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Tenth Circuit Contributes Clarity to Contributory Liability in Copyright Infringement

Addressing the elements of contributory copyright infringement, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit found that a plaintiff had plausibly alleged contributory copyright infringement when he alleged that the defendants had “caused, materially contributed to, or authorized the direct infringement” of his copyrights. Greer v. Moon, et al., Case No. 21-4128 (10th Cir. Oct. 16, 2023) (Bachrach, Moritz, Rossman, JJ.)

Joshua Moon owns and operates the controversial website, Kiwi Farms, “a site ‘built to exploit and showcase those Moon and his users have deemed to be eccentric and weird,’ [m]any of [whom] are physically or mentally disabled.” Russell Greer, who suffers from a form of facial paralysis, was targeted by Kiwi Farms users after Greer sued Taylor Swift in 2016. In 2017, Greer wrote a book to “explain his side of things,” titled “Why I Sued Taylor Swift and How I Became Falsely Known as Frivolous, Litigious and Crazy,” which he published and copyrighted. In 2019, Greer registered his copyright for his song, “I Don’t Get You, Taylor Swift.” Greer alleged that Kiwi Farms users infringed both works by creating and uploading unauthorized audio recordings of the book, posting links to a full copy of the book on the Kiwi Farms platform and uploading his song to the Kiwi Farms website.

Pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Greer sent Moon a takedown notice, identifying the infringing materials and the location of those unauthorized copies. In response, Moon published the takedown notice and Greer’s contact information on Kiwi Farms and responded to Greer via an email in which Moon “derid[ed]” Greer and refused to remove the copyrighted materials. Shortly thereafter, Greer sued Moon and Kiwi Farms for contributory copyright infringement, among other things. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and Greer appealed.

The Tenth Circuit explained that there are “three flavors of secondary liability for copyright infringement”:

  1. Vicarious liability, when a secondary infringer has a financial interest in the exploitation of the copyrighted materials and the ability to supervise the direct infringer
  2. The inducement rule, when the secondary infringer distributes a device that is intended to be used for copyright infringement
  3. Contributory liability, when the secondary infringer “causes or materially contributes to” the direct infringer’s activities.

Greer’s claims were based on contributory liability, which occurs when there is direct infringement of a plaintiff’s copyrighted material(s), the defendant had knowledge of the direct infringement and the defendant “intentionally caused, induced, or materially contributed to the direct infringement.”

There was no dispute that Greer’s pro se complaint met the first two prongs of the test. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss because it found that Greer failed to plausibly plead the third element of contributory infringement: “It is not enough for contributory liability for a defendant to have merely permitted the infringing material to remain on the website, without having induced or encouraged the initial infringement” (internal quotations omitted).

The Tenth Circuit dismissed the district court’s [...]

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What’s Kühler Than Kühl? No Likelihood of Confusion

Addressing unfair competition claims under the Lanham Act, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit concluded that no reasonable juror would confuse an alcohol distributer’s use of the word “kühl” with use of a similar mark by a clothing company. Alfwear, Inc. v. Mast-Jägermeister US, Inc., Case No. 21-4029 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 7, 2023) (Holmes, Kelly, Carson, JJ.)

Alfwear has used the mark KÜHL on its outdoor apparel line since 1993 and has registered the mark in connection with apparel, wine and beer. Mast-Jägermeister US (MJUS), a German herbal liqueur distributor, began incorporating “kühl” into its advertisements on billboards, commercials and digital advertising in phrases such as “kühl as ice” and “drink it ice kühl.” In response, Alfwear filed suit against MJUS, asserting trademark infringement and unfair competition. The district court granted MJUS’s motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no likelihood of confusion because all but one factor for assessing likelihood of confusion supported MJUS. Alfwear appealed.

Alfwear argued that the district court erred by not concluding that MJUS’s use of the word “kühl” was likely to cause confusion with Alfwear’s use of the essentially the same word. To determine whether a likelihood of confusion exists, the following factors must be considered:

  • The degree of similarity between the marks
  • The intent of the alleged infringer in adopting its mark
  • Evidence of actual confusion
  • Similarity of products and manner of marketing
  • The degree of care likely to be exercised by purchasers
  • The strength or weakness of the marks.

The Tenth Circuit found that the two marks were not similar in sound, meaning or appearance, and that MJUS only used “kühl” in association with other MJUS marks. The Court explained that Alfwear often depicts the KÜHL mark alongside a logo of a shield-type shape containing a stylized, snow-covered mountain peak in the colors brown, black and white against a bright blue sky. In contrast, MJUS uses the word “kühl” in phrases such as “kühl shots” or “kühl as ice,” on top of a black or green background and accompanied by a combination of either the mark JÄGERMEISTER, the Jägermeister logo or images of a Jägermeister bottle.

