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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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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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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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Waiver in PTO Trademark Appeals Applies “Per Decision, Not Per Case”

Addressing a “narrow question of statutory interpretation,” the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of a trademark case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that a party that appeals a Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (TTAB) decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit may, after remand to and issuance of a new decision by the TTAB, seek review of the new decision in federal district court. Snyder’s-Lance, Inc. v. Frito-Lay N.A., Inc., Case No. 19-2316 (4th Cir. Mar. 17, 2021) (Wynn, J.)

Princeton Vanguard, a snack food producer, applied to register its mark “Pretzel Crisps” on the principal register. Frito-Lay opposed. The TTAB denied Princeton Vanguard’s application, concluding that the mark was generic.

Under the Lanham Act, Princeton Vanguard could appeal the TTAB’s original decision to either the Federal Circuit under 15 USC § 1071(a) or federal district court under § 1071(b). Princeton Vanguard elected a direct appeal to the Federal Circuit pursuant to § 1071(a), thus waiving its right to district court review. The Federal Circuit concluded that the TTAB applied the wrong legal standard in evaluating whether Princeton Vanguard’s mark was generic and remanded the case to the TTAB. The TTAB again concluded that Princeton Vanguard’s mark was generic. This time, Princeton Vanguard appealed to a federal district court pursuant to § 1071(b).

The district court sua sponte dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding that Princeton Vanguard’s appeal of the original decision to the Federal Circuit pursuant to § 1071(a) precluded Princeton Vanguard from appealing the second decision to a district court pursuant to § 1071(b). Princeton Vanguard appealed.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the statutory text of the Lanham Act supported Princeton Vanguard’s argument in favor of jurisdiction. The Court explained that Princeton Vanguard’s waiver of its right to district court review of the original TTAB decision pursuant to § 1071(a) did not apply to any subsequent decisions in the same case, and that the waiver applied “per decision, but not per case.”

The Court rejected Frito-Lay’s argument that Princeton Vanguard was taking a second bite at the apple by seeking re-review in federal district court of issues already decided by the Federal Circuit, reasoning that Princeton Vanguard was seeking district court review of the second, separate decision that had not been reviewed by the Federal Circuit. The Court stressed, however, that the Federal Circuit’s review of the TTAB’s original decision was binding as to issues it decided.

Practice Note: If the TTAB issues multiple decisions in the same proceeding, each decision is considered a separate decision for purposes of waiver under §§ 1071(a) (b), even if the decisions implicate similar issues.




IP Implications of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

On December 27, 2020, Congress signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, into law. The omnibus act includes new legislation affecting patent, copyright and trademark law. A brief summary of key provisions is provided below.

Patents – Section 325 Biological Product Patent Transparency

42 USC § 262(k) was amended to require that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide the public with more information about patented biological products. Within six months, the FDA must make the following information available to the public on its Database of Licensed Biological Products or “Purple Book,” and it must update the list every 30 days:

  • A list of each biological product, by nonproprietary name, for which a biologics license is in effect
  • The license date and application number
  • The license and marketing status (as available)
  • Exclusivity periods

The amendment requires that the holders of a license to market a biologic drug now disclose all patents believed to be covering that drug. The new law is designed to prevent errors that could delay biosimilars from coming to the market.

Copyrights – The CASE Act of 2020

The Consolidated Appropriations Act incorporates the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act of 2020, as well as legislation designed to increase criminal penalties for the unauthorized digital streaming of copyright-protected content. The CASE Act includes revisions to the Copyright Act, 17 USC §§ 101 et seq., with the goal of creating a new venue for copyright owners to enforce their rights instead of having to file an action in federal court.

The Copyright Claims Board

The CASE Act established the Copyright Claims Board (a small claims court), which is designed to serve as an alternative forum where parties may voluntarily seek to resolve certain copyright claims regarding any category of copyrighted work. A party may opt out upon being served with a claim, choosing instead to resolve the dispute in federal court. A party to a proceeding before the Board may, but is not required to, be represented by a lawyer. A party may also be represented by a law student who is qualified under applicable law, and who provides such representation on a pro bono basis. The Board consists of three copyright claims officers who may conduct individualized proceedings to resolve disputes and must issue written decisions setting forth their factual findings and legal conclusions.

Procedural Matters

The Board must follow the law in the federal jurisdiction in which the action could have been brought if filed in federal court. Because jurisdictional conflicts may arise where a dispute may have been brought in multiple jurisdictions, the CASE Act provides that the Board may apply the law of the jurisdiction that the Board determines has the most significant ties to the parties and the conduct at issue.

