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A few weeks ago the Board issued a decision in In re Vox Media Inc., Serial No. 87099703 (July 18, 2018) [not presidential]. This case is instructive on multiple general rules that are commonly applied by the Board when determining if there is likelihood of confusion between the sources of two marks. In this case, the Examining Attorney refused the applicant’s mark on the grounds of likelihood of confusion. The decision sets forth rules that practitioners and applicants must keep in mind when clearing trademarks, filing for trademarks, responding to office actions, and lastly when determining if an appeal or an opposition or cancellation should be filed. The marks in the instant case are CODE2040 (the cited registrant’s mark) and CODE (the applicant’s mark).

The services for CODE2040 are: “Educational services, namely, providing internships and apprenticeships in the fields of engineering and technology; educational services, namely, providing workshops, classes, and retreats in the fields of leadership, business, entrepreneurship, technology, engineering, design, job searching, job interviewing skills, and professional networking”.

The services for CODE are: “Educational services, namely, arranging, organizing, and conducting educational events, conferences, seminars, and symposia in the fields of media, technology, business, commerce, consumer products, entrepreneurship, startup businesses, enterprise technology, digital technology, and mobile platforms.”

Goods and services are compared by the identifications set forth in the applications and registrations. See Stone Lion Capital Partners, LP v. Lion Capital LLP, 746 F.3d 1317, 110 USPQ2d 1157, 1161 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Extrinsic evidence will not be viewed, only the language used to identify the goods and services in the application or registration is relevant. See In re I-Coat Co., LLC, 126 USPQ2d 1730 (TTAB 2018). As long as there is overlap in any one good or service the other goods or services need not be examined, because likelihood of confusion will be found in connection with the class of goods or services with any overlap at all. See In re Wacker Neuson SE, 97 USPQ2d 1408, 1409 (TTAB 2010).

Since the services were identical in part and overlapping, special rules apply. the Board presumes the distribution channels and the classes of consumers are the same. See Citigroup Inc. v. Capital City Bank Group, Inc., 637 F.3d 1344, 98 USPQ2d 1253, 1261 (Fed. Cir. 2011). In addition, the Board will also require a lesser degree of similarities between the marks. See Coach Servs., Inc. v. Triumph Learning LLC, 668 F.3d 1356, 101 USPQ2d 1713, 1721 (Fed. Cir. 2012). Thus, in the case at bar, the second and third du Pont factors weigh in favor of finding a likelihood of confusion.

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I have written several blog posts on this top, and it is important to continue to discuss what documentation is required if an applicant must prove they possessed a bona fide intent to use a mark in commerce. See my blog posts entitled, Federal Circuit’s View Of Lack Of Bona Fide Intent To Use, and Should An Entire Application Be Voided If A Bona Fide Intent To Use Is Lacking, for more on this topic. An applicant filing a trademark application based on the 1(b) basis (intent to use a trademark in commerce) must submit a verified statement to this effect. The United States Patent & Trademark Office (the “USPTO”) will typically accept this statement without question. However, a third party may raise this issue in a challenge to the validity of the trademark application. If a party cannot overcome the challenge, an applicant or registrant may lose its trademark rights.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “TTAB” or the “Board”) has not issued a plethora of decisions on this issue, but there are some decisions that provide guidance. Initially, the burden is on the opposer to demonstrate that the applicant does not have documentary evidence to support the claim of a bona fide intent to use. If the applicant cannot prove through objective evidence (most often documentation) that it’s intent existed, then the Board may sustain the opposition or cancel the registration. If there is no objective evidence, the Board may even grant summary judgment to a movant. A party may rely on documentary evidence used after the filing of the trademark application. However, having documents substantiating this position dated before the filing of the application will be strong evidence of a party’s intent.

A trademark application in the name of the mark identifying the goods or services or the trademark clearance search for the same, without more will not be sufficient evidence of an applicant’s bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce. See Swiss Grill Ltd., John Hartwig, Christopher Hartwig and Mathhew Hartwih v. Wolf Steel Ltd., 115 USPQ2d 2001 (TTAB 2015) [precedential]. However, in the cited case of Swiss Grill Ltd. et al, there was no documentary evidence of record to support the bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce.

