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TTAB Judicial Appointments are Determined Constitutionally Sound

Addressing for the first time whether the Supreme Court of the United States’ recent decision in United States v. Arthrex, Inc. also applied to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that it did not, upholding the constitutionality of TTAB judicial appointments and affirming the TTAB’s cancellation of the SCHIEDMAYER trademark. Piano Factory Group, Inc. v Schiedmayer Celesta GMBH, Case No. 20-1196 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 1, 2021) (Bryson, J.)

Schiedmayer Celesta is the remaining corporate entity from a centuries-old line of German keyboard instrument manufacturers that uses the SCHIEDMAYER trademark in connection with the sale of its products. Sweet 16 Musical Properties and Piano Factory Group (collectively, Piano Factory) operated Hollywood Piano retail outlets where it sold “no-name” pianos purchased from China that were affixed with “Schiedmayer” labels. The owner of Piano Factory, believing the SCHIEDMAYER mark had been abandoned, applied to register the SCHIEDMAYER mark, and the registration issued in 2007.

In 2015, Schiedmayer filed a petition to cancel Piano Factory’s registration, alleging that it falsely suggested a connection with Schiedmayer and, thus, violated Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. After the TTAB granted the petition to cancel, Piano Factory appealed.

Between the time that the parties filed their appeal briefs and the Federal Circuit issued its decision, the Supreme Court issued its decision in United States v. Arthrex, holding that the appointment of Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) administrative judges violated the Appointments Clause of Article II of the Constitution. On appeal, Piano Factory argued that the appointment of TTAB administrative judges (specifically, the administrative judges who issued the decision Piano Factory was appealing) was likewise unconstitutional. However, the Court disagreed, citing language from the Arthrex decision that “effectively confirmed that . . . the statutory scheme governing TTAB decision-making is not subject to the Appointments Clause problem the Court identified with regard to the PTAB.”

Additionally, Piano Factory cited the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020 (TMA)—which explicitly addressed this issue—for support. Piano Factory argued that since the TMA was not enacted until after the TTAB’s decision to cancel the SCHIEDMAYER registration, its enactment indicated that the TTAB was previously flawed. Again, the Federal Circuit disagreed, stating “the 2020 legislation itself makes clear that it merely confirmed, and did not alter” the framework that was in place prior to the TMA.

Piano Factory also challenged the merits of the TTAB’s decision, including its application of the four-factor test for false association, which considers:

  1. Whether the challenged mark is identical or nearly identical to a name previously used by another person;
  2. Whether the mark would be understood as a unique and unmistakable reference to that person;
  3. Whether the person referenced by the challenged mark was connected with the applicant’s activities and
  4. Whether the earlier user’s name has sufficient fame such that a connection with applicant would be presumed when the contested mark was used to identify the applicant’s goods.

Piano Factory disputed the [...]

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Foreign Company’s Purposeful US Activities Blemishes Lack of Personal Jurisdiction Defense

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a complaint, finding that the foreign defendant was subject to specific personal jurisdiction in the United States in light of the defendant’s marketing, sales and operations, each of which reflected a significant focus on the United States. Ayla, LLC v. Alya Skin Pty. Ltd., Case No. 20-16214 (9th Cir. Aug. 27, 2021) (Rakoff, J.)

Ayla is a beauty and wellness brand based in the San Francisco area that offers skincare and hair products through retail and online sales, as well as health and personal care advice on its website. Ayla has three registered trademarks “for use of the ‘AYLA’ word mark in connection with on-site beauty services, online retail beauty products and cosmetics services, and cosmetics.” Alya Skin is a skincare company with its place of incorporation and principal place of business in Australia. Alya Skin sells and ships its products worldwide but about 10% of its total sales are made to the United States.

Alleging a “confusingly similar” mark on its products and advertisements, Ayla sued Alya Skin for trademark infringement and false designation of origin pursuant to the Lanham Act, as well as unfair competition under the California Business & Professions Code and California common law. Alya Skin moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of personal jurisdiction. The district court granted Alya Skin’s motion to dismiss, finding that it did not have personal jurisdiction. Ayla appealed.

