The Power of a Standard Character Trademark Registration

Cheryl Bauman-Buffone applied to register the mark JUST SAY IT in the stylized form shown below.

Nike opposed the registration based on its JUST DO IT trademarks in Nike, Inc. v. Cheryl Bauman-Buffone, Op No. 91234556 (TTAB 2019).

When the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board considered the similarities between the marks, it said, “The stylization of Applicant’s mark is essentially irrelevant, because Opposer’s [Nike’s] mark is registered in standard characters and typed forms, and could be displayed in any font or size, including in a manner similar to Applicant’s display of JUST SAY IT.” (emphasis added).

A standard character mark usually provides the broadest protection over the underlying words/characters of the mark. This is so, because the registration is not limited to any particular font or stylization of the mark. My prior article on Words or a Logo or Both in a Trademark Application? provides more factors to consider when choosing what to include in a federal trademark application.

Ultimately, the Board refused the registration Bauman-Buffone’s mark. While the similarity of the marks was not the only factor that lead to the refusal to register, it was an important factor.

Register the Mark You Will Actually Use, Not Unused Similar Variations

Trademark rights are connected with actual use of a mark. Sometimes that use starts before an federal trademark is filed and sometimes it starts after a federal (intent to use) trademark application is filed. But speculating in trademark applications on marks that you don’t intend to actually use is useless.

This brings me a federal trademark application filed on the following mark:

double doink doubledoink DOUBLE DOINK DOUBLEDOINK Doubledoink Double Doink

That whole thing is the mark of the application.

The applicant included many variations of capitalization and spacing of the two words Double Doink. Let’s break down the mark:

  1. double doink
  2. doubledoink
  3. DOUBLE DOINK
  4. DOUBLEDOINK
  5. Doubledoink
  6. Double Doink

The applicant has six variations of Double Doink in the mark. But you don’t need to, and shouldn’t do this to protect the mark “Double Doink.”

Maybe the applicant here really is going to use all six variations, together, and in that order, as his mark. But that seems very unlikely.

You should pick the way that mark will be used, use it consistently in that way, and apply to register in that way. Then let trademark law do the rest. Trademark law often protects against not only identical copying of a mark, but also against confusingly similar marks.  Is “Doubledoink” confusingly similar to “Double Doink” for the same goods/services? Probably.

In many cases, a trademark registration on Double Doink would likely protect the owner from others using the mark with minor different capitalization or spacing–e.g. similar variations of the mark–in connection with the same goods/services. For example, the USPTO found CROSS-OVER to be in conflict with a registered mark CROSSOVER. The hyphen made no difference.

There are exceptions to every rule, but like minor punctuation differences, minor spacing and capitalization differences alone often do not distinguish marks because marks are compared in at least following ways: (1) appearance, (2) sound, and (3) connotation. A similarity in any one of those aspects could be enough to find that the marks are similar. Many times you can’t hear spacing and capitalization differences when a mark is spoken, e.g. its sound. Further, the spacing and capitalization may not sufficiently distinguish the marks visually. Is “Doubledoink” that much different visually from “Double Doink”? No.

Pick a way to present and use your mark. Use it and apply to register it in that way. And let trademark law do the work of stopping the use of similar variations of your mark.

Thanks to Erik Pelton for pointing out this application.

Difficulty of Name Changes: Country Moves to Change Name to End 27 Year Dispute with Greece

It is not uncommon for trademark disputes to resolve with one party agreeing to stop using the mark that is in dispute. If the mark is the party’s name, then a name change is required.

Name changes are usually not easy. Consider the need to change items having the mark, including advertisements, signs, letterhead, business cards, brochures, packaging, marked products, and a website. Further, a name change may mean a loss of customer recognition of the brand and the need to educate customers on the new name.

As a result, it is no surprise that a party is usually not happy about being required to change its name. So too when a country is pressured to change its name.

NPR reports that the parliament of the country of Macedonia (Republic of Macedonia) approved changing the country’s name to North Macedonia to appease Greece. NPR reports on why Greece objected to Macedonia’s name:

Greece already contained a region called Macedonia, which incorporates most of the territories of the eponymous ancient kingdom that was led centuries ago by Alexander the Great. Both Greece and its northern neighbor consider Alexander, and the name, integral parts of their identity…

Previous Greek governments have also claimed the tiny Republic of Macedonia might use the name to make territorial claims on its province.

As a result of this name dispute, Greece has blocked Macedonia’s entry into both NATO and the European Union. Greece and Macedonia have been in a dispute over the name since 1991 when the Republic of Macedonia broke away from Yugoslavia.

Opponents of the name change strongly condemned the vote in parliament using words such as “traitors” and “treason,” according to NPR.

