SUCKS: Trademark Applications for Identical Characters Is a No-Go

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (Board) decision affirming the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (PTO) refusal to register two trademark applications for “.SUCKS.” In Re: Vox Populi Registry Ltd., Case No. 21-1496 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 2, 2022) (Lourie, Dyk, Stoll, JJ.)

Vox is a domain registry operator that maintains the master database of all domain names registered in each top-level domain. Vox filed two trademark applications for identical characters, one as a standard character and the other as a stylized form of .SUCKS, as shown below.

The PTO refused Vox’s applications on the grounds that, when used in connection with the domain services, each failed to function as a trademark. Vox appealed to the Board. The Board concluded that .SUCKS, whether as a standard mark or in the stylized form, would not be perceived as a source identifier. Vox appealed the Board’s decision only with respect to the stylized form of .SUCKS.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit noted that although Vox did not appeal the rejection of the standard character application, it spent much of its opening brief arguing that the standard character functions as a mark. As such, the Court reviewed the Board’s decision with respect to the standard character mark .SUCKS under the substantial evidence standard. Substantial evidence “means only such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” The Court found that substantial evidence supported the Board’s finding that consumers will view .SUCKS as only a non-source identifying part of a domain name, rather than as a trademark. The Court cited evidence reviewed by the Board, including Vox’s website, online articles and advertisements showing that .SUCKS refers to a product rather than as an identifiable provider or service. Ultimately, the Court found that the Board reasonably weighed the evidence.

The Federal Circuit next addressed the question of whether the stylized design of .SUCKS is registerable. The Court found no error in the Board’s analysis of whether the stylized form creates a separate commercial impression, where “all of the characters in the mark are the same height and width and are merely displayed in a font style that was once mandated by the technological limitations of computer screens.” Because the stylized design was not inherently distinctive, the Court rejected Vox’s application, thus affirming the Board’s decision in full.




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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