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.