Articles Posted in Merely Descriptive Or Generic

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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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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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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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A recent decision from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB” or the “Board”), reminds trademark applicants that if there is a term that has taken on significance or meaning in a particular industry and this term immediately conveys information about the goods or services identified in your trademark application, your application could be refused. The ground for refusal would be that the trademark is merely descriptive of the Applicant’s goods and services. See In re Bitvoyant, Serial No. 86693221 (February 9, 2017) [not precedential]. For more details on this subject matter, see our web page entitled, Factors To Be Considered When Determining If A Mark Is Descriptive. Some of the factors discussed on our web page are dictionary meanings, is the term an acronym that would be perceived to mean the same as the wording it represents, and does the term describe the intended user. Another factor to now consider is whether the mark is a term of art in your industry.

In Bitvoyant, the Applicant filed to register the mark HONEYFILE. The goods identified were computer software platforms for use in the field of computer network security that assist in the tracking of data exfiltration and network intelligence. The services included computer security consultancy; computer security service, namely, restricting access to and by computer networks to and of undesired web sites, media and individuals and facilities, along with other computer security services.

The application was refused on the ground that the mark was merely descriptive of the goods and services. The Applicant filed a request for reconsideration that was denied. An appeal followed. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit set forth the following standard: ” [A] term is merely descriptive if it immediately conveys knowledge of a quality, feature, function, or characteristic of the goods or services with which it is used.” See In re Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A., 675 F.3d 1297, 102 USPQ2d 1217, 1219 (Fed. Cir. 2012). Evidence to prove this proposition can be taken from any competent source, such as dictionaries, newspapers or surveys.

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On first glance, this decision appears to be an unexpected result especially in light of the prior registration owned by the Appellant for the word mark CHURRASCOS for the same restaurant services. However, when viewing general principles of trademark law, maybe the outcome is not so unexpected. Regardless of your opinion, perhaps the easiest way to understand this ruling is to conclude that the mark has become generic over time. The Appellant in this matter, Cordua Restaurants, Inc. (“Cordua”) owns five restaurants marketed under CHURRASCOS. The restaurants feature South American dishes, including chargrilled Churrasco Steak. Years earlier, Cordua applied to the United States Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) for the mark CHURRASCOS in standard character format for restaurant and bar services and catering. CHURRASCOS, the word mark registered on the Principal Register on June 3, 2008 under Section 2(f) after showing the mark acquired distinctiveness.

A few years later, Cordua attempted to register CHURRASCOS for the same restaurant services, but in a stylized format and it was refused. Cordua appealed to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”) and it affirmed the Examiner’s refusal on the grounds that the mark was generic for restaurant services. See In re Cordua Restaurants LP, 110 USPQ2d 1227 (TTAB 2014) [precedential]. Cordua argued that its prior registration should be prima facie evidence of the mark acquiring distinctiveness. However, the Board responded by stating that if the mark is highly descriptive, additional evidence is required to prove distinctiveness. Cordua appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”). See In re Cordua Restaurants, Inc.118 USPQ2d 1632 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

The CAFC affirmed the finding of the Board, holding there was substantial evidence to find the mark CHURRASCOS was generic for restaurant services. A generic term is a common descriptive name for a class of goods or services. The critical issue is whether the relevant consumer base primarily understands the subject term to refer to the class of goods or services in question. Proof of the public’s understanding of the subject term should be submitted into evidence from reliable sources such as dictionaries, online sites, publications, and newspapers. The USPTO bears the burden of proving that the mark is generic by clear and convincing evidence.

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A recent decision from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”) highlighted several mistakes made by the Applicant when appealing a descriptiveness refusal. See In re Olawale Mafolasire, Serial Nos. 85895010, 85895067, 85895083 and 85895103 (January 12, 2016), where the Board affirmed the Examining Attorney’s refusal to register several applications based on the marks being merely descriptive of the goods. There are several lessons to learn from the Applicant’s arguments to the Board in this case.