The Tenth Circuit also found that MJUS did not intend to copy Alfwear’s mark, explaining that MJUS was not aware of Alfwear’s trademark when designing the new advertising campaign, and noting that when MJUS became aware of the trademark, MJUS intended to avoid infringement by not placing the mark on its apparel or liquor products. The Court also determined that there was insufficient evidence of actual confusion. Alfwear presented anecdotal evidence from Alfwear executives who had heard about confusion from individuals and survey evidence that demonstrated consumers experienced an approximately 30% chance of confusion. The Court found that the anecdotal evidence was de minimis and found that the survey was not designed properly because the products were not shown to survey participants as they would appear in the marketplace and used leading questions. The Court also found that the two [...]

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All’s Well That Edwell: Two Markets Can Be Substantially Different if Defined Narrowly Enough

Despite evidence of actual confusion and seemingly similar services, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld a district court’s noninfringement finding concerning two nearly identical education-related marks because the parties targeted different goods and marketing channels. M Welles & Assocs., Inc. v. Edwell, Inc., Case No. 22-1248 (10th Cir. May 31, 2023) (Ebel, Bacharach, JJ.) (Tymkovich, J., dissenting). In his dissent, Judge Tymkovich criticized the lower court for characterizing the scope of the parties’ services too narrowly and observed that “[a]ny court can find some differences between businesses and markets at a particular level of generality.”

M Welles & Associates provides classes, seminars and certification workshops in the project management space under the brand name EDWEL (derived from “education done well”). The classes are designed for professionals in a variety of industries, including information technology, healthcare, education and the military. Welles primarily advertises its services via social media, Google and email, and further owns a variety of domain names incorporating both EDWEL and EDWELL. The defendant, Edwell, is a nonprofit organization that provides mental health coaching services to schoolteachers using the domain name Edwell.org and the brand name EDWELL (derived from “to be an educator and to be well”). Edwell operates by partnering with schools to provide its services and currently has partnerships with 10 K-12 public schools. Edwell does not target institutions of higher learning and does not offer services to corporations.

Welles first learned of Edwell’s services when it received a call from a potential customer asking about classes at Denver North High School—classes that were in fact offered by Edwell, not Welles. Welles sent a cease-and-desist notice to Edwell, which rebranded to “Educator Wellness Project” for a short time before reverting back to EDWELL. Welles then sued Edwell for trademark infringement, and the district court found that there was no likelihood of confusion. Welles appealed.

Welles raised three arguments on appeal:

  1. The magistrate judge used the wrong legal standard in assessing likelihood of confusion.
  2. The Tenth Circuit should adopt a presumption of confusion.
  3. The magistrate judge clearly erred in the analysis of Edwell’s intent, the similarity of the parties’ services and marketing, the degree of purchaser care and actual confusion.

Welles also moved to supplement the appellate record with new evidence of actual confusion that occurred after the trial.

Supplementation

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Welles’s motion, finding that there was no legitimate basis for supplementing the record. Fed. R. of Civ. P. 10(e) permits a court to modify the appellate record “only to the extent necessary to ‘truly disclose what occurred in the district court.’” Because the new evidence of actual confusion was not before the district court, the Tenth Circuit concluded that Rule 10(e) would not permit it to be added to the record. The Court further reasoned that the rare exception to Rule 10, which permits the court to supplement the record to correct misrepresentations, demonstrate mootness, or raise an issue for the first time on appeal, did not [...]

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Elevate the $: Geographic Isolation Helps Defeat Trademark Infringement Claim

In a case between similarly named banks, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit confirmed expert disclosure requirements, conducted a de novo likelihood of confusion analysis and ultimately upheld a finding of no trademark infringement. Elevate Federal Credit Union v. Elevations Credit Union, Case No. 22-4029 (10th Cir. May 10, 2023) (Bacharach, Moritz, Rossman, JJ.)

Elevate is a federal credit union with almost 13,000 total members, operating exclusively in three rural Utah counties. Elevations is a Colorado state-chartered credit union with more than 150,000 members. The parties’ respective logos are shown below:

Elevate filed a suit seeking declaratory judgment of noninfringement, and Elevations counterclaimed for trademark infringement. After excluding testimony from Elevations’s expert, the district court found no infringement and granted summary judgment in favor of Elevate. Elevations appealed.