Name changes are often hard. However, apparently the benefits of a possible path to NATO and EU membership outweigh the resistance to a name change in the Republic of Macedonia. Similarly in trademark disputes, when a name change is agreed, the business usually sees the benefits arising from a change outweighing the costs.

Amazon Marketplace Problems and the Case For Registering a Seller Name as a Trademark with the USPTO

Verge reports on the problems sellers encounter from false claims and sabotage efforts of other sellers on Amazon’s marketplace.

The Verge article is titled Prime and Punishment: Dirty Dealing in the $175 Billion Amazon Marketplace. It reports that one seller registered a trademark for his watch brand but not the name of his Amazon seller account. Another person then applied and received a trademark registration from the USPTO over the Amazon seller’s account name, registered it with Amazon, and then used the registration to convince Amazon to kick the legitimate seller off and take over his name on Amazon. The article describes it this way:

Over the following days, Harris came to realize that someone had been targeting him for almost a year, preparing an intricate trap. While he had trademarked his watch and registered his brand, Dead End Survival, with Amazon, Harris hadn’t trademarked the name of his Amazon seller account, SharpSurvival. So the interloper did just that, submitting to the patent office as evidence that he owned the goods a photo taken from Harris’ Amazon listings, including one of Harris’ own hands lighting a fire using the clasp of his survival watch. The hijacker then took that trademark to Amazon and registered it, giving him the power to kick Harris off his own listings and commandeer his name.

…Then came the retaliation: tired of Harris’s futile attacks, the imposter booted Harris off his listings entirely, reporting him to Amazon for infringing on his own brand.

Therefore, registering with the USPTO, your amazon account name as a trademark, is a step to try prevent this type of terrible problem from occurring.

Weak Marks Leave Only Stylistic Elements Protected: DIY Auto Edition

It is usually not good when the trademark office considers the whole text of your mark to be generic, as the registration for DIY AUTO REPAIR SHOPS demonstrates below. When you want to use a generic element in your mark to describe the goods or services offered, it is usually better to combine that with a unique text element so you have something protectable, to which your reputation can attach.

DIY AUTO, LLC applied to register the DIY AUTO and design, shown below, for the services of providing a website featuring information about automotive maintenance and repair service.

The Examining Attorney refused registration based on DIY AUTO REPAIR SHOPS and design, shown below, registered for the services of a do-it-yourself vehicle repair shop.

 

The Trademark Trial and Appeals Board reversed the refusal and allowed the application on DIY AUTO to register. The board said that “we find that the purchasing public, who are interested in repairing their own vehicles, will understand the terms DIY, DIY AUTO, and DIY AUTO REPAIR in the generic sense, rather than as indicating a particular source of do-it-yourself auto repair services.”

Here, given DIY AUTO and DIY AUTO REPAIR are generic, all that is left for the trademark registrations to protect is the stylistic (logo) presentation–i.e. the blue and white badge-like logo of the first mark and the orange and blue badge-like logo of the second mark–but not the text alone. That’s not a lot of protection considering consumers can use or encounter the mark audibly or orally. Indeed, words are often used by customers to refer to or request goods/services. See e.g. TMEP 1207.01(c)(iii).

The terms DIY AUTO are telling customers what they get in connection with auto repair and auto repair information, but the mark owners are not staking out any substantial ground that can distinguish one source of goods/services from another, apart from the graphics. Each of these marks are or will be registered, but the scope of protection is narrow.

It would be better if these parties attached DIY AUTO to a protectable text mark, e.g. ACME DIY AUTO. That way each could build brand recognition in the protectable text (ACME) and also inform customers what they get (DIY AUTO).

Five Years: Most Relevant Time Period for Considering Third Party Trademark Use, Federal Circuit Says

Converse filed a complaint at the International Trade Commission (ITC) seeking an order blocking the importation of several shoes that Converse alleged to infringe Converse’s trade dress rights in three design elements on the mid-sole of Converse’s All Star shoes.

Converse asserted trade dress rights in the “design of the two stripes on the midsole of the shoe, the design of the toe cap, the design of the multi-layered toe bumper featuring diamonds and line patterns, and the relative position of these elements to each other.”

Here, the design elements of the shoe are product design trade dress, for which the owner must show that these design elements have acquired distinctiveness in the relevant market place. If the owner fails to show acquired distinctiveness, then it does not have trademark rights to enforce.

Third party use of a mark is relevant to whether a trademark has acquired distinctiveness in the relevant market place. If many third parties use a mark, then it is less likely that this mark will be recognized in the marketplace as associated with one source of goods or services.

The defendants in the ITC proceeding asserted that the design elements had not acquired distinctiveness. They relied, in part, on evidence of third party designs. Some of those third party design usages were old.