The Applicant’s marks included: 1-TAP GIVE1 • 1-TAP GIVE NOW2 • 1-TAP DONATE3 and • 1-TAP DONATE NOW for computer application software for mobile phones and portable mobile devices allowing a user to donate money to a recipient. The four applications were consolidated into one appeal because despite the variations in marks they presented similar questions of law and fact. The general rule that guides every Section 2(e)1 refusal is that a trademark will be considered merely descriptive if it immediately conveys knowledge or information of a quality, purpose, feature, function, or characteristic of the goods or services. This analysis must be conducted in relationship to the goods and services. The Applicant argued that a consumer would not know what the goods were from simply viewing the trademark. This is a common mistake and the Board replied that a determination of descriptiveness is not made in the abstract. The test is whether a consumer who knows what the goods or services are will understand the mark to immediately convey information about a quality, purpose, feature, function, or characteristic of the goods or services.

The Board pointed out that the terms “give”, “donate”, and “now” are descriptive in relationship to the goods and that the single ordinary meaning of these terms will be understood by consumers. In addition, the Examiner produced evidence to show that the term “tap” when used in association with computers and mobile devices means moving a stylus or a finger on a screen of a device equivalent to a mouse click. Therefore, “1-TAP” means to touch a screen one time. The Applicant tried to argue that the term “1-TAP” could have other meanings unrelated to goods and therefore one of the other meanings could apply. However, it is well settled law that as long as one of the meanings of the term is descriptive in relationship to the goods, the term will be held merely descriptive.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently reminded trademark owners that secondary meaning may not necessarily develop over time for a merely descriptive trademark. A merely descriptive mark is one that describes a feature, function, purpose, ingredient, quality, or use of an applicant’s goods or services. This principal is discussed in the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure §1209.01 (b) and on our web page entitled Disadvantages of Descriptive Trademarks. A merely descriptive mark cannot be registered on the Principal Register because it lacks distinctiveness.

Marks on the Supplemental Register are weak marks that are difficult to enforce and will only receive a narrow scope of protection. Significant effort and resources must be invested over time to strengthen the merely descriptive mark through use, promotion, marketing, and advertising the mark in commerce. A significant budget must exist for marketing and advertising.

If an owner of a merely descriptive mark wants to sue for infringement, he must prove that he owns a proprietary right in the mark by showing the mark has acquired distinctiveness. Often, the end result will be that the mark owner is unable to prevent competitors from using a similar mark on a related good or service and this was the outcome in the Fifth Circuit in Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Robin Singh Educ. Servs., Inc. Case No. 20250 (5th Cir., August 21, 2015).

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In a recent precedential decision of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the Board) issued on April 21, 2015 the Board affirmed the Examiner’s refusal to register the mark BUYAUTOPARTS.COM with a disclaimer for “.com”. Meridian Rack & Pinion (the “Applicant”) sought registration on the Supplemental Register for the mark BUYAUTOPARTS.COM for online retail store services featuring auto parts. The Examining Attorney refused registration on the basis that the mark was generic for the services indicated and incapable of distinguishing the Applicant’s services. See In re Meridian Rack & Pinion DBA BUYAUTOPARTS.COM.

Generic terms are common names understood by the relevant consuming public to be the principal category of the goods or services. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has held that the most significant issue in a generic trademark case is whether the relevant public primarily understands that the proposed mark refers to the genus of the goods or services. See H. Marvin Ginn v. International Association of Fire Chiefs, 782 F.2d 987, 228 USPQ 528, 530 (Fed. Cir. 1985). There is a two-part analysis when determining if a mark is generic. The first inquiry is what is the genus of the goods or services (what is the class of goods or services or the principal category) and the second inquiry is does the relevant group of consumers understand that by use of the subject mark it refers to a principal category of goods or services.

To determine the principal class of goods or services one can typically look to the Applicant’s identification of goods or services. See Magic Wand Inc. v. RDB Inc., 940 F.2d 638, 19 USPQ2d 1551, 1552 (Fed. Cir. 1991). Here, the Applicant’s identification of goods is “on-line retail store services featuring auto parts”. To better understand the identification utilized by the Applicant one should look to the dictionary definition (which was submitted into the record by the Examining Attorney). The dictionary defines “retailing” as selling of merchandise directly to the consumer.

