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It’s Not in the Bag: TTAB Refuses to Register Generic Handbag Design

Ending a hard-fought three-year campaign to secure registration of a popular handbag, the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Trademark Trial & Appeal Board designated as precedential its decision refusing registration of the product configuration mark, deeming it a generic configuration not eligible for trademark registration. The Board also concluded that even if the bag design had not been generic, the applicant failed to make a necessary showing that the design of the bag had acquired distinctiveness. In re Jasmin Larian, LLC, Serial No. 87522459 (TTAB, Jan. 19, 2022; redesignated Mar. 29, 2022) (Cataldo, Lynch, Allard, ATJ).

Fashion brand CULT GAIA’s “ARK” handbag is composed of bamboo strips creating a creating a see-through “sunburst design,” and has been carried by celebrities such as Beyoncé and Jessica Alba. The brand’s founder and CEO Jasmin Larian sought registration on the Principal Register of the following mark for a three-dimensional handbag:

After several years of examination, the examining attorney ultimately issued a final refusal on the ground that the proposed configuration was a generic configuration, or alternatively, was a nondistinctive product design that had not acquired distinctiveness. Larian appealed to the Board.

Acknowledging the commercial success of the CULT GAIA ARK bag, the Board explained that the issue before it was whether the proposed mark was generic (i.e., a common handbag design), or, alternatively, whether the bag constituted a nondistinctive product design that had acquired distinctiveness. The Board tackled both questions, since similar evidence was relevant to both inquiries.

A trademark must be distinctive to be eligible for registration. Such distinctiveness is measured on a spectrum, where one side of the spectrum is made up of generic terms or generic designs (i.e., non-distinctive and non-protectable as trademarks) and the other side is made up of registrable trademarks that are arbitrary or fanciful. Suggestive trademarks fall somewhere in the middle. In the context of product designs, genericness may be found where the design is so common in the industry that the design cannot be said to identify a particular source of the product. Generic product designs fail to function as a trademark. Genericness is assessed by determining the genus of the goods or services at issue, then determining whether the consuming public primarily regards the design sought to be registered as a category or type of trade dress for the genus of goods or services. For the ARK bag, the applicant and the examining attorney agreed that “handbags” was the genus of the goods at issue. The relevant consuming public was found to consist of ordinary consumers who purchase handbags.

The Board reviewed the evidence of record to assess the significance of the bag design to ordinary consumers, i.e., whether they viewed the configuration of the bag as a source-identifying trademark or merely as a common handbag design. The Board detailed eight different categories of evidence, which, according to the Board, showed that “in the decades leading up to and the years immediately preceding [...]

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PTO: Board to Align Indefiniteness Approach in AIA and District Court Proceedings

On January 6, 2021, US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Director Andrei Iancu, Commissioner for Patents Andrew Hirshfeld and Chief Administrative Patent Judge Scott Boalick issued a memorandum to the members of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board to align the Board’s approach when deciding indefiniteness issues under 35 USC § 112 in America Invents Act (AIA) post-grant proceedings more closely with district court proceedings. The memo was issued under the PTO director’s authority to set forth binding agency guidance to govern the Board’s interpretation of statutory provisions. The memo cited to similar recent changes to the approach to claim construction in such proceedings, and stated that aligning “the indefiniteness approach [used] in AIA post-grant proceedings [to district court proceedings] will promote consistency and efficient decision making among coordinate branches of government that decide similar issues in co-pending proceedings.” The instructed approach, per the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2014 decision in Nautilus, applies to post grant review (PGR) and inter partes review (IPR) proceedings, but not to indefiniteness (or claim construction) issues decided outside the context of AIA reviews.

Post-AIA 35 USC § 112(b) (and pre-AIA § 112, second paragraph) require that “[t]he specification shall conclude with one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the inventor or a joint inventor regards as the invention.” Claims not meeting this requirement are invalid for indefiniteness and may be determined indefinite during PTO examination, on appeal from examination and during AIA post-grant proceedings. In 2014 the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit approved the PTO’s long-standing approach to assessing indefiniteness during patent prosecution in its per curiam In re Packard decision that “[a] claim is indefinite when it contains words or phrases whose meaning is unclear.” At the time, this approach was used agency-wide to analyze questions of indefiniteness, in complement with the office’s broadest reasonable interpretation approach to claim construction.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Nautilus that a claim is unpatentable for indefiniteness if the claim, read in light of the specification delineating the patent and the prosecution history, fails to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention, the PTO reaffirmed its intent to follow Packard in examination (whether original, appeals or reexamination). In 2018, in the interest of consistency and efficiency, the PTO changed its claim construction standard for post-grant trial proceedings to review a claim of a patent, or a claim proposed in a motion to amend, from the broadest reasonable interpretation to the same Phillips standard that would be used to construe the claim in a district court action.

The memorandum noted that there has been some confusion as to whether the Packard or Nautilus standard should apply in AIA proceedings. While parties to such proceedings argued for one or the other, neither the Board nor the Federal Circuit ruled as to which standard applied. Now, in the interest of clarity, consistency and efficiency, and to “lead to greater [...]

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PTO Seeks Comments on Proposed Rulemaking for Denying Patent Reviews

The US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) requested public comments on considerations for instituting trials under the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA). Comments are due by November 19, 2020.

Patent practitioners have grown accustomed to reviewing the PTO Patent Trial and Appeal Board (Board) administrative guide, precedential or informative opinions, and other published filings and decisions to discern best practices for filing petitions for and defending against inter partes review, post-grant review, covered business method and derivation proceedings before the Board. For example, the latest Board Consolidated Trial Practice Guide (Nov. 2019) (CTPG) is available here. The PTO is considering codifying or modifying its current policies and practices through formal rulemaking and wishes to gather public comments on its current approach and other approaches suggested by stakeholders.

PTO policies and Board decisions such as General Plastic, Valve Corp. I, Valve Corp. II, NHK Spring and Fintiv set forth factors for analyzing whether to institute an AIA proceeding (and particularly a follow-on or serial petition) or issue a discretionary denial due to the timeline for parallel district court proceedings. Many of these policies and cases are also discussed in the CTPG. The PTO already has received input from stakeholders on these policies that expand on the PTO director’s discretionary authority to institute an AIA trial. Most stakeholder comments suggested that the case-specific analysis outlined in precedential opinions and the CTPG achieves the appropriate balance and reduces gamesmanship—for example, by ensuring that AIA proceedings do not create excessive costs and uncertainty for the patent owner or the system, while allowing meritorious challenges to patents to be heard. However, some stakeholders have proposed that the PTO adopt brightline rules, regardless of the case-specific circumstances, to:

  • Use its discretion to preclude claims from being subject to more than one AIA proceeding
  • Permit more than one AIA proceeding only if the follow-on petitioner is unrelated to the prior petitioner
  • Place no limits on the number of petitions that can be filed or the number of AIA trials that can be instituted against the claims of a patent, so long as the petition complies with statutory timing requirements and the institution threshold of showing that at least one claim of the patent is unpatentable
  • Preclude institution of an AIA trial against challenged claims if the patent owner opposes institution and a related district court or US International Trade Commission (ITC) action (in which any of the challenged claims are or have been asserted against the petitioner, the petitioner’s real-party-in-interest or a privy of the petitioner) is unlikely to be stayed
  • Eliminate any consideration of the status of any district court or ITC actions involving the challenged patent, so long as the petition complies with statutory timing requirements and the institution threshold.

These contrasting views prompted the PTO to issue a request for comments on the factors that should be considered as part of a balanced assessment of the relevant circumstances when exercising its discretion to institute an AIA trial. The PTO [...]

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