US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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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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There’s No Sugarcoating It: Pocky’s Cookie Design Trade Dress Is Functional

Addressing for the second time whether the design of a chocolate-dipped, stick-shaped cookie was eligible for trade dress protection, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held again that the product configuration was functional and therefore not subject to trade dress protection, affirming summary judgment for defendant Lotte International America Corp. Ezaki Glico Kabushiki Kaisha v. Lotte Int’l America Corp., Case No. 19-3010 (3d Cir. Jan. 26, 2021) (Bibas, C.J.)

Both Ezaki Glico Kabushiki Kaisha and Lotte make thin, stick-like cookies with one side dipped in chocolate or flavored cream. Ezaki Glico’s product, Pocky, and Lotte’s product, Pepero, can be seen in the images below. Ezaki Glico obtained two incontestable trade dress registrations for its Pocky product design as well as a utility patent for a “Stick Shaped Snack and Method for Producing the Same.”

In 2015, Ezaki Glico sued Lotte for trade dress infringement. The district court found the Pocky product configuration functional and therefore not subject to trade dress protection, and granted Lotte’s motion for summary judgment. In October 2020, on appeal, the Third Circuit issued its initial opinion affirming the district court’s decision and rejecting Ezaki Glico’s argument that its trade dress was not functional because it was not essential to its product. (Read more on the initial opinion here.)

Ezaki Glico petitioned for a rehearing en banc, which the Court rejected. Nonetheless, the original panel vacated its earlier ruling and issued a revised opinion that provided further clarification on the functionality doctrine, but likewise affirmed summary judgment for Lotte and held that the Pocky product configuration was functional.

The Third Circuit again rejected Ezaki Glico’s attempts to equate “functional” with “essential”: “If the Lanham Act protected designs that were useful but not essential, as Ezaki Glico claims, it would invade the Patent Act’s domain. Because the Lanham Act excludes useful designs, the two statutes rule different realms.” The Court cited examples from earlier cases to demonstrate that the proper inquiry for functionality looks to whether the particular design chosen for a feature, as opposed to the feature itself, is useful: “Though French press coffeemakers need some handle, there is no functional reason to design the particular handle in the shape of a ‘C.’ . . . And though armchairs need some armrest, there is no functional reason to design the particular armrest as a trapezoid.”

The Third Circuit looked to Ezaki Glico’s registrations for the features of the claimed trade dress, noting that in this case, “[e]very feature of Pocky’s registration relates to the practical functions of holding, eating, sharing, or packing the snack.” Accordingly, the designs chosen for the Pocky configuration rendered the product more useful as a snack and were “not arbitrary or ornamental flourishes that serve only to identify Ezaki Glico as the source.” Having determined that Lotte sufficiently demonstrated that the Pocky trade dress was useful, the Court held that it was “thus functional” and not subject to trade [...]

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