The Federal Circuit said that the ITC erred by too heavily relying on prior uses long predating the first infringing uses and the date of registration in Converse, Inc. v. ITC, No. 2016-2467 (Fed. Cir. 2018). The court relied on Section 2(f) of the Lanham Act to find that the five year period prior to the relevant date was the most relevant time frame to consider third party use.

Generally a trademark owner must show acquired distinctiveness prior to the date when the first alleged infringement occurred by the other party. Therefore, the first use by the the other party is generally the relevant date (or the date of  registration, if a trademark registration is at issue).

The court said that “Consumers are more likely to remember and be impacted in their perceptions by third-party uses within five year and less likely with respect to older uses.” It continued that “uses older than five years should only be considered relevant if there is evidence that such uses were likely to have impacted consumers’ perceptions of the mark as of the relevant date.”

Likely Phonic Similarity Dooms Registration Attempt: MIKA Blocks MYCAH

Devon Goocher applied to register MYCAH for music concerts, among other services. The USPTO refused registration based on a registration on MIKA for live performances by a musical entertainer in In re GoocherSer. No. 87214736 (TTAB Setp. 20, 2018)

Two marks may be found similar if there are sufficient similarities in the sound or appearance or connotation of the marks. Here the similarity in sound was enough to find the marks were similar.

The Trademark Trial and Appeals Board noted that:

…it is very likely that consumers will pronounce Applicant’s mark MYCAH in the identical way that they would pronounce Registrant’s mark MIKA, that is bi-syllabically with the first syllable being pronounced the same as the word “my,” as the vowels “I” and “Y” are often interchanged in, for example, common names such as Sidney and Sydney. In the second syllable, both the “C” and “K” can be pronounced with a hard “k” sound as in the words “cat” and “Kentucky,” with the “A” and “AH” having the same neutral sound.

Goocher tried to argue the marks were pronounced differently “in reality.”  However, the Board noted that “there is no ‘correct’ or certain pronunciation of a mark because it is impossible to predict how the public will pronounce a particular mark….”

Uber CEO Acknowledges that Uber is a Verb

In a September 10, 2018 post on Uber’s website, Uber’s CEO is quoted saying “Very few brands become verbs; for Uber to have achieved this shows how we’ve captured imaginations and become an important part of our customers’ lives….”

Many companies go out of their way to discourage the use of their trademark as a verb or a noun. For example, the owners of the VELCRO brand produced a humorous music video instructing the public not to use VELCRO as a noun or verb. Why?

They did this to prevent the loss of trademark rights in the VELCRO trademark due to what is called genericide. Genericide occurs when the public appropriates a trademark and uses it as a generic name for a type of good or service regardless of the source. If this happens, as it did for ASPIRIN, the trademark owner can loose its rights in the mark. Therefore, usually companies avoid, and instruct others to avoid, using their trademarks as nouns or verbs.

However, in a recent case where the plaintiff unsuccessfully attacked Google’s trademark as generic, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said that verb use of a trademark alone does not automatically constitute a generic use. Instead, to know if the public uses the mark as a generic name of a type of good or service, we need some information about what the consumer is thinking when they use the mark as a verb.

Here, does the consumer mean the Uber ride service or any ride service when using Uber as a verb? The latter case is where the problem lies for trademark owners.

Therefore, the acknowledgement by Uber’s CEO that Uber is a verb is not the end all regarding Uber’s trademark rights. Yet, it is something that a challenger could point to in attempting to attack the validity of Uber’s trademark.

Avoid Using Trademarks Descriptively: Corn Thins and Rice Thins Found Merely Descriptive

Real Foods Pty Ltd. applied to register the mark “Corn Thins” for the goods of “crispbread slices predominantly of corn, namely popped corn cakes.” It also applied to register the mark “Rice Thins” for the goods of “crispbread slices primarily made of rice, namely rice cakes.” Frito-Lay successfully opposed the registration of marks on the basis that the marks are merely descriptive of the goods and have not acquired distinctiveness in Real Foods Pty Ltd. v. Frito-Lay North America, Inc. Nos. 2017-1959, 2017-2009 (Fed. Cir. 2018).

A mark is merely descriptive if it immediately conveys information concerning a feature, quality, or characteristic of the goods or services for which registration is sought. The Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB) and the Federal circuit agreed that a consumer would immediately understand, when encountering the proposed marks, that a feature or characteristic of the goods is that they are thin in cross section and made primarily of corn or rice, respectively.

Merely descriptive marks are initially weak and require acquired distinctiveness (a.k.a. secondary meaning) to be registered. Acquired distinctiveness occurs when the primary significance of a mark, in the minds of the relevant public, is to identify the source of the product rather than the product itself.

One fact that the TTAB and the Federal Circuit noted is that Real Foods advertising materials use the word “thin” to describe their products. According to the Federal Circuit opinion, the advertising included the statements that “They are delicious thin corn cakes, with ‘All Natural” flavoring” and “Corn & Rice Thins are THIN.”