On appeal, Ayla challenged the district court’s determination that it did not have nationwide jurisdiction over Alya Skin under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 4(k)(2). The Ninth Circuit framed the issue on appeal as a question of whether the district court “erroneously held that the exercise of nationwide jurisdiction over Alya Skin does not comport with due process.” The Court noted that the due process analysis under 4(k)(2) is “nearly identical” to the traditional personal jurisdiction analysis but “rather than considering contacts between [the defendant] and the forum state, we consider contacts with the nation as a whole.” Because trademark infringement is “treated as tort-like for personal jurisdiction purposes,” the Court focused its specific jurisdiction analysis on whether Alya Skin “purposefully directed its activities toward the United States.”

The Ninth Circuit’s inquiry focused on a totality analysis surrounding Alya Skin’s marketing, sales and operations, each of which reflected a significant focus on the United States. The Court noted that Alya Skin promoted its allegedly infringing products specifically to US individuals through “significant advertising efforts.” These efforts included, for example, an Instagram post directly referencing the “USA,” Alya Skin’s advertising efforts during “Black Friday” and Alya Skin’s reference on its website that its products were featured in US magazines. Moreover, Alya Skin presented to consumers “that its products are FDA approved,” which the Court found to be “an appeal specifically to American consumers for whom the acronym ‘FDA’ has meaning.” The Court also noted that Alya Skin’s volume of sales reflected a purposeful direction toward the United States.

[...]

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Lanham Act Reaches Foreign Defendants’ Extraterritorial Conduct, but Worldwide Injunction Too Broad

The US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a district court’s injunction barring multiple foreign companies from directly or indirectly using a US remote control manufacturer’s trade dress based on the extraterritorial reach of the Lanham Act. However, the Court narrowed the scope of the worldwide injunction to countries where the US company currently markets or sells its products. Hetronic Int’l, Inc. v. Hetronic Germany GmbH, Case Nos. 20-6057, -6100 (10th Cir. Aug. 24, 2021) (Phillips, J.)

Hetronic International is a US company that manufactures radio remote controls for heavy-duty construction equipment. Hetronic Germany GmbH, Hydronic Steuersysteme GmbH, ABI Holding GmbH, Abitron Germany GmbH and Abitron Austria GmbH (collectively, the Distributers) are foreign companies that have distributed Hetronic’s products—mostly in Europe—for almost a decade. Based on an old research and development agreement between the parties, the Distributors concluded that they, not Hetronic, owned the rights to Hetronic’s trademarks and other intellectual property. The Distributors accordingly reverse-engineered Hetronic’s products and began manufacturing and selling their own copycat products, mostly in Europe. The copycat products were identical to Hetronic’s and were sold under the Hetronic brand and the same product names. Hetronic terminated the parties’ distribution agreements, but the Distributers continued to sell their copycat products. The Distributors attempted to break into the US market, selling several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of products before backing off after Hetronic sued. They then focused their efforts on Europe.

Hetronic sued the Distributors, along with their manager and owner Albert Fuchs, under the Lanham Act. The Distributors moved for summary judgment, arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to resolve the Lanham Act claims because the conduct at issue occurred overseas. The Distributors asserted that Hetronic’s claims had to be dismissed because the Lanham Act applied extraterritorially only if a defendant’s conduct had a substantial effect on US commerce, and the Distributors’ conduct did not. The district court rejected that argument and denied summary judgment.

In a separate proceeding initiated by the Distributors in the European Union, the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) concluded that Hetronic owned all of the disputed intellectual property. Based on the EUIPO proceeding, the district court applied the doctrine of issue preclusion and granted Hetronic summary judgment on the Distributors’ ownership defense. After an 11-day trial, a jury found that the Distributors had willfully infringed Hetronic’s trademarks and awarded Hetronic more than $100 million in damages, mostly for trademark infringement. The district court also entered a permanent injunction prohibiting the Distributors’ infringing activities worldwide. The Distributors appealed.

