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Recently I had the opportunity to virtually meet with David Gooder, the Commissioner for Trademarks of the United States Patent & Trademark Office. It was a unique opportunity and it afforded me the time to discuss an issue with the Commissioner that I believe has caused many of my clients to misunderstand the Examining Attorneys’ role at the Trademark Office. There is a lack of information on the USPTO website pertaining to common law rights. I find myself time and time again explaining to my clients why it is so important to conduct full U.S. clearance searches (comprehensive trademark research) in advance of filing a trademark application.

Many prospective trademark applicants wrongly assume that the Examining Attorneys at the Trademark Office when conducting trademark searches for the applicant’s proposed mark will search common law rights (use rights/unregistered rights) in addition to the registered and pending marks. This is not true. The Examining Attorneys at the USPTO do not have the resources to conduct common law searching. Therefore, if an applicant does not conduct comprehensive research in advance of the trademark filing, it’s possible to invest the time and resources to register one’s mark on the federal level, but still be infringing on a third party’s trademark rights and thus be vulnerable to being a named defendant in litigation.

The United States has a first to use trademark system, not a first to file system like many other countries. This means that common law rights (use rights) matter and cannot be ignored. If a third party possesses senior common law rights, a proceeding can be brought at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to either oppose a pending application during the publication period or cancel a trademark registration. The owner of common law rights may NOT have filed or registered its trademark but has simply used the mark in commerce before the applicant filed its trademark application with the United States Patent & Trademark Office.

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In a recent reversal by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board” or the “TTAB”),  In re Just a Pinch Recipe Club, LLC, Serial No. 88463841 (April 15, 2021) [not precedential], it becomes evident that just because two trademarks share terms, this may not be enough to find a likelihood of confusion. There must be an evaluation of whether the shared terms are distinctive terms and thus strong or highly suggestive or descriptive terms and therefore weak. Assuming that one of the marks contains additional terms (other than the shared terms) that consumers can rely on to distinguish the goods, then the fact that the marks share identical terms may not be enough to support a 2(d) refusal. The applicant in In re Just a Pinch Recipe Club, LLC, was seeking to register the standard character mark PINCH IT! RECIPE BOX (RECIPE disclaimed), and the registrant’s mark was THE RECIPE BOX (RECIPE was disclaimed and the mark was in standard characters). Both parties’ goods were for mobile phone application software for managing recipes. There was no dispute that the goods were related, and the TTAB in the end determined that the goods were either legally identical or closely related.

This case turned on the first (similarities and dissimilarities of the marks) and sixth (number and nature of similar marks in use on similar goods) DuPont factors. When assessing whether DuPont factor one weighs in favor of finding a likelihood of confusion the marks in their entireties must be evaluated. This means examining the similarities in the appearance, sound, meaning and commercial impression of the marks. Similarity in any one of these elements may be sufficient to find the marks confusingly similar. In re Inn at St. John’s, LLC, 126 USPQ2d 1742, 1746 (TTAB 2018). This test focuses on the recollection of the average customer, who retains a general rather than specific impression of marks. In re i.am.symbolic, llc, 127 USPQ2d 1627, 1630 (TTAB 2018).

An important consideration for the comparison of marks’ similarities is whether the marks share identical terms, and whether the shared terms are the dominant part of each respective mark. The dominant term of the registrant’s mark was “RECIPE BOX”. The Board determined that the dominant term of the applicant’s mark, PINCH IT! RECIPE BOX was PINCH IT! The TTAB’s logic was that the term PINCH IT! was arbitrary and it was the first element of applicant’s mark. The first part of a mark is often its dominant portion. See, e.g., In re I-Coat Co., 126 USPQ2d 1730, 1737 (TTAB 2018) (citing Presto Prods., Inc. v. Nice-Pak Prods. Inc., 9 USPQ2d 1895, 1897 (TTAB 1988) (the first part of a mark “is most likely to be impressed upon the mind of a purchaser and remembered”); Palm Bay Imps., 73 USPQ2d at 1692. Here, the exclamation mark draws attention to the first element and underscores it. Moreover, both marks disclaimed the term “Recipe” since it is descriptive of the parties’ respective goods. The dominant element of the mark will be given greater weight in the likelihood of confusion analysis. The Board concluded that PINCH IT! was the dominant part of the applicant’s mark.

