Online Retailer Accused of Using Bedding Corporation’s Trademarks to Promote and Sell “Inferior” ProductsWritten by Jessica Neer McDonald
The Comphy Co. ("Plaintiff"), a California corporation selling luxury bedding products, filed a complaint against Amazon.com, Inc. ("Defendant") in the Northern District of Illinois alleging trademark infringement, contributory trademark infringement, and false designation of origin under federal law. The complaint also alleges violation of Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act and Consumer Fraud under Illinois law.
The claims primarily involve (1) the Plaintiff's "COMPHY," stylized "C," "COMPHY COMPANY," and "COMPHY SHEETS" trademarks and (2) Plaintiff's insistance that it has no interest and has expressly refused to sell its products on Defendant's website, amazon.com. According to the complaint, the Defendant is making unauthorized and infringing use of Plaintiff's trademarks by using the trademarks to promote bedding and related products not made or authorized by the Plaintiff on Defendant's website. In particular, the Plaintiff states that the Defendant is posting results for "inferior" third-party sheets when consumers search for terms including Plaintiff's trademarks on Defendant's website. Moreover, the Defendant pays third-party search engines to direct consumers to Defendant's website when searching for "COMPHY" brand sheets. Such actions are said to drive sales to competing products and are likely to cause and have caused actual confusion.
The Plaintiff asks the court for an injunction as well as a variety of monetary damages, fees, and costs.
The case can be followed at The Comphy Co., v. Amazon.com, Inc., 18-cv-04584 (N.D. Ill.).
The film studio (STX) behind the raunchy comedy, “The Happytime Murders,” successfully fended off a trademark infringement suit by Sesame Workshop. Specifically, Sesame Workshop contended that the R-rated movie depicting puppets joking about drugs, sex, and guns confused the public with “Sesame Street,” tarnished the kid-friendly show’s reputation, and exploited Sesame Street’s mark and related goodwill by implying an affiliation that did not otherwise exist. United States District Judge Vernon Broderick disagreed, however, stating that the comedy’s slogan – “No sesame. All street” – actually proved to distinguish the film from the children’s cartoon, and further noted that the “R” rating automatically served as a differentiating characteristic. The Happytime Murders will begin showing in theatres in August of 2018.
This week the Eleventh Circuit ruled on service mark infringement claims brought by Savannah College of Art and Design ("SCAD") against Sportswear, Inc. for selling unlicensed apparel and other goods on its website. The district court in the Northern District of Georgia had found that though SCAD had registered marks in connection with education services, SCAD failed to establish its mark's rights extended to apparel. More specifically, in relying on precedent concerning unregistered marks, SCAD could not show common law priority because SCAD could not show prior use of the mark on apparel before Sportswear.
On appeal, Judge Adalberto Jordan published a decision reversing the district court's findings, relying on 1975 precedent Boston Prof'l Hockey Ass'n, Inc. v. Dallas Cap & Emblem Mfg., Inc., to find that SCAD's registered service mark protection may extend to goods as well. While recognizing that infringement claims under § 1114(1)(a) are based on federally-registered marks, claims under § 1125(a) can be based on federally-registered or unregistered marks, and the oft-blurred lines between both claims, both claims nonetheless required SCAD to establish the following: (1) enforceable trademark rights in the mark (validity and scope); and (2) likelihood of confusion from the infringer's unauthorized use of its mark. In informing the first part of the analysis, the Court found it instructive to follow Boston Hockey based on SCAD's registered service marks. The precedent, which is not without criticism, "extends protection for federally-registered service marks to goods, and therefore beyond the area of registration listed in the certificate." The case was therefore remanded for further proceedings under the § 1114(1)(a) and § 1125(a) claims in light of Boston Hockey.
See the full opinion here: http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201513830.pdf
When applying for trademark/service mark registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), an examining attorney reviews the application to determine whether it complies with applicable statutes and rules. If there are any substantive, technical, or procedural deficiencies, the examining attorney will likely issue an Office Action letter explaining any of these refusals. One of these refusals can be based on the proposed mark failing to function as a trademark because the proposed mark merely communicates information about the goods/services, uses widely used commonplace, social, political, or religious messages, or directly quotes passages or citations from religious texts. Some examples include: “I ♥ DC” for clothing items; “ONCE A MARINE, ALWAYS A MARINE” for various clothing items; “BRAND NAMES FOR LESS” for retail store services; and “PROUDLY MADE IN THE USA” for electric shavers.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently issued a guide for aiding in the determination of whether a proposed mark functions as mark. The guide creates categories for types of matter that may be considered merely informational, discusses when an examining attorney must refuse registration or require a disclaimer, provides applicant response options, and illustrates case law examples. For example, under applicant response options, should the applicant receive this type of refusal, the applicant must show that the public perception of the proposed mark is that of a source indicator. Evidence of the applicant's use as a mark or exclusive use in the relevant marketplace for the goods/services under the mark can be supportive towards overcoming this refusal.