On appeal, the Distributors accepted that the Lanham Act can sometimes apply extraterritorially but argued that the Lanham Act did not reach their activity as foreign defendants making sales to foreign consumers. Specifically, the Distributors argued that:

  • The district court erroneously concluded that the Lanham Act applied extraterritorially.
  • The injunction lacked the specificity required by Fed. R. of Civ. Pro. 65.
  • The injunction’s worldwide reach was too broad.

The Distributors challenged the district court’s exercise of personal [...]

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Greek God or Continent? Defining “Confusing Similarity” under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act

Examining whether a registered mark and a domain name were confusingly similar under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the trademark owner because the mark and domains are nearly identical in sight, sound and meaning. Boigris v. EWC P&T, LLC, Case No. 20-11929 (11th Cir. Aug. 6, 2021) (Marcus, J.) (Newsom, J. dissenting). The registered trademark is “European Wax Center” and the domain names in issue are “europawaxcenter.com” and “euwaxcenter.com.”

EWC runs a nationwide beauty brand titled European Wax Center that offers hair removal services and beauty products and also holds a trademark under the same name. Since 2015, EWC sold cosmetics under the marks “reveal me,” “renew me” and “smooth me.” Bryan Boigris has no direct background related to the production of beauty products, but in April 2016, he claimed an intent to begin selling such products and attempted to register trademarks at the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) for “reveal me,” “renew me” and “smooth me,” none of which had been used in commerce before by Boigris. Boigris also registered 11 domain names including, “euwaxcenter.com” and “europawaxcenter.com.” Upon discovery of Boigris’s pending applications, EWC filed for its own trademark applications for “reveal me,” “renew me” and “smooth me” and filed an opposition to Boigris’s pending applications at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). The TTAB sustained the oppositions.

Boigris elected to contest the TTAB’s decision in district court. Specifically, Boigris sought reversal of the TTAB’s decision and an affirmative declaration that he was entitled to register the disputed marks. EWC counterclaimed for an affirmation of the TTAB’s decision as well as declaratory judgment that it had priority rights in the disputed marks, that Boigris’s use constituted infringement under the Lanham Act, damages and an injunction under the ACPA against Boigris’s use of the two domains, “europawaxcenter.com” and “euwaxcenter.com.” EWC moved for summary judgment on all of its claims, which the district court granted. Boigris appealed the ACPA decision only.

Under the ACPA, a trademark holder must prove that: (1) its trademark was distinctive when the defendant registered the challenged domain name; (2) the domain name is identical or confusingly similar to the plaintiff’s trademark and (3) the defendant registered the domain name with a bad faith intent to profit. Boigris challenged the second element only and did not contest that EWC’s trademarks were distinctive or that he registered the domains in bad faith. Specifically, Boigris argued that the issue of whether or not the “European Wax Center” mark and the “europawaxcenter.com” and “euwaxcenter.com” domains are confusingly similar should have been a question for the jury.

The 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, determining that no reasonable jury could conclude that Boigris’s domain names are not confusingly similar to EWC’s mark. The Court acknowledged the difference between the Lanham Act’s traditional multi-factor likelihood of confusion test for trademark infringement and the test for confusing similarity, noting [...]

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Texas Hammer Nails Trademark Infringement Appeal

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of an initial confusion trademark complaint, finding that the plaintiff alleged a plausible claim of trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. Adler v. McNeil Consultants, LLC, Case No. 20-10936 (6th Cir. Aug. 10, 2021) (Southwick, J.)