Elevations raised two issues on appeal:

  1. Did the district court abuse its discretion in excluding Elevations’s expert’s testimony?
  2. Did the district court err in granting summary judgment to Elevate on likelihood of confusion?

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court on the first issue. Elevations’s expert conducted a survey that involved showing marks from internet searches to consumers and asking whether they thought any came from the same company. While this survey type is legitimate, the expert did not keep records of his searches, write down his search terms, identify his search engines, or justify why he conducted multiple internet searches but showed consumers only results from Bing and the Apple App store. The Tenth Circuit found that the district court could have reasonably considered this information “facts or data” considered by the expert that needed to be—but was not—disclosed. Because the expert failed to meet his disclosure obligations and because this failure was not excused by justification or harmlessness, the lower court did not abuse its discretion.

The Tenth Circuit also affirmed the summary judgment of no likelihood of confusion. The Court conducted a de novo review and analyzed the six factors below. The Court concluded that the following five factors weighed against the likelihood of confusion:

  1. Level of care exercised by purchasers. When customers look to open bank accounts or borrow money, they exercise a great level of care. This is especially true here because credit unions have statutory membership restrictions, meaning consumers need to confirm they qualify for membership before applying.
  2. Strength of senior mark. While Elevations’s marks are “suggestive” and therefore “fall[] midway in the range of conceptual strength,” many other businesses in Colorado use the root term “elevat,” which weakens Elevations’s mark. Elevations’s marks also are weak where Elevate operates in Utah due to lack of advertising.
  3. Degree of similarity. While the marks have some similarities in appearance and sound, they differ in fonts, alignment, background colors, graphics and number of syllables. The Court also stated that the “significance of the similarities fades away” in light [...]

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Supreme Court to Consider Whether Lanham Act Reaches Foreign Defendants’ Extraterritorial Conduct

The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to review the geographic scope of the Lanham Act and the extent to which trademark owners can use US trademarks to police foreign sales. Abitron Austria GmbH et al. v. Hetronic International Inc., Case No. 21-1043 (Supr. Ct. Nov. 4, 2022) (certiorari granted). The question presented is as follows:

Whether the court of appeals erred in applying the Lanham Act extraterritorially to petitioners’ foreign sales, including purely foreign sales that never reached the United States or confused U.S. consumers.

In the underlying case, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld a damages award for Hetronic International based on its conclusion that the Lanham Act can affect conduct that substantially affects US commerce, such as the products Hetronic Germany and others sold to European customers.

The US Solicitor General suggested that the case is “a suitable vehicle” to clarify the Lanham Act’s geographic scope, noting that the Lanham Act provides a remedy for a foreign defendant’s use of a US trademark abroad only if that use is likely to cause confusion within the United States.




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Stormy Weather Ahead: Lack of Causation Evidence Rains Out Appeal

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit found that a trade secret owner lacked “non-speculative and sufficiently probative evidence of a causal nexus between Defendants’ alleged bad acts and [the trade secret owner’s] asserted damages,” and upheld a lower court’s summary judgment ruling for defendants. GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Hall, et. al, Case No. 19-4130 (10th Cir. June 29, 2022) (Holmes, Kelly, Lucero, JJ.)

GeoMetWatch (GMW) alleged misappropriation of trade secrets and multiple other complaints against several different groups of defendants, including the Hall defendants, Utah University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation (AWSF) defendants, and Utah State University Research Foundation (USURF) defendants. The lower court granted summary judgment to all defendants based on lack of non-speculative causation relating to lost profits, to the USURF and AWSF defendants based on governmental immunity under Utah law, and to AWSF on its contractual counterclaim. GMW appealed.

Background

GMW launched a venture for a new satellite-based weather-detecting senor system developed by USURF. GMW entered into a cooperation agreement with AsiaSat, a foreign commercial satellite operator on which GMW relied to secure funding from Export-Import Bank. There were two conditions precedent before AsiaSat would seek the loan: a guarantee for the loan and a convertible note. The Hall defendants were brought in to possibly provide the guarantee, and with the understanding that Hall would maintain confidentiality of GMW’s information. After reviewing the confidential information, Hall entered into a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) with GMW. Despite the NDA, Hall launched a competing company and sent a series of inflammatory emails regarding the state of GMW to AsiaSat. These actions became the basis for GMW’s complaint of trade secret appropriation. After failing to make payments to AWSF for the construction of the senor, and despite finding a replacement manufacturer, GMW never satisfied either of the conditions precedent and AsiaSat never applied for the loan. GMW eventually ran out of money and filed the underlying suit.

