Trademark

On Friday, November 8, the Supreme Court granted the federal government's petition for review in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com. The issue to be reviewed is whether the addition of the generic top-level domain ".com" to a generic term can create a protectable trademark.


The dispute first arose when Booking.com applied to register trademarks containing the term BOOKING.COM in connection with online hotel reservation services. The USPTO refused registration on the ground that the term "booking" is generic for the underlying services in the application and that the addition of the generic top-level domain ".com" did not create a protectable mark. The decision was reviewed by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which held that BOOKING.COM was non-generic and potentially protectable as a trademark. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The case of Romag Fasteners v. Fossil is scheduled for argument before the Supreme Court of the United States during the court's October 2019-2020 term.  At issue is whether, under the Lanham Act, willfulness is a prerequisite for an award of the infringer’s profits.  Under the current landscape, the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits have held that willfulness is not an absolute requirement in order for the plaintiff to recover profits.  On the other hand, the Second, Ninth, Tenth, and District of Columbia Circuits have disagreed, stating that a willfulness finding is required in order to award the infringer’s profits to the plaintiff.  The Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling on the issue will potentially resolve the sharply divided circuit split, and provide trademark owners a clearer roadmap in terms of damages and financial recovery following a finding of infringement.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019 15:10

AI vs. IP

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The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) recently issued a second request for public comments on the impact of artificial intelligence on intellectual property laws and policies, this time with a focus on copyright and trademark related issues.

Among the questions recently posed by the PTO:

Should a work produced by an AI algorithm or process, without the involvement of a natural person contributing expression to the resulting work, qualify as a work of authorship protectable under U.S. copyright law? Why or why not?;

Would the use of AI in trademark searching impact the registrablity of trademarks? If so, how?; and

Are there any other AI-related issues pertinent to intellectual property rights (other than those related to patent rights) that the USPTO should examine?

You may submit comments in writing through December 16, 2019. The full list of questions is presented in the Request for Comments on Intellectual Property Protection for Artificial Intelligence Innovation, available in the Federal Register here.

The PTO previously issued a Request for Comments on Patenting Artificial Intelligence Inventions, available here, and has extended the deadline to submit comments through November 8, 2019.

This past offseason, Lebron James began sharing videos on social media of his family’s “Taco Tuesday” dinner gatherings.  The videos went viral, with James inviting other celebrity guests and NBA players for the “Taco Tuesday” dinners, and even making apparel with the quote “Its Taco Tuesday.”  Lebron James’ company, LBJ Trademarks, subsequently filed a trademark application seeking to register the term, with the underlying goods and services involving "advertising and marketing services provided by means of indirect methods of marketing communications, namely, social media, search engine marketing, inquiry marketing, internet marketing, mobile marketing, blogging and other forms of passive, sharable or viral communications channels."

On Wednesday, September 11, 2019, the USPTO refused the trademark application filed by LBJ Trademarks, stating that TACO TUESDAY  "is a commonplace term, message, or expression widely used by a variety of sources that merely conveys an ordinary, familiar, well-recognized concept or sentiment.”  However, the USPTO’s decision was not treated as a loss for the James’ camp.  In fact, a spokesperson claimed that the rejection was the intended result:  “Finding 'Taco Tuesday' as commonplace achieves precisely what the intended outcome was, which was getting the U.S. government to recognize that someone cannot be sued for its use.”  Under that approach

Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch launched an advertising campaing for its "BUD LIGHT" brand of beer which emphasized that the light beer is not brewed with corn syrup. Competitor Miller-Coors filed a lawsuit alleging that the campaign constitutes false advertising and unfair competition, not because it infers that "MILLER LIGHT" is brewed with corn syrp, which is true, but because consumers may mistakenly believe that the product contains high fructose corn syrup. A federal judge has agreed that Miller-Coors has made a preliminary showing of success, and has ordered that Bud Light must phase out this packaging and advertising campaign until the dispute is resolved. 

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that Gatorade’s use of the phrase, “Gatorade The Sports Fuel Company,” constitutes fair use under the Lanham Act, and therefore did not violate SportFuel, Inc.’s (“SFI”) rights.  Plaintiff SFI is the owner of two registered trademarks for “SPORTFUEL,” and brought an infringement suit in 2016 against Gatorade for its use of the aforementioned slogan.  While Gatorade had also obtained a registration for its trademark, it disclaimed “THE SPORTS FUEL COMPANY,” and defended the lawsuit based on fair use.  The district court entered summary judgment for Gatorade, finding that it did not use “SPORTS FUEL” as a trademark, that Gatorade’s use was descriptive of its sports drinks, and that Gatorade used the mark in good faith.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  Among other things, the appellate court noted that Gatorade had introduced substantial evidence indicating that “sports fuel” was a marketplace term in describing nutritional sports products, and that Gatorade did in fact hold itself as a manufacturer of sport fuels (which undermined SFI’s alleged “bad faith” argument).