Jim Adler is a personal injury lawyer who trademarked and used several terms, including JIM ADLER, THE HAMMER and TEXAS HAMMER, to market his business, including via keyword advertisements. McNeil Consultants, a personal injury lawyer referral service, purchased keyword ads using Adler’s trademarked terms, which allowed McNeil’s advertisements to appear at the top of any Google search of Adler’s trademarked terms. McNeil’s advertisements used generic personal injury terms, did not identify any particular law firm and clicking on the ads placed a phone call to McNeil’s call center rather than directing the user to a website. The call center used a generic greeting so consumers did not realize with whom they were speaking.

Adler filed suit against McNeil, asserting Texas state law claims as well as trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. McNeil moved to dismiss, arguing that its keyword ads did not create a likelihood of confusion. The district court agreed and dismissed Adler’s complaint. Adler appealed.

To successfully plead a trademark infringement claim under Fifth Circuit law, the holder of a protectable trademark must establish that the alleged infringing use “creates a likelihood of confusion as to source, affiliation, or sponsorship.” To determine whether a likelihood of confusion exists, the Court weighs a non-exhaustive list of several confusion factors, including the similarity of the marks, the similarity of the products, the defendant’s intent and the care exercised by potential consumers.

The Fifth Circuit explained that Adler alleged initial interest confusion, which exists where the confusion creates consumer interest in the infringing party’s services even where no sale is completed because of the confusion. The Court noted that this case presented the first opportunity for the Fifth Circuit to consider initial interest confusion as it pertains to search engine keyword advertising. Relying on Ninth Circuit precedent and parallel reasoning to its own opinions on initial interest confusion in the context of metatag usage, the Court concluded that Adler’s complaint alleged a plausible claim of trademark infringement under the Lanham Act.

The Fifth Circuit noted that initial interest confusion alone is not enough to raise a Lanham Act claim. The Court explained that if a consumer searches TOYOTA and is directed to search results containing a purchased ad clearly labeled as selling VOLKSWAGEN products, a consumer who clicks on the VOLKSWAGEN ad has been distracted, not confused or misled into purchasing the wrong product. Distraction does not violate the Lanham Act. However, the Court explained that where the use of keyword ads creates confusion as to the source of the advertisement—not mere distraction—an infringement may have occurred. Because McNeil’s advertisements were admittedly generic and could have been associated with any personal injury law firm, the Court found that the keyword [...]

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Third Circuit Orders Second Look at Delays and Disgorgement of Profits

In a long-running trademark dispute between two charitable organizations, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the appellee did not preserve its challenge to the district court’s denial of summary judgment on its trademark cancelation claims, the appellant waived any challenge to the validity of the defendant’s mark and the district court did not abuse its discretion by declining to award enhanced monetary relief or prejudgment interest. Kars 4 Kids Inc. v America Can!, Case Nos. 20-2813; -2900 (3rd Cir., August 10, 2021) (Shwartz, J.) The Court also vacated-in-part and remanded for the district court to reexamine its laches and disgorgement conclusions under applicable law.

As charitable organizations that sell donated vehicles to fund children’s programs, both America Can (as CARS FOR KIDS) and Kars 4 Kids have used similar trademarks since their respective starts in the early- to mid-1990s. In 2003 and 2013, America Can sent cease and desist letters to Kars 4 Kids after seeing its advertisements in the state of Texas. In 2014, Kars 4 Kids sued America Can for federal and state trademark infringement, unfair competition and trademark dilution claims. Less than one year later, America Can filed its own suit—alleging the same claims—plus a petition to cancel a Kars 4 Kids trademark registration and seeking a nationwide injunction and financial compensation.

Both parties appeal from a denial of their respective summary judgment motions as well as (1) the jury finding that Kars 4 Kids willfully infringed America Can’s trademark rights in Texas, (2) the rejection of America Can’s petition for cancellation of a KARS FOR KIDS trademark registration finding that the registration was not knowingly procured by fraudulent means, (3) the conclusion that laches did not apply against America Can’s claims, (4) disgorgement of Kars 4 Kids profits in Texas totaling about $10.6 million, (5) rejection of enhanced monetary relief and (6) an injunction against Kars 4 Kids with respect to use of its trademark in Texas and from using the carsforkids.com domain name. On appeal, Kars 4 Kids also renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, including an argument that America Can’s trademark is invalid.