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As a trademark practitioner, it is important to carefully review 2(d) reversals by the Board since they occur infrequently. Approximately 90 percent of likelihood of confusion refusals are affirmed. In a recent reversal by the Board, a number of factors contributed to the decision to allow registration, but in my opinion the most significant factors were the differences in the services and the weakness of the term AUBURN. See In re Capital Schools, Serial Nos. 86931396 and 87048675 (April 23, 2018) [not precedential], where the Applicant filed two applications: (1) THE AUBURN SCHOOL in standard characters and (2) CAMP ARISTOTLE AT THE AUBURN SCHOOL in special form. The services included “educational services, namely, providing courses of instruction for children at the early elementary to high school level with special needs; educational services, namely, courses of instructions in the field of math, science, language arts, social studies, foreign language, physical education, music and art for children at the early elementary to high school level with special needs; educational services, namely, providing summer camp programs for children at the early elementary to high school level with special needs”.

The Registrant’s cited marks included word marks and special form marks using the term AUBURN, but the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”) focused on the standard character mark for AUBURN. This mark was the most similar to the Applicant’s marks. The Registrant’s services include: “education services, namely university and community education, public lectures and workshops, seminars and conferences…” In addition, there are entertainment services relating to sports, theatre, concerts, and dance. The Examining Attorney argued that the Registrant’s mark AUBURN is a famous trademark. To support that position, the Examiner submitted a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: “Auburn is an Alabama city and the “seat of Auburn University…”

Typically, the Board will take judicial notice of dictionary definitions to determine meanings of words, but because this definition was offered into evidence to prove fame, the Board decided it would not take judicial notice. The Board reasoned that evidence of fame is not usually of record in ex parte proceedings. In the majority of cases, Examining Attorneys do not have access to the types of evidence that can prove fame. Therefore, the Applicant did not know to address this issue in its brief. Moreover, the dictionary definition in and of itself does not prove that the public is aware of the information. The Examining Attorney also argued that the fact that the Registrant owns 111 trademark registrations shows fame. The Board on the same logic disagreed, stating that the public was not likely aware of the number of registrations owned by the Registrant. The Board determined that the mark was not famous.

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The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board or the “TTAB”) issued this precedential decision at the end of March 2018, and it was a partial win for the Applicant. The Applicant, Serial Podcast LLC, filed three applications at the United States Patent & Trademark Office {“USPTO”), one word mark (standard characters) for SERIAL, and two similar special format marks containing the word “SERIAL” with each letter being placed in a black rectangle with rounded corners. The design marks were identical except one did not claim color as a feature of the mark, while the other featured yellow letters outlined in red. The services were identified as “entertainment in the nature of an ongoing audio program featuring investigative reporting, interviews, and documentary storytelling”, in all three applications. The Examining Attorney refused all three marks on the grounds that each mark is generic for the services identified, and if not generic, then merely descriptive and that applicant’s acquired distinctiveness claim was insufficient to overcome the refusal. See In re Serial Podcast, LLC, Serial Nos. 86454420, 86454424, 86464485 (March 26, 2018) [precedential].

To support the generic refusal the Examining Attorney submitted definitions for the term SERIAL. The meanings for the term SERIAL can be summarized as a story or other subject matter that is published or broadcasted in a series in separate parts. Applicant’s services include producing an ongoing audio program (a podcast) appearing in regular weekly installments. The first season of the podcast included 12 episodes, and ran for approximately two months. Examples of use of the term SERIAL were submitted into the record.

Applicant argued that there were numerous examples where SERIAL is used as an adjective, and therefore the use cannot be generic. However, the Board found this argument not to be persuasive. The Board held that use of a mark as an adjective can be generic as well. See Sheetz of Delaware, Inc. v. Doctor’s Associates Inc., 108 USPQ2d 1341 (TTAB 2013) [precedential]. In fact, the TMEP specifically states: “The expression ‘generic name for the goods or services’ is not limited to noun forms but also includes ‘generic adjectives,’ that is, adjectives that refer to a genus, species, category, or class of goods or services.”

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While more U.S. states will consider marijuana legalization in 2018, the United States Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) remains steadfast in refusing registrations to cannabis-related marks, when the goods or services will violate the federal Controlled Substances Act. Since about 1970, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act. In the mid 1990s some states started to allow marijuana for medical use, and in 2012 Colorado and Washington were the first two states to permit marijuana for recreational use (other states have followed). This leaves a difficult situation for marijuana related businesses because the state and federal laws are at odds.

