The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that under certain circumstances a trademark licensee can bring a claim against a third party for unfair competition under the Lanham Act even if the licensing agreement does not expressly authorize it to do so. Overhead Door Company of Kansas City v. OGD Equipment Company, LLC, Case No. 22-10985 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 22, 2023) (Branch, Brasher, JJ.; Winsor, Dist. J., sitting by designation).
This appeal involved three parties: D.H. Pace Company, Overhead Door Corporation and Overhead Garage Door (OGD). All three companies are involved in selling and servicing garage doors. Pace is a licensee of Overhead. Under its license, Pace is permitted to advertise and promote the trade name OVERHEAD DOOR COMPANY. OGD is a competitor of Overhead and Pace. Prior to the current appeal, Overhead and OGD had been involved in litigation involving OGD’s alleged trademark infringement and unfair trade practices, which resulted in a settlement. As a part of the settlement, OGD and Overhead could not bring suits against each other. However, the settlement terms were not expressly binding on any current or future licensees of Overhead.
In the current litigation, Pace filed suit against OGD for unfair competition in violation of § 43(a) of the Lanham Act, deceptive trade practices and various state trademark infringement violations. Pace alleged that OGD was leading consumers to believe that it was the same company as, or was affiliated with, Overhead (Pace’s licensor). In response, OGD moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The district court ruled that the licensing agreement between Pace and Overhead was a contractual bar to relief because the agreement did not affirmatively give Pace the right to sue. The district court also ruled that as a non-exclusive licensee, Pace lacked standing to bring its suit. The district court held that because Pace’s trademark rights were derived from a licensing agreement with Overhead, by discharging rights in the prior settlement with OGD, Overhead also discharged Pace’s right to sue.
Through a de novo review, the Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the district court’s grant of summary judgment against Pace. As the district court recognized, under § 43(a) of the Lanham Act, parties other than the owner of the mark can bring suit, but here the district court barred Pace’s claims based on the licensing agreement, Pace’s status as a non-exclusive licensee and the settlement agreement between OGD and Overhead. In reversing, the Eleventh Circuit held that none of these reasons was sufficient to bar Pace’s claims.
According to the Eleventh Circuit, the licensing agreement did not bar Pace from suing since there were no contractual term imposing a bar. While a licensee’s right to sue can be restricted, there was nothing in the licensing agreement at issue that limited Pace’s right to sue. The license agreement did not address trademark enforcement or either party’s ability to sue.
The Eleventh Circuit explained that the district court misread the Eleventh Circuit’s 2019 decision in Kroma Makeup v. Boldface [...]