SportFuel sued Pepico and The Gatorade Company asserting that Gatorade’s use of Sports Fuel infringed its SportFuel trademark. The Seventh Circuit found Gatorade’s use of Sports Fuel was not infringing because Gatorade’s use was a descriptive use.
It appears that Gatorade used Sports Fuel in “GATORADE THE SPORTS FUEL COMPANY.” The court’s opinion provided this image of Gatorade’s use of Sports Fuel.
In finding Gatorade’s use of Sports Fuel descriptive, the court said “It requires no imaginative leap to understand that a company selling ‘Sports Fuel’ is selling a variety of food products designed for athletes.”
Is “fuel” so directly and immediately descriptive of food? I’m not so sure. Without considering market use, I think that fuel could be suggestive rather that descriptive of food or drinks. Other factors such as the alleged third party use and the manner of use in the slogan probably played a larger roll in the court’s conclusion that the use was descriptive.
A recent study, reported in HBR, found that in certain circumstances, what the authors call “descriptive logos” positively influence brand evaluations, purchase intentions, and brand performance.
The study defines a descriptive logo as one that includes textual or visual design elements that communicate the type of product or service offered under the logo. For example, Burger King’s logo shown below is “descriptive” in that it contains burger bun where as the McDonald’s “M” logo is not.
The study found that as compared to non-descriptive logos, “descriptive” logos: (1) make brands appear more authentic in consumers’ eyes, (2) more favorably impact consumers’ evaluations of brands, and (3) more strongly increase consumers’ willingness to buy from brands.
What the authors call “descriptive logos,” I think could be better labeled as suggestive logos because admitting that your (word) mark is descriptive is generally not good. Further, on the spectrum of trademark strength, it may be more appropriate to call these logos suggestive than descriptive, at least in some cases.
Descriptive/suggestive logos may not be appropriate when a company sells goods or services in unrelated fields, such that a descriptive/suggestive logo for one line of products would not be appropriate or make sense for the companies’ other unrelated lines.
Trade dress can include the shape or configuration a product or packaging. Trade dress is protectable if, among other things, it serves to identify a source of goods or services, as a trademark does, and it is nonfunctional. The question of what is nonfunctional was addressed in a recent case involving a french press coffee maker.
Bodum USA sued A Top New Casting alleging infringement of Bodum’s trade dress in the product configuration of its Chambord french press coffee maker. Below is a comparison of the products at issue with the Bodum’s product on the left and A Top’ s product on the right (from the court opinion):
Bodum claimed trade dress protection in the overall appearance of its product, with the following elements identified as contributing to that appearance: “the metal band surrounding the carafe that forms support feet and the handle attachment, the domed lid, the rounded knob atop the plunger, and the C‐shaped handle.”
A Top argued that Bodum failed to establish that these claimed features where not essential to the product’s use and therefore nonfunctional. Yet the court distinguished the common meaning of functional from the meaning used in trade dress law.
The court said that “to establish it has a valid trade dress, Bodum did not have to prove that something like a handle does not serve any function.” The court continued, “It merely needed to prove that preventing competitors from copying the Chambord’s particular design would not significantly disadvantage them from producing a competitive and cost‐efficient French press coffeemaker.”
According to the court, Bodum was not claiming that any French press coffeemaker with a handle, a domed top, or metal around the carafe infringes on its trade dress. Instead it was objecting to the overall appearance of A Top’s product, which included “the same shaped handle, the same domed lid, the same shaped feet, the same rounded knob, and the same shaped metal frame as the Chambord.”
The court found that Bodum presented sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the claimed trade dress was nonfunctional under trade dress law, even though the claimed trade dress included elements that had a function.
You’re ready to launch a new business, product, service, or project. You have a name. The domain name for the name you chose is available. So you register it. But you haven’t lunched a website at the domain name you registered. Nor have you done anything more, other than prepare internally to launch. Have you established trademark rights in the name? Probably not.
In the case of Brookfield Communs., Inc. v. West Coast Entm’t Corp. 174 F.3d 1036, 1052 (9th Cir. 1999), Brookfeild sued West Coast alleging that West Coast’s planned use of Moviebuff.com infringed Brookfield’s trademark rights in MovieBuff.
West Coast argued that it had trademark priority (first use) by registering the domain name MovieBuff.com in February 1996 before Brookfield’s first use of MovieBuff in August 1997 in connection with its online database. However, West Coast had not yet launched a website at Moviebuff.com .
The court noted that the mere registration of a domain name with an intent to use the domain name as a trademark commercially does not establish trademark rights. Therefore, Brookfield’s first use of MovieBuff in August 1997 predated any valid trademark use of MovieBuff by West Coast in connection with its website. Therefore Brookfield had priority in the MOVIEBUFF mark. And West Coast’s “I was first” defense failed.
The court ordered that West Coast be enjoined (prohibited) from using MOVIEBUFF as a trademark and from using MOVIEBUFF.com.
The registration of a domain name is an important step in launching a project. If you can’t get the domain name, you might have to go with a different name for the project. However, registration of the domain name alone is not sufficient to establish trademark rights. To establish trademark rights, you’ll need something more, such as filing a federal trademark application (often preferred), or launching a website at the domain name providing goods and/or services under the trademark so that the name is in actual use as a trademark.
When there is a problem or a potential problem, the first desire is often to fix it and fix it now. However, sometimes the best approach is to do nothing and see if the problem solves itself.
Suspended Over Intent-to-Use Trademark Application
For example, consider the case where a trademark application is suspended based on a prior filed intent-to-use trademark application that is pending. If the owner of the prior filed intent-to-use trademark application has not filed a statement of use, it is possible that the owner will not file a statement of use. If a statement of use is not filed within the applicable time limit, then the application will be abandoned and no longer an obstacle to the later filed trademark application proceeding to registration.
It is not unusual for an owner of an intent-to-use application to abandon the application if their plans for using the mark fail to materialize. However, an owner of an intent-to-use application can extend the deadline to file a statement of use up to 3 years from the notice of allowance date. Therefore, this strategy of doing nothing, can involve a long wait time and a long period of uncertainty for the later filed trademark application owner.
Yet, if the later filed trademark application owner reaches out to the prior filed application owner the prior filed application owner might realize that their mark is more important (because someone else is interested in it) than he/she/it previously recognized. Therefore, contacting the trademark application owner might result in the filing a statement of use and perfecting the application, when he/she/it otherwise might not have otherwise done so. Therefore, doing something can be risker than doing nothing and waiting.
Refused Over Registration Nearing Renewal Deadline
As another example, consider the scenario where a trademark application is refused based a prior trademark registration, but the deadline for renewing the prior trademark registration is approaching. If the owner of the trademark registration does not file the renewal documents and pay the renewal fees, the trademark registration will be canceled, and no longer an obstacle to registration. Therefore, it may be best to wait to see if the renewal occurs, if time is available before an office action response top the refusal is due or otherwise.
Like in the prior example, contacting the trademark registration owner may lead the owner to renew the trademark registration–realizing it has value–when he/she/it otherwise would not have renewed.
Waiting can be uncomfortable because it allows tension and uncertainty. However, sometimes it is the best option.
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.
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.
The applicant included many variations of capitalization and spacing of the two words Double Doink. Let’s break down the mark:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).