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As most already know, the United Kingdom (UK) left the European Union (EU) on January 31, 2020. The UK remained within the EU’s structure for trademarks during this transition period. The transition period will end on December 31, 2020. New UK “comparable rights” will be created. After the transition period, all EU trademark rights holders will be granted comparable rights in the UK. These comparable rights will also exist for marks that designated the EU in an International Registration through the Madrid Protocol. For more information on International Registrations, see our webpage entitled, International Trademark Filings and our webpage entitled, Madrid Protocol Trademark Filings. The UK Trademark Office will not require any additional examination of the trademark registration, nor will there be any additional fees due.

The comparable rights in the UK will maintain the same filing date, priority date and renewal dates as the EU registration. The trademark registration number will be the eight-digit number of the EU registration preceded by the letters UK. The UK Intellectual Property Office requires that a trademark applicant maintain a UK address for service. However, there will be certain exceptions made for EU registered trademarks for a limited time period which will enable right holders ample time to provide the UK Trademark Office with this information.

Please note that any trademark applications pending with the EU at the end of the transition period will not be allowed comparable rights. Instead, there will be a grace period of nine months where the EU trademark application will be given an opportunity to be re-filed in the UK. If the applicant takes advantage of the nine month “grace period” and re-files in the UK, then it can maintain the same priority filing date as the EU application. However, The UK Trademark Office will require a new period for opposition of the application filed during the grace period.

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Since about 90 percent or more of 2(d) cases appealed are affirmed by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”), it is unlikely that the Board disagrees with the Examining Attorney’s conclusions. However, the Board did not see eye to eye with the Examining Attorney on this recently decided matter. In my opinion, the Board got this one right.  The Applicant was seeking to register the mark SIMONIZ CERAMICSHIELD for paint sealant for exterior surfaces of vehicles. The Examining Attorney refused registration based on the mark PLATINUM CERAMIC SHIELD in standard characters and PLATINUM CERAMIC SHIELD & Design for clear coating protectant for use on vehicles with the term “Ceramic”`disclaimed. The Board reversed finding the dominant word in each mark was the first term, SIMONIZ and PLATINUM respectively which allowed consumers to distinguish the sources of the sealant products. See In re Simoniz USA, Inc., Serial No. 85865135 (TTAB November 3, 2020).

In this case, the relatedness of the products was not disputed. Both products are used on vehicles to protect the exterior of the vehicle from environmental elements such as water, air etc. The analysis focused on the similarities and dissimilarities of the marks, since both the Applicant and the Examining Attorney agreed that the first du Pont factor was dispositive in this case. Often, properly identifying the dominant portion of the mark will lead to the ultimate conclusion of whether there will be confusion between the sources of two goods and/or services.

The Examining Attorney argued that the first terms in the respective marks, SIMONIZ and PLATINUM were suggestive and that the more distinctive terms were the shared terms “CERAMIC SHIELD”. The Examining Attorney submitted dictionary definitions for the words Simonize (meaning to polish) and Platinum (of a superior quality). However, the Board, did not agree with the Examining Attorney’s argument that the first terms were suggestive. The Applicant’s mark SIMONIZ CERAMICSHIELD does not use the spelling listed in the dictionary “Simonize”. In addition, the dictionary definition states that the term SIMONIZE has an origin in the term SIMONIZ which is a trademark for metal polish referring to Applicant’s mark. The Board also emphasized the fact that Applicant owns multiple SIMONIZ registrations for coating products for automobiles, including paints, sealants and polishes. The mark SIMONIZ has been in commerce in use with these types of products for over 100 years. SIMONIZ is the oldest brand of automobile products in the marketplace.

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The case I am blogging about today, illustrates why federal registration is so important and how failing to register a mark can have devastating effects for your business. See Jean Leon, S.L. v. La Scala Restaurants, Corp., Opposition No. 91241804 (July 22, 2020) [not precedential], where an opposition was sustained despite the Applicant having senior common law rights. The Applicant was seeking to register the mark JEAN LEON’S LA SCALA for restaurant and cafe services and the registrant filed a Notice of Opposition. The Registrant/Opposer owned the mark JEAN LEON for wines. The Applicant opened a restaurant under the name JEAN LEON’S LA SCALA in Beverly Hills and started using the mark in 1962 but did not register the mark.

