Articles Posted in Trademark Court Decisions

After years of battles, this is a victory for dairy groups and cheese producers in the U.S. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ended this dispute, see Interprofession du Gruyere v. U.S. Dairy Export Council, 61 F.4th 407 (4th Cir. 2023). Initially the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) approved and published the trademark application containing the certification mark (aka geographical indication) for “Gruyere” for cheese. Section 4 of the Trademark Act of 1946 (as amended) provides protection for Geographical Indications as certification and collective marks indicating regional origin. Domestic Geographical Indications include IDAHO (potatoes), WASHINGTON (apples) and FLORIDA (citrus). For more on the topic of certification marks, see our webpage, What You Need To Know to Register A Certification Trademark. The application was opposed at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) on the grounds that Gruyere is a generic term for a type of cheese.

To determine if the term Gruyere is generic, the TTAB applied the test of Marvin Ginn. A generic term is one that the relevant public understands to be the common name of the goods or services or the name of the class of the products or services. See our web page entitled, Generic Terms, for examples of generic terms that were ineligible for registration at the USPTO.  Determining if a term is generic requires asking two questions: (1) what is the genus of goods or services at issue? and (2) is the term sought to be registered, understood by the relevant public primarily to refer to that genus of goods or services? The generic determination is based on the meaning of the term to consumers. The TTAB found that the genus of the goods was cheese and members of the general public who purchase or consume cheese to be the relevant public. In the end, the Board held that Gruyere is a generic term for a type of cheese in the U.S. See, U.S. Dairy Export Council et al. v. Interprofession du Gruyère and Syndicat Interprofessionnel du Gruyère, 2020 USPQ2d 10892 (TTAB 2020) [precedential].

In response, the European consortiums filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia challenging the TTAB decision. The District Court noted that the term “Gruyere” previously may have referred to cheese exclusively from Switzerland and France, but due to decades of importation of cheese labeled Gruyere produced outside the Gruyere region of Switzerland and France has diluted the meaning of the term rendering it generic. Thereafter, the European Consortium appealed to the Fourth Circuit of the Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit reviewed the evidence and also found that there was widespread labeling of Gruyere cheese originating in other countries besides Switzerland and France. The Fourth Circuit concluded that U.S. consumers understood the term “gruyere” referred to a type of cheese which renders the term gruyere generic. The reasoning for refusing to provide trademark protection for generic terms is that granting a party an exclusive right to utilize a generic term would be unfair and would interfere with competition.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) ordered cancellation of a trademark registration for the mark DANTANNA’S for restaurant services, finding that the Registrant’s Attorney recklessly executed the Section 15 Declaration of Incontestability and disregarded the truth. See, Chutter, Inc. v. Great Management Group, LLC and Chutter, Inc. v. Great Concepts, LLC, 2021 USPQ2d 1001 (TTAB 2021) [precedential]. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”) reversed this decision in a precedential split decision, finding that a party is not entitled to use a Section 14 Cancellation Proceeding if another party files a fraudulent Affidavit of Incontestability under Section 15 of the Lanham Act. Great Concepts, LLC v. Chutter, Inc., 2023 USPQ2d XXXX (Fed. Cir. 2023).

To understand the legal requirements and benefits of filing a Declaration of Incontestability under Section 15 of the Lanham Act, see our web page entitled, Incontestable Trademarks. If you qualify to file a Declaration of Incontestability, it will become more difficult for a third party to invalidate your trademark. For example, once your mark registers, it becomes prima facie evidence of the validity of the trademark, but an incontestable trademark shall be conclusive evidence of the validity of the registered mark. Thus, it is more burdensome and difficult to prove invalidity of a registered incontestable mark than a registered mark without incontestable status. Once a mark is incontestable, the grounds to invalidate it will be restricted to those grounds listed in Section 14 of the Lanham Act. To view the restricted grounds, please see our webpage entitled, Challenging Trademark Rights After Five Years of Registration.