GMW argued that its lost profits stemmed from its failure to secure a loan with AsiaSat and Export-Import Bank because of the defendants’ trade secrets misappropriation and other bad acts. GMW relied on evidence such as a series of inflammatory emails from Hall stating that “GMW is in Trouble,” along with an invitation to do business with a new company that the Hall defendants launched reviewing GMW’s confidential information. The lower court found that GMW had failed to provide more than speculative evidence that the defendants’ actions, with or without GMW’s confidential information, caused GMW’s lost profits.

The Tenth Circuit’s Ruling

At the Tenth Circuit, GMW argued that the lower court ignored “non-speculative” evidence from which it could be inferred that the defendants’ actions were the cause of lost profits. The Court noted that the district court found that none of GMW’s experts actually opined that any of the defendants’ actions caused the lost profits. Although one expert put forth a theory based on GMW losing its “first-mover advantage,” the Court found that no specific facts were offered to support this theory. The [...]

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No Harm, No Foul: No False Advertisement Where Trade Association Failed to Show Injury

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a home inspector association on a false advertising claim brought by a competitor, finding no evidence of injury or harm and explaining that harm could not be presumed merely from the fact that the parties compete for members. Am. Soc’y of Home Inspectors, Inc. v. Int’l Ass’n of Certified Home Inspectors, Case No. 21-1087 (10th Cir. June 14, 2022) (Tymkovich, C.J.; Carson, Rossman, JJ.)

The International Association for Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI) and the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) are competing national organizations that offer memberships with benefits such as advertising, online education and logo design to independent home inspectors. InterNACHI brought a false advertisement claim under the Lanham Act against ASHI, its sole national competitor, for featuring the slogan “American Society of Home Inspectors. Educated. Tested. Verified. Certified.” on its website. InterNACHI alleged that ASHI’s tagline was misleading because ASHI’s membership includes “novice” inspectors who are not trained or certified. These “novice” inspectors are promoted on ASHI’s online “find-an-inspector” tool, where home buyers can find a local inspector and view their contact information, qualifications and membership level (associate, inspector or certified inspector). According to InterNACHI, ASHI’s misleading slogan coupled with its public promotion of novice members as inspectors caused InterNACHI to lose potential members. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of ASHI, concluding that InterNACHI failed to show that it was injured by the tagline as required under the Lanham Act. InterNACHI appealed.

InterNACHI argued that the district court incorrectly concluded that no reasonable jury could find that InterNACHI was harmed by the slogan and improperly refused to presume harm from the parties’ relationship as direct competitors. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, explaining that a plaintiff claiming false advertising under the Lanham Act must plead “an injury to a commercial interest in sales or business reputation proximately caused by the defendant’s misrepresentations.” In support of its claim, InterNACHI offered the following:

  • A survey showing that consumers may be deceived by the slogan
  • Data showing an increase in ASHI associate membership following implementation of the slogan
  • A declaration by InterNACHI’s founder attesting to the harm caused to InterNACHI as a result of ASHI’s slogan.

The Tenth Circuit reasoned that consumer confusion does not bear on whether home inspectors are more likely to join ASHI instead of InterNACHI because of the slogan. The Court also declined to infer harm from ASHI’s increase in associate membership, which was likely attributable to other factors, such as the institution of reduced student membership fees or the closure of another national association for home inspectors around the time the slogan was introduced. The Court further noted that inspectors can join both organizations and that InterNACHI had not shown that its own membership levels decreased because of ASHI’s slogan. With respect to the declaration by InterNACHI’s founder that “use of th[e] slogan in connection [...]

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Half-Baked Case: No Misappropriation or False Advertising Given Over-Broad Allegations

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant baker on a trade dress infringement claim and reversed the district court’s denial of the defendant baker’s motions for judgment as a matter of law on trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims. Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc. v. Sycamore, Case Nos. 18-4062; -4031; -4040 (10th Cir. Mar. 18, 2022) (Hartz, Phillips, Eid, JJ.)