For a trademark to mature to registration, the use of the mark in commerce must be lawful. If the products or services are illegal under federal law then, use of the mark will not be lawful in commerce. This means an applicant would not be able to file either a 1(a) use application or a 1(b), intent-to-use trademark application with the USPTO if the goods or services were not lawful. If the Examining Attorney believes the goods or services are marijuana related, additional inquiries will be made, and a detailed factual description of the goods and services will be required. In addition, the applicant will need to confirm that all the goods and services comply with federal law, including the Controlled Substances Act. The trademark applicant will also be asked if the identified goods and services involve the possession, sale or provision of marijuana, marijuana based preparations, or any marijuana derivatives. Lastly, there will be an inquiry as to whether the goods and services are lawful pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act.

The TTAB issued an important precedential decision in July 2016,  see In re Morgan Brown, 119 USPQ2d 1350 (TTAB 2016) [precedential]. The Applicant applied to register the mark HERBAL ACCESS for retail store services featuring herbs. However, evidence demonstrated that the Applicant’s services included using the mark to also provide marijuana which is an illegal substance and is in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The problem was that the wording of the identification in the trademark application included “herbs” and marijuana is an herb. Therefore, the goods included the sale of a good that is illegal, and thus use is unlawful.

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The United States Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) has continued its efforts to rid the Trademark Register of marks that are not in use. This would include marks that have been abandoned or were not in use as of the filing date of the trademark application, or at the time of the filing of the Statement of Use or Allegation of Use (“non-use”). The USPTO has proposed streamlining the procedures that eliminate registrations not in use, by creating an expedited cancellation procedure that could be initiated at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB” or the “Board”).

The streamlined cancellation proceeding would require that the party initiating the procedure have proof of standing and abandonment or non-use. The USPTO intends to reduce the fee to file this expedited cancellation proceeding. This streamlined process will limit discovery, eliminate hearings before the TTAB, and shorten the trial schedule. The Board intends to issue decisions in an expedited time frame as well. If there is a default judgment, the proceedings could be completed in as little time as 70 days. While the full-blown streamlined process could take approximately 170 days.

The USPTO has reached out to the intellectual property community for feedback and comments. There appears to be support for this proposed streamlined cancellation procedure. This process could certainly benefit parties that have evidence that a mark is not in use, and yet do not have a limitless budget to accommodate the high costs of inordinately lengthy cancellation proceedings. In addition, it will address depletion of marks, and aim to improve the congestion of the Trademark Register. There were comments indicating concern that the response time of 40 days may be too short, since the respondent would have to produce evidence of use on the list of goods and services identified in the registration. The balance here will require ensuring that the proposed procedure remain expedited compared to the current cancellation proceeding, while still ensuring the respondent receives due process and a fair opportunity to respond to the allegations.

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In a recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“Board” or “TTAB”) decision, the Board reversed the Examiner’s refusal to register the mark YUMMIES and Design (a winking smiley face wearing a crown) for Latin American style food products, namely, processed flavored plantains slices, processed flavored yucca chips, fried pork with salt and chili, potato flakes of different flavors, fired flavored peanuts and baked flavored peanuts and fried corn tortilla snack foods with different flavors. The Examining Attorney cited three different registrations (each with different owners) against the Applicant’s mark. These included: (1) a special format mark for YUMMIES (with a heart shape over the letter “i” in YUMMIES) for candy for consumption on and off the premises; (2) a special format mark for YUMMY’S CHOICE (with a blue ribbon after the term choice) for dairy-based snack foods excluding ice cream, ice milk and frozen yogurt; fruit-based food beverage; oils and fats for food; snack food dips; vegetable-based snack foods; and (3) a standard character mark for SUPER YUMMYS for vegetable-based snack foods; fruit-based snack foods; and milk products excluding ice cream, ice milk and frozen yogurt on the Supplemental Register.

Since The Board affirms approximately ninety percent of the cases appealed in likelihood of confusion refusals, the question to ask is what makes this case different. Before arriving at the answer the Board summarized its method for reviewing these types of refusals. The Board analyzes the facts as they relate to the relevant factors set out in In re E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 476 F.2d 1357, 177 USPQ 563, 567 (CCPA 1973) (“du Pont”). Although there are thirteen factors to consider, the two key considerations are the similarities between the marks and the relatedness of the goods or services. The Board in this matter focused on the fact that the shared term between the marks was weak, and that there were differences among the marks.