Clearly Applicant is the prior user of the mark at common law for restaurant services. However, that fact does not help Applicant with regard to the issue of priority in the opposition. Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act prohibits registration of a trademark if a mark resembles another mark as to cause confusion. See 15 U.S.C. §1052(d). One must remember that the policy behind Trademark law is not only to prevent consumer confusion, but it is also to encourage registration of marks.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit declared in part: “the board’s requirement that the registrant-opposer also be a prior user impermissively negates the statutory distinction (“or”) in Section 2(d) between a registered mark and a previously-used-but-unregistered mark, would permit simultaneous registration of the same mark for the same goods to different parties, and disregards–in effect conflicts with–Patent Office Rule 2.106(b), which forbids any attack (other than a request for cancellation) on the validity of a registration in an opposition;”, see King Candy Co., v. Eunice King’s Kitchen, 496 F.2d 1400, 182 USPQ 108, 110-11 (CCPA 1974). Therefore, Applicant’s prior use at common law is irrelevant to the question of whether Applicant can register its mark with the USPTO.

This highlights an important lesson that a senior first user must either oppose a confusingly similar mark when it publishes, or initiate a cancellation proceeding within five years from the registration date, or else the first user can lose the opportunity to effect cancellation. The first user of the mark is then penalized by the law and is unable to register its mark. However, the right to exclusive use may be determined in district court. If an opposition is sustained, then the Applicant-senior user is forced to undertake the financial burden to initiate a court action.

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On June 30, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-awaited significant decision in trademark law. Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) refused registration to the applicant, Booking.com B.V. (“Booking.com”) on several trademark applications involving services for travel reservations in classes 39 and 43.  The USPTO concluded that BOOKING.COM was a generic name for online hotel reservation services. The case made its way from the District Court, to the Fourth Circuit and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that BOOKING.COM was not generic, but descriptive of booking services for hotel reservations. It also held that BOOKING.COM acquired secondary meaning for hotel services. The USPTO only appealed the District Court’s holding that BOOKING.COM was not generic. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, and the USPTO petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision.

A generic name is one that is the name of the class of products or services, and therefore will be refused trademark registration at the USPTO. The parties did not dispute that the term “booking” was generic for hotel reservation services. The USPTO’s decision was based on its position that a generic term added to a “.com” will not change the meaning of the term, it will still be generic. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. The Supreme Court pointed out that consumers do not perceive the term BOOKING.COM to indicate hotel services as a class. The relevant meaning of a term is its meaning to consumers. In addition, since the term BOOKING.COM is a compound term, its meaning must be evaluated from the perspective of the mark as a whole and not in its isolated parts. Lastly, the mark must be able to function as a source indicator and distinguish Booking.com’s services from the services of a competitor.

Although, the USPTO was enunciating a per se rule that the combination of a generic term with a “.com” (or other top-level domain) would be generic, its previous practice and actions did not support this far reaching policy. Justice Ginsburg pointed out several registrations on the Trademark Register in conflict with this general rule, U.S. RN 3,601,346 ART.COM on the Principal Register for  “[o]nline retail store services” offering “art prints, original art, [and] art reproductions”), and U.S. RN 2,580,467 DATING.COM on the Supplemental Register for dating services. The Supreme Court could not find policies or precedents to support this sweeping rule.

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A frequently asked question in my practice is what filing basis should our company rely on in applying for a U.S. trademark application. As many readers may know there are multiple filing bases and to learn more about the basic information for each filing basis, please review our web page entitled, Determining Which Filing Basis Is Appropriate For Your U.S. Trademark Application. This post will delve into some of the more technical requirements for applicants relying on a foreign application or a foreign registration for a U.S. trademark filing. Please consult with trademark counsel if you plan to file under Section 44 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §1126, as there are many nuances an applicant should understand before determining the appropriate basis for filing your U.S. trademark application.