While the outcome might not have changed in this case, a trademark owner should take steps to avoid using its mark descriptively in a sentence to describe an attribute of the product. It appears, in the opposition, the Real foods avoided using the term “thin” to describe its products and instead used “slim” or “slimmer.” But such use of slim or slimmer did not change Real Food’s prior descriptive use of thin in advertising, which was used as evidence against it.

Ultimately, the TTAB and the Federal Circuit agreed that Corn Thins and Rice Thins should not be registered because they were merely descriptive of the corresponding goods.

Protecting Descriptive Marks: Principal Register and Supplemental Register

The USPTO maintains two registers of trademarks. The main register is the principal register while the other is the supplemental register. Most trademark applications seek registration on the principal register. Registration on the principal register provides the trademark owner with more rights and benefits than the supplemental register.

Principal Register

The advantages of owning a registration on the Principal Register, include that the registration on the Principal Register:

  • Provides exclusive nationwide right to use the mark in commerce on or in connection with the goods/services listed in the registration where there was no prior use by others (15 U.S.C. §§ 1057(b), 1115(a));
  • Is constructive notice to the public of the registrant’s claim of ownership of the mark (15 U.S.C. §1072);
  • Provides a legal presumption of the registrant’s ownership of the mark (15 U.S.C. §1057(b)),
  • Operates to provide a constructive use of the mark as of the filing date of the application that results in the registration (15 U.S.C.  §1057(c));
  • Enables the owner the ability obtain the assistance of the US Customs and Boarder Protection to prevent importation of infringing foreign goods (15 U.S.C. §1124);
  • Enables the option for registrant’s exclusive right to use a mark in commerce on or in connection with the goods or services covered by the registration to become “incontestable,” subject to certain exceptions (15 U.S.C. §§1065, 1115(b) );
  • Provides a basis for using a simplified process under the Madrid Protocol to a obtain trademark registrations in foreign countries. (15 U.S.C. §1141b).
  • Operates as a defense to state or common law claims of trademark dilution. (15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(6)).

The Supreme Court said “Federal registration …. confers important legal rights and benefits on trademark owners who register their marks.” The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals said, “These benefits [of a federal trademark registration]—unavailable in the absence of federal registration—are numerous, and include both substantive and procedural rights.” So if you are serious about protecting your mark, you want to register it on the principal register.

Supplemental Register

However, when a trademark does not qualify for registration on the principal register, the supplemental register is a fall-back option. A trademark may not qualify for registration on the principal register if it is merely descriptive in relation to the goods/services and has not acquired distinctiveness, i.e. recognition in the relevant marketplace as a trademark. A mark is merely descriptive if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the corresponding goods or services.

Therefore, an applicant may seek registration on the supplemental register when its mark is merely descriptive and has not acquired recognition in the marketplace as a trademark. Further, an applicant might seek registration on the supplemental register if the mark has been refused on the principal register as merely descriptive and the applicant does not want to undertake the effort to attempt to prove to the USPTO that the mark has acquired recognition in the marketplace as a trademark.

The advantages of owning a registration on the Supplemental Register, include that the registration:

  1. Allows the registrant to use the registration symbol ®;
  2. May block the registration of a confusingly similar mark by a third party; and,
  3. Provides a basis for using a simplified process under the Madrid Protocol to a obtain trademark registrations in foreign countries.

The time period that a trademark has been use is one factor in determining whether a mark has acquired distinctiveness (and is thus register-able on the principal register). 15 U.S.C. §1052(f),  provides that “proof of substantially exclusive and continuous use” of a designation “as a mark by the applicant in commerce for the five years before the date on which the claim of distinctiveness is made” may be accepted as prima facie evidence that the mark has acquired distinctiveness. The USPTO is not required to accept 5 years of use as establishing acquired distinctiveness, but they can and often do.

Therefore, one strategy to protect a merely descriptive mark is to seek registration on the supplemental register. Then after a period of time, such as 5 years, the applicant can seek registration on the principal register and rely on section 1502(f) for establishing acquired distinctiveness. Before seeking registration on the principal register, the registration on the supplemental register has the chance of blocking others from registering the same or confusingly similar mark. It may also have the effect of deterring others from using the same or a confusingly similar mark.

Yet, reliance on 1502(f) this might not work if third parties start using the mark for the same goods in the marketplace before 5 years of use. Then the applicant might not be able to say that its use was “substantially exclusive.” Nevertheless, the applicant could still attempt to prove acquired distinctiveness through other evidence.

Choosing a descriptive mark tends to put the applicant at a disadvantage in terms of trademark strength, at least initially. However, overtime if competitors do not use the mark, the mark might acquire trademark protection if the appropriate steps are taken. Seeking registration on the supplemental register is one step that may help in the process.