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At the end of 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board” or “TTAB”) issued a surprising decision (albeit non-precedential), finally questioning the rule that bars all titles of single creative works from receiving federal trademark registration. See In re King Productions, Inc. Serial No. 76703458 (November 19, 2014) [not precedential]. King Productions, Inc. (“Applicant”) was seeking registration of the phrase, ROCK YOUR BODY on the principal register for DVDS and books in the fields of dance, exercise and fitness. The Examining Attorney refused registration on the basis that the term did not function as a trademark under Sections 1, 2, & 45 of the Trademark Act. The Examiner stated that the specimens of record showed that the proposed mark was merely the title of a single creative work (the title of a book and a DVD). When the refusal was made final the Applicant appealed to the TTAB.

For decades, the USPTO has held that the title of a single work such as a book, DVD, movie or play is not considered a trademark and is not capable of registration. See Herbko Int’l Inc. v. Kappa Books, Inc., 308 F.3d 1156, 64 USPQ2d 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2002). Although, titles of a series of works can be registered. The reasoning for this is because a series provides a trademark function in that the series indicates that each work comes from the same source. Keep in mind that each work in the series may have its own title separate from the trademark for the series. The name of the series is not descriptive of any one work.

The Board noted that titles of single works have been refused under sections 1, 2, & 45 of the Trademark Act for some time now. However, the Board declared that the proper basis for refusal of titles of single works should be based on Section 2(e)(1) of the Trademark Act. This basis is appropriate because the title describes the work. The Board’s assertion and change of the basis for refusal of a title of a single work is significant because an applicant can now overcome the refusal by showing the mark has acquired distinctiveness under Section 2(f) of the Trademark Act. An applicant would have to show that the relevant public understands that the primary significance of the mark is to indicate or identify the source of the product or service rather than the product itself. If the public views the mark merely as a title of a single work, then it has not acquired distinctiveness or secondary meaning. Although, the Board opened the door to overcome a potential refusal under Section 2(e)(1), the applicant will have a difficult challenge to produce evidence of secondary meaning.

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One of the most frequently asked questions in our trademark practice is, can my last name be used as a trademark? The answer is that it depends on the nature of the surname. In this blog post we will examine an example of when a surname can be used as a trademark and an example of when it would be considered primarily merely a surname. See In re G R  Lane Health Products Limited, Serial No. 85115445 (July 10, 2013) [not precedential]. In this case, the Applicant filed for the mark JAKEMANS for throat lozenges and similar goods in International Class 5 and hard candies in International Class 30. The Examining attorney refused the registration under section 2(e)(4) of the Trademark Act (15 U.S.C. §1052(e)(4)) on the grounds that JAKEMANS is primarily merely a surname.

The first question to ask is when viewing the trademark in relationship to the goods or services, will the purchasing public perceive the term’s primary significance as that of a surname. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”) has identified five factors to be considered in making this determination:

(1)   Is the surname rare;

(2)   Is the term the surname of anyone connected with the applicant;

(3)   Does the term have recognized meaning other than as a surname;

(4)   Does the term have the look and feel of a surname; and

(5)   Whether the stylization of the lettering is distinctive enough to make a separate commercial impression.

If there is any doubt as to whether a term is primarily merely a surname, the Board will resolve the doubt in favor of the applicant. See In re Benthin Management GmbH, 37 USPQ2d 1332, 1334 (TTAB 1995). During the prosecution, the Examining Attorney presented evidence to show that the surname was not rare. The Examiner produced evidence showing 87 names in a telephone directory for the term Jakeman. The Board held that 87 names is NOT substantial evidence that Jakemans is a common surname. In fact, the Board determined that Jakemans is a very rare surname in the U.S. See also, In re United Distillers plc, 56 USPQ2d 1220 (TTAB 2000), where HACKLER was held to be a rare surname despite the 1,295 listings in the telephone directory.

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