Bimbo Bakeries (and its predecessor, EarthGrains Baking Companies) owns, bakes and sells Grandma Sycamore’s Home-Maid Bread, a popular bread in Utah. U.S. Bakery is a competitor, and Leland Sycamore is the baker who developed the Grandma Sycamore’s recipe. Sycamore parted with his interest in Grandma Sycamore’s and opened his own bakery, Wild Grains Bakery. U.S. Bakery hired Wild Grains Bakery to produce another homemade bread product, Grandma Emilie’s. The relationship soured, and U.S. Bakery moved its Grandma Emilie’s operations in-house. U.S. Bakery developed a new formula for Grandma Emilie’s and enlisted a former Wild Grain employee to help. U.S. Bakery also created packaging for the bread based on Grandma Sycamore’s packaging. U.S. Bakery used several taglines to help sell its products, including “Fresh. Local. Quality.”

Bimbo Bakeries (then EarthGrains) sued Leland Sycamore, Tyler Sycamore (Leland’s son and co-baker), Wild Grains Bakery and U.S. Bakery, alleging multiple claims related to the Grandma Emilie’s operations, including trade secret misappropriation under the Utah Uniform Trade Secrets Act and trade dress infringement, trade dress dilution, false designation of origin, false advertising and unfair competition under the Lanham Act. Bimbo Bakeries alleged that U.S. Bakery’s use of the word “local” in the tagline “Fresh. Local. Quality.” constituted false or misleading advertising because U.S. Bakery did not actually bake all its bread products within the state of sale. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of U.S. Bakery on the trade dress infringement claim. The parties went to trial on the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims. The jury ruled in Bimbo Bakeries’ favor on both and awarded more than $2 million in damages. The district court increased the damages owed by U.S. Bakery by almost $800,000 because U.S. Bakery was found to have willfully and maliciously misappropriated Bimbo Bakeries’ trade secret. The district court remitted the jury’s damages for the false advertising claim to around $83,000. The district court also permanently enjoined U.S. Bakery and Sycamore from using Bimbo Bakeries’ trade secret and denied renewed motions by U.S. Bakery and Sycamore for judgment as a matter of law for the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims.

Bimbo Bakeries, U.S. Bakery and Sycamore appealed. Bimbo Bakeries argued that the district court should not have granted U.S. Bakery summary judgment on its trade dress infringement claim and should not have remitted damages for the false advertising claim. U.S. Bakery and Sycamore argued that the district court should have granted their renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law for the trade secrets misappropriation and false advertising claims.

On [...]

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Alleged Trademark Infringer Remains Hog-Tied after Appeal

The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit dismissed an appeal of a district court order denying a stay of a federal action for lack of jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and reversed in part the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction. The Trial Lawyers College v. Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College at Thunderhead Ranch, Case No. 20-8038 (10th Cir. Jan. 27, 2022) (Bacharach, Briscoe, Murphy, JJ.).

The dispute between the parties arose out of a program called The Trial Lawyers College at Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming. The College’s board of directors split into two factions known as the “Spence Group” and the “Sloan Group.” After the split, the two groups sued each other. The Spence Group sued in state court for dissolution of the College and a declaratory judgment regarding control of the board of directors. The Sloan Group sued in federal court claiming trademark infringement under the Lanham Act.

Both groups sought relief in the federal case. The Spence Group filed a motion to stay the federal court proceedings in light of the state court proceedings, and the Sloan Group requested a preliminary injunction. The district court denied the Spence Group’s stay and granted the Sloan Group’s request for a preliminary injunction. The Spence Group appealed both rulings.

The Tenth Circuit found that it lacked jurisdiction to review the district court’s stay denial. First, the state court resolved the dispute concerning board control, rendering part of the requested stay moot. Second, the Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction over the remaining motion for stay because it was not a final order. The Court explained that it needed to decide the appealability of the ruling based on the category of order rather than the particular facts of the case. The Court found that there was no unsettled issue of unique urgency or importance that warranted the Court exercising jurisdiction over the denial of the stay. Specifically, the Court explained that piecemeal litigation was unlikely because the state court already decided the issue of board control, and the Spence Group did not identify an unsettled issue of unique urgency.

The Tenth Circuit did exercise jurisdiction over the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction. The Spence Group challenged the district court’s finding of irreparable harm, the order to remove sculptures bearing the College’s name, restrictions on what the Spence Group could say and the consideration of evidence presented after the hearing ended. The Court reviewed the district court’s findings under an abuse-of-discretion standard. The Court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion by finding irreparable harm, considering evidence after the hearing and enjoining the Spence Group from using words associated with the College. The Court explained that the district court reasonably found irreparable harm based on the College’s efforts to protect its name, logo and trademarks, as well as evidence of likely confusion among customers of the College based on the Spence Group’s use of those trademarks. As for the sculptures, the Court found [...]

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