The Third Circuit rejected Kars 4 Kids’ effort to overturn the jury’s liability verdict, concluding that Kars 4 Kids failed to preserve its challenge to the validity of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark when it left that issue out of its Rule 50(a) motion. Instead, evidence of America Can’s continuous use of the CARS FOR KIDS mark well prior to 2003 predated Kars 4 Kids’ first use of its trademark in Texas in 2003 and established America Can’s ownership of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark in Texas.

However, after examining the laches claim, the Third Circuit explained that it considered (1) the plaintiff’s inexcusable delay in bringing suit and (2) prejudice to the defendant as a result of the delay. With no statute of limitations under the Lanham Act, the parties agreed that their claims are properly analogized to New Jersey’s six-year [...]

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Don’t Count Your Lamborghinis Before Your Trademark is in Use

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment, finding that a trademark registrant had alleged infringement of its trademark without having engaged in bona fide use of the trademark in commerce, as required by the Lanham Act. The Court found no material issue of fact as to whether the registrant had used the mark in commerce in a manner to properly secure registration, and the alleged infringer therefore was entitled to cancellation of the registration. Social Technologies LLC v. Apple Inc., Case No. 320-15241 (9th Cir. July 13, 2021) (Restani, J., sitting by designation)

This dispute traces back to a 2016 intent-to-use US trademark application filed by Social Technologies for the mark MEMOJI in connection with a mobile phone software application. After filing its application, Social Technologies engaged in some early-stage activities to develop a business plan and seek investors. On June 4, 2018, Apple announced its own MEMOJI software, acquired from a third party, that allowed users to transform images of themselves into emoji-style characters. At that date, Social Technologies had not yet written any code for its own app and had engaged only in promotional activities for the planned software.

Apple’s MEMOJI announcement triggered Social Technologies to rush to develop its MEMOJI app, which it launched three weeks later (although system bugs caused the app to be removed promptly from the Google Play Store). Social Technologies then used that app launch to submit a statement of use for its trademark application in order to secure registration of the MEMOJI trademark. The record also showed that over the course of those three weeks, Social Technologies’ co-founder and president sent several internal emails urging acceleration of the software development in preparation to file a trademark infringement lawsuit against Apple, writing to the company’s developers that it was “[t]ime to get paid, gentlemen,” and to “[g]et your Lamborghini picked out!”

By September 2018, Apple had initiated a petition before the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board to cancel Social Technologies’ MEMOJI registration. Social Technologies responded by filing a lawsuit for trademark infringement and seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement and validity of its MEMOJI registration. When both parties moved for summary judgement, the district court determined that Social Technologies had not engaged in bona fide use of the MEMOJI trademark and held that Apple was entitled to cancellation of Social Technologies’ registration. Social Technologies appealed.

Reviewing the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo, the Ninth Circuit framed its analysis under the Lanham Act’s use in commerce requirement, which requires bona fide use of a mark in the ordinary course of trade and “not merely to reserve a right” in the mark. The issue on appeal was whether Social Technologies used the MEMOJI mark in commerce in such a manner to render its trademark registration valid.

The Ninth Circuit then explained the Lanham Act’s use in commerce requirement, which requires “use of a genuine character” determined by the totality of the circumstances (including “non-sales [...]

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10th Circuit Falls into Line on Exceptionality Doctrine in Lanham Act Cases

Addressing whether the term “exceptional case” in the Patent Act differs in meaning from the same term used in the Lanham Act, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld an award of attorneys’ fees granted under a motion filed under 15 U.S.C. 1117(a) and clarified that the exceptional case standard in the Lanham Act parallels the standard in the Patent Act. Derma Pen, LLC v. 4EverYoung Limited, et al., Case No. 19-4114 (10th Cir. June 8, 2021) (Lucero, J.)