On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion, holding that the First Amendment’s right to free speech extends to trademark protection of words and phrases that are purportedly offensive.
For over half a century, trademark law prohibited registration of marks that were prejudicial to or could otherwise be deemed disparaging to certain groups or people. Significantly, however, in Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017), an Asian-American band specifically chose the name “Slants,” believing “that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they [would] help to ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.” Id. at 1751. After the en banc Federal Circuit found that the disparagement clause under the Lanham Act was facially unconstitutional, the United States Patent and Trademark Office filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted in order to weigh in on the disparagement clause at issue, and whether the proposed trademark was official words endorsed by the government, or conversely, words of a private person.
In its unanimous decision, the high court answered this question by declaring that “[t]rademarks are private, not government speech…[and] [t]he public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” Id. at 1760 (internal citation omitted). The Court also expressed concern with broadening the government speech doctrine, and in affirming the Federal Circuit’s judgment, held that that “if private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints.” Id. at 1748.
Tam may very well have wide reaching effects. While the Supreme Court made clear that a word or phrase in a trademark registration will not constitute government speech, the aftermath of this decision could give rise to various potentially “offensive” or “disparaging” trademark applications, which may ultimately rest with the consumer in determining whether to accept or reject the mark in its use in commerce.
Because many issues can arise in applying for a trademark, Malloy and Malloy, P.L’s knowledgeable and experienced intellectual property attorneys are ready to advise and guide you along the way from an application through registration, and subsequent enforcement measures.
A federal judge in Texas has barred the newly named Houston College of Law from using its name. A U.S. District Court Judge sided with the University of Houston Law Center, granting their request for a temporary injunction in a trademark infringement suit filed against the newly renamed Houston College of Law.
The rival school, formerly known as South Texas College of Law, was sued for trademark infringement in June. The Plaintiff, University of Houston Law Center, claimed the name change and a switch to a similar red-and-white color scheme would confuse prospective students and future employers.
In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, noted several instances of actual confusion, including a letter delivered to the wrong law school and an email from the Texas Board of Law Examiners sent to the wrong law school. "The appearance of the University of Houston Law Center and Houston College of Law marks are strikingly similar," Ellison wrote. "As an initial matter, two of the three words in defendant's mark appear in UH's mark ("Houston" and "Law"), which is a noteworthy fact in and of itself. Far more troubling, however, is the way in which defendant deploys its mark in the marketplace." Lawyers for the University of Houston call the ruling "a complete victory."
Last Thursday, the Supreme Court announced it will hear Lee v. Tam, an appeal from a Federal Circuit decision that held Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act violates the First Amendment. The case involves a band that was denied registration for the mark “THE SLANTS” under Section 2(a) because the name may disparage individuals of Asian ancestry. This case may also effectively resolve the ongoing dispute involving the Washington Redskins trademarks.
The justices will hear arguments in Lee v. Tam early next year.
It is axiomatic that descriptive trademarks cannot be registered without a sufficient showing of acquired distinctivess. However, it has long been possible to register a stylized form of a descriptive trademark, if that stylization imparts a separate commercial impression apart from the descriptive word. For example, descriptive marks merely presented in a common or recognizable typeface will likely be rejected. However, the TTAB recently allowed a registration for the word "jiujiteiro" presented in a cursive, handwritten style of typeface. The TTAB found that the handwritten style of typeface imparted sufficient distinctiveness to create a separate commercial impression, apart from the word itsef. Of course, such findings will continue to be handled on a case-by-case basis, but this decision serves to clarify the threshold for the amount of stylization required for a finding of distinctiveness.
The U.S. Olympics Committee has reportedly threatened legal action over the use of its trademarks as hasthags, such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA, by corporations that are not sponsors of the Olympics. Ostensibly, such action helps to clear the way for paid sponsors to be highlighted when searching social media posts by hashtag. Some folks, however, might feel that this has a chilling effect on free spech. A Minnesota cleaning company has filed a declaratory action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota seeking to have its right to use such hashtags clarified. The company also requested a speedy hearing on the matter, given that the games are scheduled to end in little more than two weeks.
If you have not registered your trademark in Canada, now is the time. Our northern neighbor will soon implement a massive overhaul to its Trade-marks Act, pursuant to 2014 legislation that has been on hold pending the adoption of corresponding regulations. Among other things, use of a trademark in Canada (or anywhere in the world, for that matter) will no longer be a prerequisite to ownership and enforcement of a Canadian trademark registration. The race to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) will be open to competitors, squatters, and trolls whose intent may be to re-sell trademark rights at a profit, interfere with a legitimate trademark owner’s ability to use a trademark in Canada, and possibly even demand a ransom at the border for importation of genuine goods. Filing a Canadian trademark application now, even if only defensively for future market expansion, should be given serious and immediate consideration.