Model Numbers and Designations as Trademarks

A product model, style, or grade designation can be protected as a trademark. But, as with other trademarks, the designation must be used as a trademark. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) decision in In Re Hydro-Gear Limited Partnership, No. 87641657 (TTAB 2020).

In that case, Hydro-Gear applied to register ZT-1800 for land vehicle parts, namely, transaxles. Hydr-Gear submitted specimens showing use of ZT-1800, including the following:

The problem is that ZT-1800 at the right of the highlighted portion in the image above does not stand out like a trademark. Can you tell its a trademark on that label? No. It blends in with the surrounding text.

The TTAB said, the mark, ZT-1800, in the specimens appeared “in nondescript block lettering, which is displayed on the same line and in the same size, font style, and boldness as the other wording or lettering in that part of the specimen.” Further, the TTAB noted that the mark “appears in a font size much smaller than most of the other elements on the shipping label….in a manner more befitting information matter, such as in this case a model number, rather than an indicator of source.”

The TTAB said that “It is well settled that terms used merely as model, style, or grade designations are not registrable as a trademark because they do not serve to identify and distinguish one party’s goods from similar goods manufactured and/or sold by others.” The key word in that sentence is merely.

This is because in another case, the TTAB said, “Depending upon the nature and manner of use, it is possible for an alphanumeric designation, which functions only in part to designate model or grade, to be inherently distinctive, and hence not require a showing of secondary meaning in order to be protected as a trademark.” Neapco Inc v. Dana Corp., 12 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1746, 1748 (TTAB 1989). Therefore, the manner that the model or grade is used and presented impacts whether it will be deemed a protectable trademark or merely a model, style, or grade designation.

The mark at issue in the Neapco case was “5-280X” for “Couplings, Specifically Universal Joint Couplings for Use in Drive Lines for Vehicles.” We don’t have the example uses from that case, but a later renewal filing included the following specimen portion:

In this example, you can see that the mark “5-280X” is the largest text on the right-side label (apart from the “Spicer” on the box to the left). The 5-280X mark is featured at the top of the label. When you compare the 5-280X mark on this label to the use of ZT-1800 on the label in the Hydro-Gear case, 5-280X is more prominent.

While the specimen showing the 5-280X mark above was accepted by the USPTO, more could be done to better position the 5-280X mark as a trademark. It could be presented in a different font and/or color from the surrounding text. It could be provided with a color or other emphasis like the red line under “Spicer” on the box. It’s orientation could be altered, like the angled appearance of “Spicer.” No particular mode of emphasis is required, but the key is to make the mark stand out.

Ask this: When I look at the use of the model, style, or grade designation, does it standout like a trademark? Also, would a customer recognize this as a trademark? If not, or if in doubt, add more emphasis.