For example, if an applicant wants to file based on Section 44(d) relying on priority of a foreign trademark application, the following requirements must be met:

(1) the applicant must have a country of origin (defined as “the country in which he has a bona fide and effective industrial or commercial establishment, or if he has not such an establishment, the country in which he is domiciled, or if he has not a domicile in any of the countries described in paragraph (b) of this section, the country of which he is a national.) that is a party to an international treaty or agreement with the U.S. that extends a right of priority or must extend reciprocal rights to nationals of the U.S. (See the TMEP Appendix B for qualifying treaties and Agreements); and

(2) the foreign application which is the basis of the priority claim must be filed in a country that is a party to an international treaty or agreement with the U.S. that extends a right of priority or must extend reciprocal rights to nationals of the U.S., but the application does not have to be filed in the applicant’s country of origin (as long as the applicant alleges either 1(a) or 1(b) as a basis for registration) UNLESS the applicant plans on relying on 44(e) for a basis for registration; and

(3) the applicant must file a claim of priority (file its U.S. application) within six months of the filing date of the FIRST filed foreign application (See TMEP 1003.01); and

(4) the goods and services (scope of the identification) of the U.S. trademark application cannot exceed the goods and services of the foreign filed application; and

(5) the applicant must provide a verified statement that the applicant has a bona fide intention to use the mark in commerce as of the U.S. application filing date.

An applicant filing under Section 44(d) will be asked in the TEAS application form if the applicant intends to rely on Section 44(e) as a basis for registration. If the applicant indicates that it will rely on §44(e), then the Examining Attorney will request the applicant submit a “true copy” of the foreign registration when it becomes available or the Examining Attorney may suspend the application while awaiting receipt of the foreign application. Thereafter, the Examining Attorney will issue inquiries via an Office Action, and the applicant will have six months to respond. If the applicant does not respond, the trademark application will be abandoned for failure to respond to an Office Action.

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A recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals from the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”) reminds trademark owners that adopting marks that are merely descriptive may require a high level of proof to register on the Principal Register. See In re JC Hospitality LLC, Appeal Nos, 2018-2048 and 2018-2049 (Fed. Cir. February 28, 2020) [nonprecedential], where the CAFC agreed with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (the “Board”) decision finding the mark THE JOINT (in standard character format) merely descriptive of “restaurant, bar, and catering services” and “entertainment services, namely live musical performances, shows and concerts, and nightclub services.” The CAFC determined that substantial evidence supported the Board’s conclusions, on the grounds of merely descriptiveness and not acquiring distinctiveness, but did not address the Board’s finding of genericness.

The Board relied on several dictionary definitions and news articles, and determined that the mark immediately conveys the concept of a business establishment offering restaurant, bar, and entertainment services. The applicant raised the argument that the mark should register since it is a double entendre. Applicant insisted that THE JOINT was a reference to prison. However, there wasn’t enough evidence to show a relationship between a prison and bar and restaurant services.

The amount of evidence required to prove acquired distinctiveness (secondary meaning) is directly correlated with the degree of descriptiveness. To determine how much evidence is required for showing acquired distinctiveness, the Court or Board must assess the degree of descriptiveness in relationship to the goods or services. Here, the Board held THE JOINT in relationship to the services (bar and restaurant services) was highly descriptive. See our web page entitled, What Is Acquired Distinctiveness & Secondary Meaning, for general information on this topic. Many factors will be considered when evaluating if secondary meaning exists. Some of these factors include: (1) the market share held by the applicant; (2) consumer surveys or studies; (3) the length, degree and exclusivity of use; (4) the amount of applicant’s sales compared to competitors’ sales in the same industry; (5) the amount the applicant spent on advertising compared to its competitors’ advertising expenditures in the same industry; (6) intentional copying; and (7) unsolicited media coverage and the extent the press information was circulated to the general public.

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American University (“Petitioner”), a college located in Washington, DC filed a petition with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board” or “TTAB”) to cancel the mark AUK American University Of Kuwait & Design for educational services for college level courses. The grounds for cancellation were likelihood of confusion and priority, and nonuse, and counterclaims were asserted by American University of Kuwait (“Respondent”). The Petitioner owns several trademark registrations, including formatives of the mark American University where acquired distinctiveness is claimed.