This CAFC decision is significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it clarifies that fraud in connection with filing and acquiring incontestability status is independent from fraud in connection with filing the application and obtaining registration of the mark. Further fraud in connection with filing a Section 15 Affidavit is also distinct from fraud committed in renewing or maintaining a trademark. And that engaging in fraud while filing a Section 15 Declaration cannot be used as a basis to cancel the registration. Secondly, the CAFC has made it clear that it will not expand the statutory basis under Section 14 of the Lanham Act.

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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, B.V. (“”) 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’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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Last week the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in Iancu v Brunetti   588 U.S. ____, 2019 USPQ2d 232043 (2019).  The Lanham Act Section 2(a) states that trademarks should be refused on the Principal Register if the trademark consists of immoral or scandalous matter. Erik Brunetti was seeking to register the mark, “FUCT” for various apparel items. The Examining Attorney refused to register the mark because it was the phonetic equivalent of a vulgar term.

Brunetti appealed to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”), and it affirmed the refusal based on the mark, “FUCT” being prohibited under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act for being immoral or scandalous. Brunetti then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”), and the Court reversed the Board’s holding. Since the CAFC invalidated Section 2(a) of the Lanham, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.

Undoubtedly, the decision in Matal v. Tam influenced this ruling. See our blog post entitled, Two Significant Court Decisions Impacting USPTO Trademark Practice, for a more detailed analysis of the Tam case. In Tam, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is unconstitutional under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act has been used to deny federal registration to trademarks that disparage or bring into contempt any persons living or dead. The applicant in Tam wanted to register the mark THE SLANTS for his Asian rock band. The Tam decision was a unanimous ruling holding the Disparagement Provision to discriminate based on viewpoint.

After the Tam decision, the USPTO had to remove certain cases from suspension (those refused on the Disparagement Provision) and reexamine the cases for other requirements. The Justices rendering the decisions of both cases (Tam & Brunetti) agree on the core principal that the government cannot discriminate against speech based on the ideas or opinions that the speech conveys. One of the Justices explained in Tam that the disparagement bar only allowed an applicant to register a mark if it conveyed a positive idea about a party, but not if it conveyed a derogatory message. In other words, the government cannot deny registration of a trademark based on views expressed by the mark.

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In a recent decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”), the CAFC affirmed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s decision (the “Board”) to refuse a specimen under the Lanham Act.  See In re Siny Corp., 2019 USPQ2d 11362 (Fed. Cir. 2019) [precedential].  The court stated that the specimen did not qualify as a display associated with the goods. The applicant had tried to register the mark CASALANA for “knit pile fabric made with wool for use as a textile in the manufacture of outerwear, gloves, apparel, and accessories”. The applicant argued that its specimen, images of its website should be acceptable as a point of sale display associated with the goods. The Examining Attorney objected because the specimen did not include a means for ordering the goods.

The image of the webpage showed the goods with the mark CASALANA, and an explanation of the goods. Near the bottom of the webpage it stated, “For sales information” and there was a telephone number and email address in close proximity inviting customers to call. The Board relied on the case of In re U.S. Tsubaki, Inc., 109 USPQ2d 2002 (TTAB 2014), for the rule that an invitation to call the applicant for additional information, including obtaining a quote for an order, does not provide a means for ordering the product. The rationale for this rule is that before acquiring this information via telephone, the customer did not have enough information to place an order.

Typically a display associated with the goods will contain information such as pricing details, order size, payment options, and information about shipping. If such information is provided, enough to allow the customer make a purchasing decision, along with contact information, it’s possible that a website could act as a display associated with the goods (assuming purchasers actually placed orders over the phone or through an email after viewing the information).  If all the important information to purchase the goods was acquired through another means other than the website, the website did not function as an example of use of the mark in commerce. See our webpage entitled, For Purposes Of Trademark Law, What Is Use In Commerce, for more information on this topic.

