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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 See a recent Board decision, In re Spin80, Inc., U.S. Serial No. 87116915 (January 31, 2018) [not precedential], where a refusal was affirmed for the marks CODEGREEN for nutritional supplements in pill and powder form, and CODE GREEN for fruit beverages and vegetable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”.

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Disclaimers seem simple on the surface, but there are important issues to consider when determining whether or not to disclaim certain terms in a proposed trademark. See our webpage entitled, Trademark Disclaimers for the fundamentals on what a disclaimer is and why it might be required under trademark law for registration purposes. Examining Attorneys have discretion as to whether they require a disclaimer or not. The purpose of a disclaimer is to document that the Applicant does not have exclusive rights to a certain element of the composite mark apart from the composite. The disclaimer is recorded in the trademark prosecution history, and included on the certificate of registration, but the owner of the mark does not have to include a disclaimer on a label, in the packaging or in the advertising of the goods or services. A consumer will not be aware of a disclaimer.

Applicants should consult trademark counsel when evaluating the issue of whether a disclaimer should be included for the record of a trademark prosecution. At times, it may be in the best interests of the Applicant to argue against a disclaimer requirement suggested by the Examiner, and in the alternative consent to entry of a disclaimer if the proposed argument is not found persuasive. This type of alternative arguing is common practice at the United States Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”), and would not be viewed as a concession that the term is not inherently distinctive. Section 1213.01(d) of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedures states that under this scenario, if the Examining Attorney determines the response of the Applicant is not persuasive, the Applicant must be given the option of asserting the disclaimer or appealing the underlying issue of whether the subject term is merely descriptive. However, if the Applicant opts to enter the disclaimer into the record, then it will be viewed as an admission that the term is not inherently distinctive.

Another issue to consider is how a disclaimer will impact a likelihood of confusion analysis. The disclaimed matter will be included in the analysis for purposes of likelihood of confusion. The mark must be regarded as a whole because consumers are not going to know that a part of the mark has been disclaimed. Consumers will view the mark in its entirety, and therefore when evaluating marks for likelihood of confusion, the disclaimed matter is considered as part of the entire trademark. See In re McI Communications Corp., 21 U.S.P.Q.2d 1534, 1991 WL 332552 (Comm’r Pat. & Trademarks 1991).

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Trademark practitioners can barely keep up with the decisions being issued by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB” or the “Board”) in the area of surnames. In relatively recent times, the TTAB was focusing on the importance of the rareness of the surname. Then in the spring of this year, another shift occurred where the rareness factor was deemphasized with regard to the number of people having a surname the same as the mark. See the case of In re Beds & Bars Limited, 122 USPQ2d 1546 (TTAB 2017) [precedential]. Instead, the Board is now focusing on the media exposure of any “famous” or “public” figure with the surname the same as the proposed mark.

Multiple factors are considered to evaluate whether a trademark will be perceived as a last name. Among the factors to be considered in determining whether a term is primarily merely a surname are the following: (i) whether the surname is rare; (ii) whether anyone connected with applicant uses the term as a surname; (iii) whether the term has any other recognized meaning other than a surname; and (iv) whether the term has the “look and feel”’ of a surname or the structure and pronunciation of a surname; and (v) whether the term is sufficiently stylized to remove its primary significance of that of a surname. In re United Distillers plc, 56 USPQ2d 1220, 1221 (TTAB 2000). See also, Miller v. Miller, 105 USPQ2d 1615 (TTAB 2013) [precedential].

In re Bed & Bars Limited, cited above, the proposed mark BELUSHI identified hotel, travel and restaurant services. Evidence was presented that only five people in the U.S. have the surname Belushi, and no one affiliated with the Applicant had the name Belushi. Yet the Examiner refused the mark on the Principal Register, finding it to be primarily merely a surname. The Board affirmed this 2(e)(4) refusal, focusing on the fame and publicity surrounding John and Jim Belushi (aka the Belushi brothers), arguing that their celebrity lives increase the public awareness of the surname.

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The Opposer or Petitioner in a proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”) has the burden of proof to demonstrate there was no use of the mark in commerce prior to the time the trademark application was filed. This showing must be made by a preponderance of the evidence. Opposer or Petitioner may present a prima facie case of nonuse based on the Applicant or Registrant’s inability to present any evidence that there was use of the mark in commerce. If a prima facie case is established by Opposer or Petitioner, then the burden shifts to rebut the case by producing evidence that establishes interstate use in commerce by the filing date.