The Board did not have a lot of evidence to consider for the relatedness of the goods and trade channels. One registration did contain a restriction in trade channels, but the others did not. Since the Applicant failed to present arguments on these factors, the Board concluded that the similarities of the goods, channels of trade and overlap of the classes of consumers weighed in favor of finding confusion. The Board moved on to review the marks, and the marks have to be evaluated in their entireties in connection with visual appearance, sound, meaning and commercial impression. Consumers will retain a general and not a specific impression of a trademark. A good test is to observe a mark for five to ten seconds, then to close your eyes, and think of what you remember about the mark.

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The USPTO and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB” or the “Board”) have been trending towards refusing marks and affirming refusals where the trademarks are legally identical, and where the goods are complementary, or in other cases where the goods are not intrinsically related. The burden is on the Applicant to adopt a mark that is not confusingly similar to another brand in its industry or in a related industry. Where the trademarks are identical or nearly identical, a lesser degree of relatedness between the goods is necessary to support a finding of likely confusion. See a recent Board decision, In re Spin80, Inc., U.S. Serial No. 87116915 (January 31, 2018) [not precedential], where a refusal was affirmed for the marks CODEGREEN for nutritional supplements in pill and powder form, and CODE GREEN for fruit beverages and vegetable based food beverages.

The Board concluded that the marks were indistinguishable in appearance, and identical in sound, meaning and commercial impression. Any applicant that adopts an identical mark or a nearly identical mark is immediately at a disadvantage, since a different standard will apply in the likelihood of confusion analysis. A lesser degree of similarity between the goods or services will suffice. The Examining Attorney produced evidence of third-party websites. These five websites showed that one mark was used in connection with both fruit and juice beverages, and nutritional supplements in a pill form. The Examiner also submitted evidence of 11 use-based third-party registrations that identified both fruit beverages and nutritional supplements in pill form. This evidence demonstrates that the goods may emanate from the same source. Based on this evidence, the Board determined that the goods were related, and that consumers could mistakenly believe the goods originated from the same source.

Upon reviewing the identifications of the Applicant and Registrant, the Board noted there were no restrictions indicated. This means that there is an assumption that the goods travel in all the normal and usual channels of trade. The Board held that the trade channels and classes of consumers overlapped. The refusal to register the mark was affirmed.

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Once an Examining Attorney refuses a trademark application on the grounds of likelihood of confusion (2(d) grounds), it is unlikely the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB” or the “Board”) will reverse the refusal. Statistics demonstrate that approximately nine out of ten times, the Board will affirm a likelihood of confusion refusal. However, the Board reversed the refusal in the case that will be discussed in this blog, and you can decide if you agree with the Board or the Examining Attorney on this matter. The Applicant applied for the mark FIT IN YOUR GENES in standard characters for among other services, a weight loss program. The Examiner cited the registration FITGENES and Design (the design consisting of a letter V upright and one upside intersecting with the upright letter V) also for weight loss services in part, as grounds for a likelihood of confusion refusal. See In re Druz, Serial No. 86614598 (January 22, 2018) [not precedential].

The Applicant argued that the design element in the mark, the intersected letter Vs, was sufficient to distinguish the two marks. The Board disagreed with this point. It is well settled law that when evaluating a standard character mark and a composite mark, generally speaking, the word element will be considered the dominant element of the mark, and the indicator of source. The rationale for this general rule is that the word element of the mark is the portion of the trademark that consumers will use to refer to the services. Thus, if the literal elements of two marks are similar enough to create a likelihood of confusion, adding a design element to one mark, will not generally distinguish the trademarks.

Regarding the literal portions of the marks, on the surface it appears that there are similarities between the marks that may cause confusion. However, the Board found otherwise. In comparing the trademarks, the following factors are considered, appearance, sound, connotation and commercial impression. Trademark law aims to protect consumers by avoiding confusion in the marketplace upon encountering two similar trademarks for related goods or services. In this case, both marks include the terms, “fit” and “genes” and therefore, the appearance of the two marks is similar. But the connotations and the commercial impressions are different. The Board took judicial notice of the definition of the term “fit” from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, both as a verb and as an adjective. It also noted the definition of the term “gene”.