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded the Board’s findings in Teresa H. Earnhardt v. Kerry Earnhardt, Inc., Opposition Nos. 91205331 and 91205338 (February 26, 2016). The Applicant sought to register the mark EARNHARDT COLLECTION for furniture in class 20 and custom construction of homes in class 37. A third party opposed the registration on grounds of likelihood of confusion and priority and on the ground that the proposed mark EARNHARDT COLLECTION is primarily merely a surname. The Opposer’s mark is DALE EARNHARDT for a variety of goods and services. The Applicant and Opposer agreed that the term Earnhardt alone is primarily merely a surname. However, they disagree about whether adding the term “Collection” to “Earnhardt” changes the commercial impression and diminishes the surname impression.

The United States Patent & Trademark Office will refuse a trademark on the Principal Register if the primary significance of the mark as a whole is a surname. See our web page entitled, Can You Use Your Name As A Trademark?, to review the test to determine if a mark is primarily merely a surname. Since the subject mark has two terms, the trademark must be evaluated in its entirety and not as two separate parts.

In addition, the mark must be considered in relationship to the goods and services that are identified in the trademark application. One important part of the analysis is the relative distinctiveness of the second term of the mark. This can be evaluated by classifying the second term as, fanciful, arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive or generic. Where the mark falls on this continuum is a question of fact. One question to ask in this analysis is does the mark as a whole convey a distinctive source identifying impression rather than conveying information about some aspect of the goods or services.

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Two recent decisions, one before the U.S. Supreme Court and one pending before the Federal Circuit have kept the United States Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) busy writing Examination Guidance for Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act’s Disparagement Provision and Scandalous Provision. See Examination Guide 1-17. See also our webpage entitled, Trademarks That Falsely Suggest A Connection With Other Persons, where it is discussed that Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §1052(a) bars registration of trademarks that are immoral, deceptive, scandalous or if the mark falsely suggests a connection with other persons (living or dead), institutions, national symbols, or beliefs.

In Matal v. Tam, also known as “The Slants” case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the provision of the Lanham Act Section 2(a) which has denied federal registration to trademarks that disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute any persons living or dead is unconstitutional under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. This decision was issued on June 19, 2017. In this case, the applicant Simon Shiao Tam filed a trademark application with the USPTO for the name of his Asian-American rock band. The Slants are seeking to register the name for entertainment services in the nature of live musical performances. Mr. Tam was the lead singer of the band and he stated that he wanted to take back ownership of a word that created stereotypes in the Asian culture. See In re Simon Shiao Tam, 108 USPQ2d 1305 (TTAB 2013) [precedential].

The USPTO refused the application under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act as being disparaging and offensive to a substantial composite of people of Asian descent. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the Disparagement Provision discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. Based on this decision, the Disparagement Provision of Section 2(a) is no longer a valid ground for refusal by the USPTO. The portions of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure §1203 that relate to examination under the Disparagement Provision no longer apply.

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David Elliot (“Plaintiff” or “Elliot”) filed an action in the Arizona District Court (later joined by Chris Gillespie), petitioning for cancellation of the GOOGLE trademark, claiming that it evolved into a generic term. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. In Elliot’s motion for summary judgment, he alleged that the majority of the relevant public uses the word “google” as a verb. Plaintiff argued that it is common to state “I googled it”. The Plaintiff argued that as a matter of law using a trademark as a verb constitutes generic use. In response, Google Inc. argued that verb use in and of itself does not constitute generic use.

The matter arrived in Court after the parties participated in arbitration before the National Arbitration Forum (“NAF”). Chris Gillespie had purchased over 760 domains incorporating the term “google” and pairing the term “google” with a brand, person or product. Google Inc. objected to the domain registrations and filed a complaint with NAF claiming domain name infringement, also known as cybersquatting. Google Inc. prevailed and the subject domain names were transferred to Google Inc.

The Plaintiff in the court case argued that the term “google” has become generic because it no longer identifys the source of the goods. The following marks are examples of trademarks that have been appropriated by the public and used as a generic name for a particular type of goods: (1) ASPIRIN, (2) CELLOPHANE AND (3) THERMOS. A trademark only becomes generic when the primary significance of the mark to the public is the name of a particular type of goods or services regardless of the source. In other words, the question to ask is does the relevant public perceive the primary significance of the term as identifying the producer or as identifying a type of product or service. To avoid “genercide”, a term should identify the producer. For more general information regarding how a trademark becomes generic, see our web page entitled, Merely Descriptive Or Generic?