Opposer or Petitioner will obtain the evidence through discovery. Discovery may or may not include depositions. Evidence acquired through discovery must be made a part of the record. It is important that the Opposer or Petitioner make requests for production of documents, Interrogatory Demands, etc. seeking evidence of interstate sales of the goods or services branded with the mark. The responses to the discovery demands should be made a part of the record. It is possible that the responses may show that no documents were produced or the responses and documents could tend to indicate sales of the branded goods or services were not made. However, if no discovery requests are made or if the Opposer/Petitioner does not make the responses part of the record, the burden may not shift to the Applicant/Registrant.

See Julius Samman Ltd. v. Ibrahim Nasser and Serious Scents, Inc., Opposition No. 91210658 (October 31, 2016) [not precedential], where the Opposer did not submit into the record, responses to admission requests, document requests, or interrogatories showing that Applicant wasn’t able to produce documentary evidence to support use of the trademark in commerce. In this case, the Opposer attached supporting documents to its trial brief instead of properly make the documents a part of the record. The Board pointed out that materials attached to the trial brief cannot be given consideration, unless, the documents were properly made a part of the record during the taking of testimony, TBMP Section 704.04(b). In Julius Samman Ltd., the Opposer did not meet the burden of a prima facie showing that the Applicant wasn’t using the mark at the time the application was filed.

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Since the precedential decision of  In re Bay State Brewing Co., 119 USPQ2d 1958 (TTAB 2016), the Board has more carefully reviewed Consent Agreements. Some may say the TTAB has since been scrutinizing Consent Agreements, seeking to find very detailed reasons for why confusion will not occur between two sources in the marketplace. For more on the influential case of In re Bay State Brewing Co., see our blog post entitled, A Recent TTAB Decision Impacting Consent And Coexistence Agreements. After the issuance of this decision, other decisions followed in the trend of rejecting Consent Agreements. The latest in this line is In re 8-Brewing LLC, Serial No.86760527 (October 30, 2017) [not precedential]. This decision affirmed the refusal of the Applicant’s mark and stated that the restrictions set forth in the parties’ Consent Agreement would not eliminate confusion in the market place.

8-Brewing LLC, (the “Applicant”) was seeking registration on the Principal Register of the mark, 8-BIT ALEWORKS, for beer in standard characters. The mark was refused due to a likelihood of confusion with the registered mark 8 BIT Brewing Company (a word mark and also a design mark with the same literal terms) for beer, ale, lager, stout and porter, malt liquor and pale beer. The parties submitted a Consent Agreement as part of the record of evidence. A Consent Agreement is evaluated under du Pont factor ten, the market interface between the Applicant and the owner of a prior mark.

The Board commenced its review with the goods identified in the trademark application and registrations. Part of the parties’ identifications is identical, “beer”. Because there is an overlapping identical good, it is presumed that the channels of trade and classes of purchasers are the same. Another presumption that attaches when the goods are identical is the “degree of similarity necessary to support a conclusion of likely confusion declines”. See Century 21 Real Estate Corp. v. Century Life of Am., 970 F.2d 874, 23 USPQ2d 1698, 1700 (Fed. Cir. 1992). The relatedness of the goods as described in the application and registrations, weigh in favor of finding a likelihood of confusion.

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In a recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB” or the “Board”) decision issued on October 13, 2017, the TTAB rejected the Applicant’s claim of acquired distinctiveness. See John Edward Guzman d/b/a Club Ed Surf School and Camp v. The New Santa Cruz Surf School, LLC, Opposition No.912208843 (October 13, 2017) [not precedential]. The New Santa Cruz Surf School, LLC (“Applicant”) filed an application with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) for the mark SANTA CRUZ SURF SCHOOL in standard characters. Applicant sought to register the mark on the Principal Register under Section 2(f) of the Trademark Act (claiming acquired distinctiveness). Applicant was providing surfing lessons under the mark. In addition, the Applicant applied to use the mark for a website that provided information on surfing.