Although formal motion practice is not permitted, discovery is allowed on a limited basis, including requests for documents, written interrogatories and written requests for admission. The Board may consider evidence, documentary and (non-expert) testimony, without the application of formal [...]

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“You’ve Changed!”—New Trademark and TTAB Fees Incoming

Effective January 2, 2021, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) is increasing and adding certain trademark and Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) fees. The changes come after a nearly three-year fee status quo.

The following TTAB fees will increase anywhere from $25 to $200:

  • Petition to cancel filed through the Electronic System for Trademark Trials and Appeals (“ESTTA”) (now $600 per class);
  • Notice of opposition filed through ESTTA (now $600 per class);
  • Initial 90-day extension request for filing a notice of opposition, filed through ESTTA (now $200 per application);
  • Second 60-day extension request for filing a notice of opposition, filed through ESTTA (now $200 per application);
  • Final 60-day extension request for filing a notice of opposition, filed through ESTTA (now $400 per application); and
  • Ex parte appeal filed through ESTTA (now $225 per class).

New TTAB fees are also taking effect. A $100 fee per application will apply for a second request for an extension of time to file an appeal brief in an ex parte appeal filed through ESTTA (and for any subsequent extension requests). A $200 per class fee will apply for appeal briefs in an ex parte appeal filed through ESTTA. A $500 per proceeding fee will apply to requests for oral hearings.

As before, there will be no fee for a first 30-day extension request for filing a notice of opposition filed through ESTTA. The USPTO will also begin issuing partial refunds for petitions to cancel in default judgments. These refunds, however, will be available only if the cancellation involves solely an abandonment or nonuse claim, if the defendant did not appear, and if there were no filings in the proceeding other than the petition to cancel.

Additionally, USPTO trademark and TTAB filings which can be and are submitted on paper will cost more than filing their electronic counterparts.

Other key USPTO trademark fee changes include the following: TEAS standard application, now $350 per class; TEAS Plus application, now $250 per class; the processing fee for failing to meet TEAS Plus requirements, now $100 per class; Section 8 or 71 declaration filed through TEAS, now $225 per class; petition to the Director filed through TEAS, now $250; and a petition to revive an abandoned application filed through TEAS, now $150. No fee will apply for an electronically filed Section 7 request to amend a registration before submitting a Section 8 or 71 declaration, as long as the filing serves only to delete goods, services, and/or classes in the request. There will, however, now be a fee assessed for deleting goods, services, and/or classes from a registration after submitting a Section 71 or 8 declaration, but before that declaration is accepted ($250 per class if filed through TEAS). Lastly, a letter of protest will now cost $50 per application.

While the changes outlined above are key, practitioners should be mindful of potential changes to all fees applicable to their specific situation and consult the USPTO’s Final Rule, available here, to ensure [...]

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Trademark Cancellation Is Appropriate Sanction for Misconduct

In upholding a grocery store chain’s standing to petition for cancellation of a US trademark registration, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (TTAB’s) express authority to impose cancellation of a trademark by default judgment as a sanction in a TTAB proceeding. Corcamore, LLC v. SFM, LLC, Case No. 19-1526 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 27, 2020) (Reyna, J.).

SFM owns US federal trademark registrations for the mark SPROUTS for use in connection with its retail grocery store services. SFM filed a petition to cancel Corcamore’s US trademark registration for the mark SPROUT for use in connection with vending machine services, alleging a likelihood of consumer confusion with SFM’s prior trademark rights. The TTAB denied Corcamore’s motion to dismiss the cancellation petition for lack of standing. Relying on Empresa Cubana del Tabaco v. General Cigar Co., the TTAB confirmed SFM’s standing based on its “real interest” in the cancellation petition and a “reasonable belief of damage” caused by the continued registration of Corcamore’s SPROUT trademark.

Following the TTAB’s denial of its motion to dismiss, Corcamore undertook a series willful, bad-faith procedural maneuvers that resulted in two separate sanctions. When Corcamore’s further procedural misconduct violated both sanctions orders, the TTAB entered default judgment cancelling Corcamore’s SPROUT trademark registration. Corcamore appealed.