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A few weeks ago, I posted a blog on a Sixth Circuit trademark case that addressed whether an entire application should be voided if a bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce was lacking. See our blog post entitled, Should An Entire Application Be Voided If A Bona Fide Intent To Use The Mark Is Lacking? In our blog, we discussed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (the “Board”) position on the issue which was not consistent. Seeking further guidance, we turn to the Federal Circuit, wherein the issue was addressed in Swatch AG v. M.Z. Berger & Co., 108 USPQ2d 1463 (TTAB 2013) [precedential]. Here, the applicant filed for the mark IWATCH in standard character format for watches, clocks and watch accessories. The opposer Swatch AG (Swatch SA and Swatch Ltd.) challenged the application on grounds of likelihood of confusion with its registered mark for SWATCH for watches and lack of bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce.

The Board analyzed the marks IWATCH and SWATCH and determined that the marks differed significantly in sound, meaning, and commercial impression. The claim under 2(d) of the Trademark Act was dismissed and the Board moved on to address the second claim of lack of bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce. Section 1(b) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §1051(b), states in part that: “[A] person who has a bona fide intention, under circumstances showing the good faith of such person to use a trademark in commerce may request registration of its trademark on the principal register…” The burden is on the opposer to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the applicant lacked a bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce at the time it filed the application. There must be evidence in the form of documentation substantiating action taken by the applicant. The inquiry does not delve into the applicant’s subjective state of mind.

One method often implemented by the opposer is to prove that the applicant does not have documentary evidence to support its claim of a bona fide intent to use the mark. Such a showing is typically sufficient to prove lack of intention under Section 1(b) of the Trademark Act. Then, the burden shifts to the applicant to produce evidence explaining the failure to have documentary evidence.

Here, the applicant did produce several documents, but the Board determined the evidence was insufficient. The applicant produced a trademark search, an email summarizing a call with the Examining Attorney wherein there was a discussion that the IWATCH did not have interactive features, and three internal emails showing stylized versions of the mark and an image of a clock and two images of watches featuring the IWATCH mark. However, the images were created to support the trademark application and not for promotional activity. The Board concluded that the documents presented did not establish an intent to use the mark in commerce.

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The Sixth Circuit recently answered this question. See Kelly Servs., et al. v. Creative Harbor, Case No. 16-1200 (6th Cir., Jan. 23, 2017), where the Sixth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court to evaluate all the goods and services in the trademark application and to determine if a bona fide intent existed for some of the goods and services. The parties in this matter both filed a trademark application at the United States Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) for the mark WORKWIRE for mobile software applications in the employment field.

Creative Harbor, LLC (“Creative Harbor”) filed its intent-to-use application on February 19, 2014. The other party Kelly Services, Inc. (“Kelly Services”) filed its intent-to-use application for the mark WORKWIRE on August 13, 2014. Creative Harbor discovered that Kelly Services was using the mark WORKWIRE and sent a Cease & Desist demand. In response, Kelly Services filed a declaratory judgment action challenging Creative Harbor’s claim that it had priority.

The district court held that Creative Harbor lacked a bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce for some of the goods and services identified in the trademark application. The district court voided the entire application and Creative Harbor appealed to the Sixth Circuit. The Circuit Court placed emphasis on the deposition testimony of the CEO of Creative Harbor. The CEO stated that he wanted the intent-to-use application to cover goods and services, not only for the present, but also for the future. He further testified that the identification in the application was to cover goods for future exploration and expansion; “to keep the option open to at some point do that”. The Sixth Circuit concluded that Creative Harbor did not have a firm intention to use the mark with all the goods and services, but instead was reserving a right in the mark in case it ever wanted to expand its commercial line of goods.

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