In 2013, Derma Pen sued several companies for infringement of the “DERMAPEN” mark. Four years later, Derma Pen was granted a permanent injunction prohibiting the companies and “their officers, agents, servants, employees, attorneys, licensees, and anyone in active concert or participation with, aiding, assisting, or enabling Defendants” from using the mark. A few months later, Derma Pen filed for an order of contempt against one of the defendants, Stene Marshall, alleging that Marshall, with the help of other actors (related parties), had been violating the earlier-issued injunction. During the subsequent proceedings, despite being the plaintiff, Derma Pen routinely failed to meet its discovery obligations, causing the related parties to file as many as six discovery motions and resulting in the imposition of sanctions on Derma Pen.

Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court found Marshall in contempt of the injunction, but concluded that the related parties took no part in Marshall’s violation. Subsequently, the related parties moved for attorneys’ fees incurred in the contempt proceeding under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1117(a). The district court granted the motion and awarded more than $190,000 in fees based on application of the “exceptional case” standard set forth in the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2014 decision in Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness. Specifically, the district court decided that the case was “exceptional” because:

  • Derma Pen produced “no evidence of damages.”
  • “[T]he evidence showed [Derma Pen] had no right to enforce the injunction.”
  • “[T]he evidence showed that [the] trademark was abandoned.”
  • “[M]onetary sanctions were imposed on” Derma Pen for misconduct and delay during discovery.
  • Derma Pen was “entitled to no relief against the [related parties].”

Derma Pen appealed.

The 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding and fees award for the related parties, noting Derma Pen’s misconduct and delay during discovery. In so doing, the Court adopted the Octane Fitness standard as applicable to cases brought under the Lanham Act.

Practice Note: The 10th Circuit noted that it was acting consistently with other circuits that have considered application of the Octane standard to fee disputes under the Lanham Act, citing LHO Chicago River, L.L.C. v. Perillo (7th Cir. 2019) (collecting cases); Xereas v. Heiss (DC Cir. 2021); and Safeway Transit LLC v. Disc. Party Bus, Inc. (8th Cir. 2020).




Initial Confusion? Relax, Eighth Circuit Has Your Number

Addressing a novel issue regarding when confusion must occur for it to be actionable, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that initial-interest confusion was a viable infringement theory. Select Comfort Corp. v. Baxter, Case No. 19-1113 (8th Cir. May 11, 2021) (Melloy, J.)

Select Comfort owns registered trademarks, including “SELECT COMFORT,” “SLEEP NUMBER” and “WHAT’S YOUR SLEEP NUMBER,” for adjustable air mattresses, which it sells online and in stores across the United States. Baxter sells competing air mattresses online and through a call center. Select Comfort brought a suit asserting trademark infringement, trademark dilution and false advertising theories against Baxter. Select Comfort alleged that Baxter used Select Comfort’s registered trademarks in an identical or confusingly similar manner to advertise Baxter’s mattresses and divert consumers to its website and phone lines instead of Select Comfort’s. Select Comfort also alleged that Baxter made false representations about its products and failed to dispel consumer confusion about the products. At trial, Select Comfort pointed to similar terms in Baxter’s online advertising text, graphics and domain addresses, in addition to examples of actual confusion about the products in Baxter’s call-center transcripts.

Earlier in the case, in connection with summary judgment, the district court found that the relevant consumers were sophisticated as a matter of law, and, citing Eight Circuit precedent, rejected application of a theory of initial-interest confusion. The district court instead instructed the jury that in order to prevail on its trademark infringement claim, Select Comfort had to prove likelihood of confusion at the time of purchase. Based on this limiting instruction, the jury rejected Select Comfort’s trademark infringement claims. Select Comfort appealed.