On appeal, Corcamore alleged that the TTAB (1) erred in applying Empresa Cubana rather than the Supreme Court of the United States’ Lexmark v. Static Control framework in affirming SFM’s standing, and (2) abused its discretion in granting default judgment as a sanction. On the issue of standing, the Federal Circuit rejected the TTAB’s “unduly narrow” conclusion that the Supreme Court’s Lexmark framework was inapplicable, since Lexmark related to a claim of false advertising under § 1125(a) of the Lanham Act, while Empresa Cubana addressed the right to bring a cancellation proceeding under § 1064. The Federal Circuit concluded that Lexmark applied to § 1064 and § 1125(a) because both are statutory causes of action. Nevertheless, the Court found no meaningful substantive difference between the analytical frameworks for standing expressed in Lexmark and Empresa Cubana, and found that the Lexmark “zone-of-interests” proximate cause analysis and the “real interest” and “reasonable belief of damage” requirements under Empresa Cubana similarly provided a right to bring a cause of action. As such, the Court ultimately agreed with the TTAB’s conclusion that SFM’s pleaded allegations of a likelihood of consumer confusion based on a similarity of the parties’ SPROUTS and SPROUT trademarks, and their respective goods and services, were sufficient to demonstrate a reasonable belief of damage under Empresa Cubana and thus supported the right to challenge Corcamore’s registered trademark via cancellation.

With regard to the TTAB’s grant of default judgment, Corcamore did not challenge the TTAB’s express authority to grant default judgment as a sanction under 37 CFR § 2.120(h) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2). Instead, Corcamore argued that the TTAB had no factual or legal basis to enter default judgment in the first [...]

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The Naked Truth About Trademark Cancellation: Only Harm, No Proprietary Interest Required

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that a contracting party that contractually abandoned any proprietary interest in a mark may still bring a cancellation action if it can “demonstrate a real interest in the proceeding and a reasonable belief of damage.” Australian Therapeutic Supplies Pty. Ltd. v. Naked TM, LLC, Case No. 19-1567 (Fed. Cir. July 24, 2020) (Reyna, J.) (Wallach, J., dissenting).

Australian sold condoms with the marks NAKED and NAKED CONDOMS, first in Australia in early 2000, then in the United States in 2003. Two years later, Australian learned that Naked TM’s predecessor had registered a trademark NAKED for condoms in September 2003. Australian and Naked TM communicated by email regarding use of the mark for a few years. Naked TM contended that the parties reached an agreement; Australian disagreed and said no final terms were agreed upon. Australian filed a petition to cancel the NAKED trademark registration. Ultimately, and after trial, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) concluded that Australian lacked standing because it had reached an informal agreement that Naked TM reasonably believed was an abandonment of any right to contest Naked TM’s registration of NAKED. Thus, the TTAB found that Australian lacked a real interest in the proceeding because it lacked a proprietary interest in the challenged mark. Australian appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed. First, the Court clarified that the proper inquiry was a matter of proving an element of the cause of action under 15 USC § 1064 rather than standing. The Court explained that, contrary to the TTAB’s conclusion, “[n]either § 1064 nor [its] precedent requires that a petitioner have a proprietary right in its own mark in order to demonstrate a cause of action before the Board.” Assuming without deciding that the TTAB correctly determined that Australian had contracted away its rights, the Court found that fact irrelevant. Ultimately, even though an agreement might be a bar to showing actual damages, a petitioner need only show a belief that it has been harmed to bring a petition under § 1064.

The Federal Circuit found that Australian had a reasonable belief in its own damage and a real interest in the proceedings based on a history of two prior applications to register the mark, both of which the US Patent and Trademark Office rejected on the basis that they would have created confusion with Naked TM’s mark. The Court rejected Naked TM’s argument that Australian’s abandonment of those applications demonstrated there was no harm, instead concluding that Australian’s abandonment of its applications did not create an abandonment of its rights in the unregistered mark. Moreover, as a prophylactic rationale, the Court explained that Australian’s sales of products that might be found to have infringed the challenged registration also create a real interest and reasonable belief in harm.

Judge Wallach dissented. Although he agreed that the TTAB erred by imposing a proprietary-interest requirement to bring suit under § 1064, he disagreed that Australian properly demonstrated an alternative, legitimate interest—i.e., a belief [...]

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Federal Circuit Confirms Color Marks of Certain “Character” Can Be Inherently Distinctive for Product Packaging

Reviewing a decision from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded the Board’s refusal to register a trademark consisting of a gradient of multiple colors applied to product packaging, and relied on Supreme Court precedent in concluding that color marks can be inherently distinctive when used on product packaging “depending upon the character of the color design.” In re Forney Industries, Inc., Case No. 2019-1073 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 8, 2020) (O’Malley, J.)[precedential].

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