Trademark Trial & Appeal Board
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Drink Up, but Not with Lehman Brand

In the context of an opposition proceeding, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (Board) refusal to register a trademark based on likelihood of confusion with a famous but expired mark, notwithstanding the applicant’s assertion of abandonment of the mark by the original registrant. Tiger Lily Ventures Ltd. v. Barclays Capital Inc., Case Nos. 21-1107;- 1228 (Fed. Cir. June 1, 2022) (Lourie, Bryson, Prost, JJ.)

Tiger Lily sought to register the word mark LEHMAN BROTHERS for beer and spirits and for bar services and restaurant services. Barclays, whose Lehman Brothers marks had expired, opposed the applications based on likelihood of confusion. Tiger Lily argued that Barclays had abandoned the mark and filed an opposition to Barclays’ application to register the work mark LEHMAN BROTHERS. The Board sustained Barclays’ oppositions on the grounds of likelihood of confusion and dismissed Tiger Lily’s opposition. Tiger Lily appealed.

Tiger Lily challenged the Board’s decision, arguing that the Board erred in its determination that Barclays did not abandon its rights in the LEHMAN BROTHERS mark and, relatedly, that Barclays established priority with respect to the LEHMAN BROTHERS mark in its own application. Tiger Lily also argued that the Board erred in finding that its proposed mark for beer and spirits and its proposed mark for bar services and restaurant services would cause a likelihood of confusion with Barclays’ LEHMAN BROTHERS mark.

Addressing the issue of abandonment, the Federal Circuit explained that “there are two elements to a claim for abandonment: (1) nonuse; and (2) intent not to resume use,” and “even limited use can be sufficient to avoid a finding that use of a mark has been ‘discontinued.’” The Court noted that Tiger Lily acknowledged that Barclays had used the mark “continuously in the course of winding up the affairs of at least one Lehman Brothers affiliated company” and thus failed to prove nonuse. Whether Lehman Brothers would exist after bankruptcy proceedings ended was immaterial.

On the issue of likelihood of confusion and the DuPont factors, the Federal Circuit found that “because the LEHMAN BROTHERS mark has achieved a high degree of fame, it is afforded a broad scope of protection.” Tiger Lily attempted to draw a distinction between “consumer recognition” as compared with “goodwill” as a factor and argued that it was actually trying to trade on the “bad will” associated with the mark. The Court found “no legal support for [this] subtle distinction.” The Court concluded that “Tiger Lily’s attempts to capitalize on the fame of the LEHMAN BROTHERS mark weighs in favor of finding a likelihood of confusion,” and that the Board’s findings on the remaining factors were supported by substantial evidence.




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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“TRUMP TOO SMALL” Trademark Decision Leaves Big Questions

Revisiting jurisprudence touching on the Lanham Act and the First Amendment from the Supreme Court’s decisions in Matal v. Tam and Iancu v. Brunetti, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that applying Sec. 2(c) of the Lanham Act (which bars registration of a trademark that consists of or comprises a name of a particular living individual without their written consent) may, in certain instances, unconstitutionally restrict free speech in violation of the First Amendment. In this instance, the Federal Circuit found that the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board’s (Board) refusal to register the trademark “TRUMP TOO SMALL” for use on t-shirts involved content-based discrimination that was not justified by a compelling or substantial government interest. In re: Steve Elster, Case No. 20-2205 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 24, 2022) (Dyk, Taranto, Chen, JJ.)

Steve Elster filed a US trademark application in 2018 for the mark “TRUMP TOO SMALL” (a reference to a 2016 Republican presidential primary debate exchange between then- candidate Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)) for use on shirts. The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) examining attorney, and subsequently the Board, refused registration of the mark on grounds that it clearly referred to former President Trump, and that Elster did not have written consent to use former President Trump’s name in violation of Sec. 2(c) of the Lanham Act. Sec. 2(c) requires such consent when a trademark identifies a “particular living individual.” Elster argued that his trademark aimed to convey that some features of former President Trump and his policies were diminutive and appealed the Board’s holding that Sec. 2(c) is narrowly tailored to advance two compelling government interests, namely, protecting an individual’s rights of privacy and publicity and protecting consumers against source deception.