The Eighth Circuit reversed. The Court explained that the district court erred on the availability of an initial-interest confusion as an infringement theory. For trademark infringement claims, the likelihood of confusion test is a fact-intensive inquiry with many factors. However, circuit courts have not definitively agreed on when confusion must exist. Must confusion occur only at the time of ultimate purchase, or can it also exist during pre-sale? The theory of initial-interest confusion involves the latter scenario, namely, when confusion about a product’s ownership causes a customer to have initial interest in the product, even if there is no actual sale at the time of the confusion. Actionable initial infringement protects competitors from getting a free ride on the goodwill of an established mark if a consumer falsely infers an affiliation between the companies.

In the precedential 2010 Eighth Circuit case Sensient Techs. v. Sensory Effects Flavor, the Court neither rejected nor adopted the initial-interest/pre-sale confusion theory. Instead, it merely found that the theory did not apply where consumers were sophisticated (i.e., where they exercise a high degree of care in purchasing products, a factor weighing against likelihood of confusion). Here, influenced by Lanham Act amendments and other circuit courts, the Court addressed the issue previously left open: whether the initial-interest confusion may be actionable in the Eighth Circuit in cases where the jury is left to [...]

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Reverse Confusion Suit Not Ironclad, but SmartSync Lives On

In a split decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated a district court’s summary judgment and remanded the case for trial in an action brought under the Lanham Act in order to resolve material issues of fact on likelihood of confusion/reverse confusion factors that remain in dispute. Ironhawk Technologies, Inc. v. Dropbox, Inc., Case No. 19-56347 (9th Cir. Apr. 20, 2021) (Smith, J.) (Tashima, J., dissenting)

Ironhawk developed computer software designed to transfer data efficiently in “bandwidth-challenged environments” and has marketed the software since 2004 using the name “SmartSync.” Ironhawk registered the SmartSync mark in 2007. In 2017, Dropbox launched a feature entitled “Smart Sync,” which allowed users to see and access files in their Dropbox cloud storage accounts without taking up space on their hard drive. Ironhawk sued Dropbox for trademark infringement and unfair competition in 2018, alleging that that Smart Sync intentionally infringed upon Ironhawk’s SmartSync trademark and was likely to cause confusion among consumers. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Dropbox, concluding that “a reasonable trier of fact could not conclude that Dropbox’s use of Smart Sync is likely to cause consumer confusion.”

Ironhawk appealed, focusing primarily on its reverse confusion theory of infringement. Reverse confusion occurs where consumers dealing with the holder of the senior mark (Ironhawk) believe they are dealing with the junior (Dropbox). This occurs when someone who is only aware of the well-known junior (Dropbox) comes into contact with the lesser-known senior (Ironhawk) and incorrectly believes the senior is the same as, or affiliated with, the junior user because of the similarity of the two marks.

The Ninth Circuit first defined the relevant consumer market. This issue revolved around whether the relevant market should be limited to Ironhawk’s only active customer, the US Navy, or whether it should include commercial customers. Dropbox argued that the market should be limited to the Navy and that consequently the relevant consumer would be less likely to be confused as to the source or affiliation of SmartSync. In terms of procurement, it was undisputed that the Navy exercised significant care and effort. However, Ironhawk argued that it previously had a commercial customer, and that it actively markets and pursues business with other commercial businesses. The Court held that because Ironhawk had a previous commercial customer and had made recent attempts to acquire more commercial accounts, a reasonable jury could include the potential commercial customers in the relevant market.

The Ninth Circuit next turned to the “highly factual inquiry” of the eight Sleekcraft factors:

  • Strength of the mark
  • Proximity of the goods
  • Similarity of the marks
  • Evidence of actual confusion
  • Marketing channels used
  • Type of goods and likely level of care exercised by purchaser
  • Defendant’s intent in selecting the mark
  • Likelihood of expansion of the product lines.

For the first three factors, the Ninth Circuit found that a reasonable jury could find that:

  • Dropbox’s mark was commercially strong and would be able to swamp Ironhawk’s reputation.
  • The Smart [...]

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