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Zero Hero: Disclaiming Disputed Term Renders Dispute Moot

The Trademark Trial & Appeal Board redesignated as precedential a decision dismissing a beverage company’s opposition to trademarks using the term “ZERO” for zero-calorie drinks after the trademark applicant disclaimed the term ZERO in its pending applications, the sole remedy requested in the opposition. Royal Crown Co., Inc. v. The Coca-Cola Co., Opposition Nos. 91178927 (Parent Case); 91180771; 91180772; 91183482; 91185755; 91186579; and 91190658 (TTAB May 3, 2019) (redesignated precedential Mar. 30, 2021) (Hightower, ATJ). The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with the Board’s decision, holding that disclaiming the term ZERO rendered the dispute moot. Royal Crown Co., Inc. v. Coca-Cola Co., Case No. 19-2088 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 3, 2020) (Lourie, J.)

Royal Crown and Coca-Cola are competitors in the beverage market. Coca-Cola filed 16 applications to register marks appending the term ZERO to some of its existing beverage brands, such as Coke Zero, Coke Cherry Zero and Sprite Zero. Royal Crown filed oppositions to each of the 16 applications (later consolidated), arguing that the marks were generic or merely descriptive of the beverages’ zero-calorie attributes, and that the registrations should be denied without a disclaimer of the term ZERO. The Board initially held that Coca-Cola’s applications could be registered without a disclaimer of the term ZERO, finding that Royal Crown failed to show that ZERO was generic for zero-calorie products in the genus of soft drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks, and that Coca-Cola proved that the term ZERO had acquired distinctiveness for soft drinks and sports drinks, although not for energy drinks. On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated the decision and remanded the case back to the Board with instructions to apply the correct legal standard for genericness of the term ZERO, including examining whether the term ZERO referred to a key aspect of the genus when appended to a beverage mark, and to make an express finding regarding the degree of the mark’s descriptiveness.

On remand, the Board ordered the parties to rebrief certain issues. Instead, Coca-Cola filed an unconsented motion to amend each of its applications to disclaim the term ZERO. Coca-Cola argued that the disclaimer rendered the remaining issues in the case moot and that no further action was required by the Board. Although disclaimer was the sole remedy Royal Crown originally sought in its oppositions, Royal Crown protested that the disclaimer was procedurally improper and not case-dispositive. Royal Crown argued that its requested relief included a determination that ZERO was generic or merely descriptive, and that while a disclaimer was the manner in which that relief was demonstrated, a disclaimer did not moot the legal issues raised. Royal Crown asked the Board to defer ruling on the motion to amend until it had issued a full decision on the merits.

Agreeing with Coca-Cola, the Board found that since the disclaimer was the relief sought by Royal Crown and the form of the disclaimer was acceptable, entered the disclaimer and dismissed Royal Crown’s opposition.

Practice Note: In the original appeal from [...]

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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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