The Federal Circuit started with a brief primer on relatively recent decisions in which the Supreme Court found certain provisions of Sec. 2(a) to be improper viewpoint discrimination because they barred registration of trademarks that were disparaging or comprised of immoral or scandalous matter. The Federal Circuit found that while neither Tam nor Brunetti resolved Elster’s appeal pertaining to Sec. 2(c), the cases did establish that a trademark represents private, not government, speech entitled to some form of First Amendment protection, and that denying a trademark registration is akin to the government disfavoring the speech being regulated. The Court then examined whether Sec. 2(c) could legally disadvantage the specific “TRUMP TOO SMALL” speech at issue in Elster’s case, and whether the government has an interest in limiting speech on privacy or publicity grounds if that speech involves criticism of government officials.

The Federal Circuit did not decide the matter on whether a trademark is a government subsidy, avoiding the somewhat varying opinions of the Supreme Court on that issue. Instead, the Federal Circuit found that Elster’s mark constituted speech by a private party for which the registration restriction must be tested by the First Amendment. Regardless of whether strict or intermediate scrutiny is applied [...]

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TTAB Cancellation Proceedings Not Preclusive in District Court, Even Between Same Parties

Addressing the preclusive effect of judgments by tribunals with limited jurisdiction, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that trademark cancellation proceedings before the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (TTAB) do not have preclusive effect against trademark infringement lawsuits in federal district courts. Beasley v. Howard, Case No. 20-1119 (3d Cir. Sept. 17, 2021) (Chagares, J.)

In 1969, Beasley started a band named The Ebonys. In the mid-1990s, Howard joined the band, and in 1997, Beasley obtained a New Jersey state service mark for “The Ebonys.” Several years later, Beasley and Howard parted ways. In 2012, Howard registered “The Ebonys” as a federal trademark with the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO).

In 2013, Beasley filed a petition with the TTAB to cancel Howard’s mark, arguing that Howard had defrauded the PTO. The TTAB rejected Beasley’s 2013 petition. In 2017, Beasley filed a second petition with the TTAB, again arguing that Howard had defrauded the PTO and for the first time arguing that Howard’s mark could be confused with Beasley’s separate “The Ebonys” mark. The TTAB rejected Beasley’s 2017 petition, this time on claim preclusion grounds, finding that Beasley should have asserted his likelihood-of-confusion claim in his 2013 petition. Beasley did not appeal either dismissal.

In 2019, Beasley initiated a lawsuit in federal district court, requesting that the court vacate Howard’s mark, award Beasley monetary damages and permit Beasley to register his own “The Ebonys” mark with the PTO. The district court dismissed Beasley’s complaint, finding that claim preclusion applied because the complaint turned on the same factual and legal arguments litigated in the 2017 petition, even though Beasley did not seek damages in the 2017 petition. Beasley appealed.

The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal, concluding that the TTAB’ s cancellation proceedings did not preclude Beasley from bringing his § 43(a) infringement claim in the district court. The Court noted that the TTAB has limited jurisdiction to determine the right to register a trademark and does not have authority to consider questions of infringement, unfair competition, injunctions or damages. It reasoned that because the TTAB does not have jurisdiction to award any remedy beyond cancellation of the mark, a broader § 43(a) cause of action for deceptive use in commerce, as alleged by Beasley, could not have been brought in a TTAB cancellation proceeding.

The Third Circuit also rejected Howard’s argument that Beasley should have brought trademark cancellation claims in the district court in the first instance, noting that even though a federal district court has authority to order a cancellation, a TTAB petition is the primary means of securing a cancellation, and that forcing Beasley to litigate in the district court in the first instance would “encourage[] litigants to sit on their claims and undermine[] the Lanham Act’s adjudicative mechanisms.”

Practice Note: In the Third Circuit, plaintiffs are encouraged to bring their trademark cancellation claims before the TTAB in the first instance, rather than waiting to bring their trademark cancellation and trademark infringement claims together before [...]

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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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