These registrations were pleaded in the cancellation petition, including American University (standard characters) and AU (standard characters and a stylized mark) for educational services, namely courses of instruction on the college and graduate level. The Board did not decide the likelihood of confusion issue since it determined that the Respondent failed to use its mark “in commerce” prior to its application filing date. Thus, the TTAB determined that the mark AUK American University Of Kuwait & Design was void ab initio. See American University v. American University of Kuwait, Cancellation No. 92049706 (January 30, 2020) [not precedential].

This was a very lengthy decision by the Board. This blog will discuss only some of the many legal issues addressed in the Board’s decision. Regarding nonuse, if a use based application matures to a registration, it can still be challenged for nonuse. If an applicant files a use based application and fails to use the mark “in commerce” before the filing date of the application with any of the alleged services in a particular international classification, the entire class of goods will be held void ab initio. See Couture v. Playdom, Inc., 778 F.3d 1379, 113 USPQ2d 2042, 2043 (Fed. Cir. 2015); Aycock Eng’g, Inc. v. Airflite, Inc., 560 F.3d 1350, 90 USPQ2d 1301, 1305 (Fed. Cir. 2009). See also, our blog posts entitled, Proving Nonuse Of A Trademark Prior To The Application Filing and Trademarks Can Be Cancelled For Nonuse, for more on this topic. If the mark is a service mark then, “use in commerce” must include: (1) use of the mark in the sale or advertising of the services; and (2) rendering of the services in a manner that it impacts interstate commerce, rendering the services in more than one state in the U.S. or in the U.S. and in a foreign country.

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The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board” or “TTAB”) recently reversed a refusal to register a mark on the grounds of likelihood of confusion. See In re Marathon Tours, Inc., Serial No. 86086458 (January 23, 2020) [not precedential]. In this case, it was a bit surprising that the Board justified its decision based solely on the marks being sufficiently different while finding the other relevant factors weighing in favor of finding a likelihood of confusion. The decision underscores a point that cannot be emphasized enough in trademark practice; descriptive marks severely restrict the scope of protection for those terms. The Board focused on the descriptive and generic terms in the registered mark.

The applicant was seeking registration on the Principal Register for the mark ANTARTICA MARATHON, in standard characters for “travel services, namely, organizing and arranging travel, travel tours, excursions, and sightseeing travel tours; providing travel guide and travel information services; and making transport reservation.” The applicant claimed acquired distinctiveness under 2(f) of the Trademark Act. The Examining Attorney accepted the 2(f) claim. However, the Examining Attorney cited the mark ANTARCTIC ICE MARATHON & 100K and Design for “Athletic and sports event services, namely, arranging, organizing, operating and conducting marathon races,” as likely to cause confusion with the applicant’s mark. The cited registration had a disclaimer for the term “ANTARCTIC ICE MARATHON & 100K” and for the design of the geographic representation of Antarctica. Upon issuance of a final refusal, the applicant appealed the refusal to register.

In its decision, the Board focused first on the marks. The shared terms in the parties’ marks were variations of “Antarctica” and “Marathon”. These terms are weak in relationship to the services. Registrant had to disclaim the terms since one describes the geographic location of the services and the other the type of race. Determining the strength of the terms is an important part of the analysis. See our recent blog post entitled, How To Overcome A 2(d) Likelihood Of Confusion Refusal, wherein it was emphasized, if shared terms are descriptive, additions to a mark may suffice to avoid likelihood of confusion. See also, the Trademark Manual Of Examining Procedure §1207.01(b)iii which discusses this point.

This rule emphasizes that if the terms common to both marks are generic or descriptive, it is unlikely that the terms will be perceived by consumers as source indicators, and that other differences between the marks may be adequate to obviate confusion. In other words, if consumers will not rely on the shared terms to distinguish source, additional terms in the mark may be able to differentiate the sources. Since the registrant’s mark contains generic and highly descriptive terms, the mark will receive a narrow scope of protection. The board concluded that applicant’s mark did not fall within the narrow scope of protection and therefore, the first du Pont factor weighed against finding confusion.

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