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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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That’s So Metal: Ninth Circuit Confirms Standard of Review for Finding Unclean Hands on Summary Judgment

In a trademark infringement dispute over the brand name “METAL,” the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit resolved an issue of first impression in holding that when reviewing a grant of summary judgment on an unclean hands defense in a trademark infringement case, the correct standard of review is abuse of discretion. Metal Jeans, Inc. v. Metal Sport, Inc., et al., Case No. 19-55923 (9th Cir. Feb. 16, 2021) (VanDyke, J.) (Wardlaw, J., concurring).

Metal Jeans, an apparel brand claiming ownership of the trademark METAL, brought an infringement claim against Metal Sport, a powerlifting brand with a similar stylized mark that was also used on certain apparel items. In the district court, both parties sought summary judgment on the issue of likelihood of consumer confusion with respect to Metal Sport’s use of the METAL trademark in view of Metal Jeans’ rights in the brand name. The district court determined that material facts on the issue of infringement remained in dispute, and denied both parties’ motions on the merits. However, the district court granted a separate motion for summary judgment filed by Metal Sport claiming that Metal Jeans was barred from pursuing its infringement claim on grounds of unclean hands, while rejecting Metal Jeans’ counter-defense that Metal Sport also acted with unclean hands.

Metal Jeans appealed the unclean hands judgment, which presented an issue of first impression to the Ninth Circuit, namely the standard of review when a district court concludes that a party has acted with unclean hands. The Ninth Circuit noted that its two trademark decisions addressing unclean hands never specified the standard of review applied, and so turned to other cases in which it reviewed district courts’ application of similar equitable doctrines. With this background, the Court found abuse of discretion to be the correct standard of review.

In a separate decision memorandum, the Ninth Circuit explained that to successfully allege unclean hands, a defendant must show that the plaintiff’s conduct (1) is inequitable and (2) relates directly to the subject matter of its claims. The court also noted that factual questions related to the defense of unclean hands may only be resolved on summary judgment if evidence presented by both sides would permit the trier of fact to come to only one conclusion.

The Ninth Circuit assessed the six alleged instances of misconduct on the part of Metal Jeans, which included facts alleging that Metal Jeans provided varying accounts of how it acquired the METAL trademark and provided inaccurate or false information to the US Patent & Trademark Office, along with allegations that Metal Jeans sourced certain products from China despite its use of an “American Made” slogan. The Court determined that many of the factual allegations of unclean hands did not relate directly to Metal Jeans’ trademark infringement claims, nor did such allegations appear to have caused any harm or demonstrate malintent on the part of Metal Jeans.

Applying the abuse of discretion review standard, the Ninth Circuit determined that the district court’s findings [...]

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No More Bites at the Apple: Intervening Junior User Can Force You to Get Your Head Out of the Cloud(s)

Addressing how a mark’s intervening junior user’s success can affect a senior user, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a grant of summary judgment in favor of the junior user and the issuance of a permanent injunction for any commercial use of the disputed terms by the senior user. RXD Media, LLC v. IP Application Dev. LLC, Case No. 19-1461 (4th Cir. Jan. 21, 2021) (Keenan, J.) (joined by Gregory, J., and Floyd, C.J.)

RXD and Apple (here embodied also in IP Application Development, a company formed and wholly owned by Apple for the purpose of registering the “ipad” mark) have shared a long history of trademark litigation, initiated by RXD, over the use of the “ipad” mark. Prior to this appeal, the district court ruled in favor of Apple on summary judgment and permanently enjoined RXD from commercially using the terms “ipad” or “ipod.”

RXD claimed that the district court failed to account for RXD being the “first user” of the “ipad” mark; that Apple did not establish a distinctive, secondary meaning of “ipad” before RXD’s use; that Apple failed to show a likelihood of consumer confusion based on both parties’ use of “ipad”; and that the district court erred in rejecting RXD’s claim that “two of Apple’s trademark applications were void because Apple lacked a bona fide intent to use the ‘ipad’ mark for the services listed in those applications.” The Fourth Circuit, however, was not convinced.

The Fourth Circuit found that even if RXD was technically the senior user of the mark at issue, its expanded, “wholly altered” use of the mark, which now focused on “cloud storage” services and for which it now claimed protection, was not entitled to such protection, because the use occurred “on the heels of Apple’s [i.e., the intervening junior user’s] commercial success in releasing” the iPad. By that point, Apple had already “experienced undeniable commercial success, ha[d] promoted its products through regular advertising using the mark, and ha[d] obtained extensive media coverage regarding its ‘iPad’ device.” As such, the Court concluded that Apple’s “ipad” mark was strong and distinctive, noting that consumers were likely to and had already experienced confusion regarding the “ipad” mark. The Court further concluded that, because RXD was a “proven infringer” of the mark, injunctive relief ordered by the district court in favor of Apple was justified. Finally, the Court rejected RXD’s intent argument, stating that Apple was not required to prove a bona fide intent to use the mark for services it did not identify in its relevant trademark applications—Apple’s development of “cloud storage” services, while not explicitly named in Apple’s trademark applications, was encompassed by “the context of the strength of Apple’s brand” and was within the “breadth of [its] products and services.”

Practice Note: Practitioners should take careful note of how their clients use their mark, even if such use can be technically classified as “senior,” and how the mark evolved over time and whether it happened to change coinciding [...]

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More Than a Feeling: No Fees for Frivolous Claim Where “Perceived Wrongs Were Deeply Felt”

Addressing the appropriateness of the district court’s decision to deny attorneys’ fees relating to a copyright claim it labeled “frivolous,” the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial, despite the strong presumption in favor of awarding fees. Timothy B. O’Brien LLC v. Knott, Case No. 19-2138 (7th Cir. June 17, 2020) (Flaum, J).
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Supreme Court: Profit Disgorgement Available Remedy for Trademark Infringement, Willful or Not

Resolving a split among the circuits regarding whether proof of willfulness is necessary for an award of a trademark infringer’s profits, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous decision holding that the plain language of the Lanham Act has never required a showing of willful infringement in order to obtain a profits award in a suit for trademark infringement under §1125(a). Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc., et al. Case No. 18-1233 (Supr. Ct. Apr. 23, 2020) (Gorsuch, Justice) (Alito, Justice, concurring) (Sotomayor, Justice, concurring).

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Internet Sales Lead to Personal Jurisdiction Despite No Physical Presence

Addressing the issue of personal jurisdiction in a trademark infringement case, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court and concluded that the plaintiff had made a prima facie showing that defendants, who had no physical presence in the forum state, were subject to personal jurisdiction based on sales to consumers through an interactive website. Charles Curry d/b/a/ Get Diesel Nutrition v. Revolution Labs. LLC, Case No. 17-2900 (7th Cir. Feb. 10, 2020) (Ripple, J).

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When It’s All In the Family: Reverse Confusion Not a Basis for Broad Trademark Remedies

Addressing reverse confusion and scope of available remedies, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a district court’s refusal to award infringing profits and a broad permanent injunction after a jury found infringement. Fabick, Inc. v. JFTCO, Inc., Case Nos. 19-1760; -0072 (7th Cir. Dec. 9, 2019) (Flaum, J.)

This trademark dispute originates with a family feud. John Fabick, founder of the John Fabick Tractor Company, purchased two Caterpillar equipment dealerships intending for his son, Joe, to operate the dealerships. At the time, the John Fabick Tractor Company had used the mark FABICK in connection with its business. Joe later founded FABCO, which sold Caterpillar equipment and related goods. Eventually, one of Joe’s sons, Jeré, took over FABCO.

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