Earlier this month, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) disclosed that a new rule would soon take effect, requiring that all foreign-domiciled parties, registrants, and trademark applicants to Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) proceedings must be represented by a licensed attorney that is admitted to practice law in the United States.  The new rule takes effect on August 3, 2019, and applies not only to new filings, but current filings as well.  Thus, and in enforcing the rule, the TTAB will suspend any proceedings – and require appointment of a licensed U.S. practitioner – in any action where a foreign-domiciled party is represented by a non-U.S. attorney.  Andrei Iancu, the director of the USPTO, stated that the new rule is intended to combat “fraudulent submissions,” and to “maintain the accuracy and integrity of the register.”

Gibson originally introduced its "Flying V" Guitar shape in 1958, but waitied until 2010 to file an application in the European Union Intellectual Property Office to protect the iconic shape as trade dress. A German guitar manufacturer challenged Gibson's exclusive right to the guitar shape. After nine years and two appeals, a panel of three judges sitting on the the European Union General Court has determined that, while the shape may have been very original when it was originally released, the current presence on the market of a number of similar shapes makes it unlikely that consumers will regard one particular shape as belonging to a specific manufacturer. The General Court made this finding despite Gibson's submission of survey evidence in eight European Union countries. 

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Trademark Act is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. The Section 2(a) provision bans the issuance of trademark registration to marks that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) deems are “immoral” or “scandalous,” based on ordinary and common meanings of the proposed mark. The high court ruled that this immoral or scandalous bar discriminated on the basis of a viewpoint and therefore conflicts with the First Amendment.

The Lanham Act provides for the administration of federal trademark registration. While registration of a mark is not mandatory, and a mark can still be used in commerce and enforce it against infringers, federal trademark registration gives trademark owners valuable benefits. For example, a valid federal trademark registration gives prima facie evidence of the mark’s validity, and serves as constructive notice to others of the registrant’s claim of ownership of that mark.

Here, in the case of Iancu v. Brunetti, Erik Brunetti sought these benefits by applying for federal registration for the trademark “FUCT” for use in connection with his clothing lines, but the PTO refused this application for violation of Section 2(a). The Examining Attorney assessed his proposed mark as a “total vulgar” mark and therefore unregistrable, and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed, stating that the mark was “highly offensive,” “vulgar,” and that it had “decidedly negative sexual connotations.”

Upon review, the Supreme Court struck down this provision for being unconstitutional. The Court emphasized a core foundation of freedom of speech law: that the government may not discriminate against speech based on the ideas or opinions it conveys. The Court concluded that this provision of the Lanham Act “allows registration of marks when their messages accord with, but not when their messages defy, society’s sense of decency or propriety.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan illustrated this content-based discrimination with four made-up marks: “Love Rules” “Hate Rules” “Always Be Good” and “Always Be Cruel.” The Court contended that the statute would favor marks such as “Love Rules” and “Always Be Good” but disfavor a mark such as “Hate Rules” and “Always Be Cruel.”  This favoring or disfavoring based on content results in viewpoint-discriminatory application. Under this provision, the statute “on its face, distinguishes between two opposed sets of ideas: those aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them; those inducing societal nods of approval and those provoking offense and condemnation.” Therefore, the Supreme Court struck down this ban on federal registration of these “scandalous” or “immoral” marks.

In May 2019, Tom Brady’s company filed two intent-to-use trademark applications, seeking to register the nickname TOM TERRIFIC in connection with apparel, posters, and playing cards.  In those filings were declarations that Brady had a legitimate, good faith intent to use the TOM TERRFIFIC mark in commerce.  However, after receiving some criticism by loyal New York Mets fans – who claim that the nickname “Tom Terrific” has long belonged to famed pitcher Tom Seaver – Brady attempted to ease the pushback from critics, stating to reporters that he “didn’t like the nickname,” and was actually trying to “keep people from using it” in filing the underlying trademark applications.  Further, when asked whether the name would be used for merchandise, Brady answered, “I hope not.”  It will be interesting to see what unfolds relative to the underlying trademark applications in light of these events.

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