If a mark is not inherently distinctive, an applicant may be able to show that the mark has developed distinctiveness or secondary meaning through evidence submitted to the USPTO. See our web page entitled, What Is Acquired Distinctiveness & Secondary Meaning?, and review the three types of evidence that may be submitted to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness. In the case at bar, Applicant was claiming it used the mark in commerce for five years. Applicant was required to disclaim the term “Surf School” being that it was generic for its services. That being the case, the only remaining element of the mark is a geographically descriptive term. Santa Cruz is a city in California. The only option for registering this mark on the Principal Register would be to prove acquired distinctiveness. For the differences between the Principal and Supplemental Register, see our web page entitled, Filing Your Trademark On The Principal and Supplemental Register

A competitor of the Applicant, Club Ed Surf School, (“Opposer”) filed a Notice of Opposition. The Opposer claimed the mark SANTA CRUZ SURF SCHOOL was geographically descriptive and that the Applicant’s use was not substantially exclusive and continuous over the five year period. In addition, the Opposer claimed that the mark, SANTA CRUZ SURF SCHOOL was generic. The Board reviewed the evidence submitted on the generic claim first and concluded that the Opposer failed to meet its burden and dismissed the claim.

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In a very recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”) decision, there was a reversal of a 2(d) refusal. See our webpage entitled, Likelihood Of Confusion Refusals, for more information on the likelihood of confusion analysis and the DuPont factors. The case here involved the marks MMD & Design  for “levelling rods; surveying chains; surveying compass needles; surveying instruments; surveying machines and instruments; transits; tripods,” and MMD (standard characters) for “laser scanners for industrial inspection and for geometrical measurement, and not for use with land surveying equipment; software for collection and interpretation of data in the operation of laser scanners, not for use with land surveying equipment,”. See In re Nikon Corporation, Serial No. 86828751 (October 6, 2017) [not precedential]. The Board first examined the similarities and dissimilarities between the marks.

Both trademarks share the letters MMD. However, the parties based their marks on different words. The Board held that the derivation was of no particular significance to the Board. It is common for applicants to adopt marks that are acronyms for their corporate or trade names. The Board emphasized that this was unimportant because consumers are likely not to be aware of the derivation. Because the relevant purchaser would perceive the letters in the respective marks as arbitrary, the registrant’s mark will receive a broad scope of protection. Part of the rationale for granting a wide scope of protection to arbitrary letters is that it is difficult to remember and thus would be tantamount to a fanciful trademark. In the end, the Board determined that the two marks would carry the same meaning and commercial impression.

Regarding the design element in the registrant’s mark, the Board cited the general rule that when words and design elements are used together, the words are generally considered the dominant element of the mark. Often dominant elements are given more weight. Had there been third-party evidence in the record showing the dominant element of the mark was weak or diluted, the design element could have taken on a more significant role in distinguishing the mark. However, that was not the case here. Consumers were not conditioned to encountering multiple MMD branded products in the marketplace. The Board concluded that the marks were similar in sight, sound, meaning and commercial impression.

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In this recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decision, In re Fowles Wine Pty Ltd., Serial No. 79157017 (September 15, 2017) [not precedential], the Board affirmed the refusal of the Examining Attorney. The interesting aspect to this decision is one of the grounds for refusal was failure to function as a trademark (the other ground was the mark was merely descriptive of the goods). The Applicant was seeking to register the mark FARM TO TABLE for wines in standard characters. After the refusal was made final, the Applicant appealed to the Board.

To support the refusal, the Examining Attorney submitted printouts from numerous commercial websites, illustrating how third parties in the industry use the term “Farm to Table”. These web pages included excerpts and references such as: (1) “Farm to Table Wine Dinners…”; (2) “Farm to Table Wine and Cooking Adventure”; (3) “Farm to Table Wines…”; (4) “Freas Farm Winery is focused on serving high quality farm to table wines”; (5) “Farm to Table Wine Tasting featuring local farmers and organic wines from Bonterra Vineyards…”; and (6) “Farm to Table Wine and Food”. In addition, the Examining Attorney introduced into evidence articles from major newspapers discussing the phase, Farm to Table in connection with wine.

In an attempt to counter this evidence, the Applicant submitted third-party registrations for FARM TO TABLE formative marks for food products and related services. The Board held that the multiple third-party registrations were of little probative value because the printouts did not show if such registrations were allowed to register under a claim of acquired distinctiveness under Section 2(f) of the Trademark Act. In addition, the printouts did not show if the registrations required a disclaimer or if the registrations registered on the Supplemental Register.

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