I Pitty the Fool Who Infringes My Trademark

One person we would never mess with is Mr. T who was the muscle for the A-Team. Leafly – a website that is an online marketplace and information source for cannabis companies – didn’t flinch when it received a demand letter from Mr. T saying its MRT listing infringes his trademark rights. In this case, Leafly may have a basis for not flinching.

Mr. T ultimately sued Leafly for trademark infringement because it lists a cannabis strain called MRT which is the acronym for Mr. Tusk on its website. The MRT flower is sold by third parties, not Leafly. Mr. T is seeking injunctive relief only because he claims any misassociation of his Mr. T mark with a cannabis company will damage his ability to license his mark to other companies.

Online retailers have consistently avoided liability for trademark infringement over the years. This trend started in 2007 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of eBay that it did not directly infringe Tiffany’s trademark rights by including listings for Tiffany products (some genuine and some counterfeit) on its website. It continued in 2010 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals again ruled in favor of eBay that it did not contribute to the direct infringement of Tiffany branded goods. In 2014, Amazon avoided a trademark infringement lawsuit because the Court found that the third-party sellers retain full title to and ownership of the inventory sold by the third party. Based solely on the fact that Leafly is an online marketplace appears to strongly cut against Mr. T’s likelihood of success in this case.

But Mr. T faces another uphill battle when it comes to his lack of enforcement. There are several MR. T marks registered on the USPTO’s Principal Register for a variety of goods including automobile parts, restaurant services, rifle scopes, scrubber device, and handyman services. Notably absent from the list of registered MR. T marks is a registration owned by the man himself, Mr. T.

Trademark owners are not required to take on all potentially infringing uses of a mark. In fact, trademark owners need to be thoughtful when constructing an enforcement strategy. But the more identical marks a trademark owner co-exists with, the more difficult enforcement actions can become. In the case of Mr. T, Leafly should be asking why Mr. T can co-exist with these other identifying marks but not the MRT mark on its website.

Mark Similarity Lesson from Recent TTAB Decision

Mark similarity is often found when a prior registered mark is incorporated in its entirety in a mark that is subject to a pending trademark application. This likelihood of confusion refusal is not always the case even when the goods at issue are identical, which is what we saw in a recent decision from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. This case highlights an important lesson for trademark searchers.

Hutchinson and Stengl applied to register the following mark with the USPTO for “beer”:

The wording BREWING COMPANY GOLDEN, COLORADO was disclaimed. This meant that Hutchinson and Stengl voluntarily acknowledged that the dominant literal portion of its mark was CANNONBALL CREEK.

The Trademark Office refused registration of this mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark CANNONBALL DOUBLE IPA (in standard characters with DOUBLE IPA disclaimed) also for, among other goods, “beer.” The goods were legally identical with no express limitations as to channels of trade or class of consumer. There was also no evidence of conceptual weakness for the CANNONBALL word when used with beer or related goods or services. Therefore, the only likelihood of confusion factor in dispute was the similarity of the marks.

The TTAB began its decision with the tried and true principles for assessing the similarity of the marks:

  1. The similarity or dissimilarity of the marks is assessed in their entities as to appearance, sound, connotation, and commercial impression.
  2. The similarity in any one of the elements in No. 1 may be sufficient to find the marks similar.
  3. When the goods at issue are identical, the degree of similarity between the marks to find a likelihood of confusion need not be as great as where the goods are unrelated.
  4. The proper test is not a side-by-side comparison of the marks, but whether they are similar enough that persons who encounter the marks would likely assume a connection between them.
  5. While the ultimate conclusion of mark similarity must be based on the marks in their entireties, more or less weight can be given to a particular feature of the mark.
  6. Greater weight is often given to the wording in a mark that contains a design element.
  7. Less weight is often given to wording that is descriptive or generic.

The TTAB then critically analyzed Hutchinson and Stengl’s mark. It found that the word CREEK was much larger than the word CANNONBALL, which rendered the term more prominent and dominant over of the word CANNONBALL. The combination of CANNONBALL CREEK also conveyed the name of a particular waterway or stream not the ordinary meaning of the “cannonball” word; namely, “a usually round solid missile made for firing from a cannon.” And this meaning of a waterway or stream was reinforced by the wave design appearing below the word CREEK. Ultimately, the TTAB found that the dissimilarities outweighed the similarities between the marks.

The lesson from this case is that marks that appear to be unavailable may be available if strategic changes are made to the proposed name. This is where naming firms and trademark searchers that are not lawyers should recommend to their clients that they talk to an experienced trademark lawyer because this is where trademark lawyers add value.

Loosened Exceptional Case Standard Keeps Expanding

In 2014, the United States Supreme Court loosened the exceptional case standard in patent infringement cases. Because the Patent Act and Trademark Act are similar, often times a decision involving one of these Acts will influence the jurisprudence of the other Act. The loosening of the exceptional case standard is one of those decisions.

It did not take long for the Supreme Court’s decision in Octane Fitness v. Icon Health to start to influence trademark infringement cases. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Judicial Circuit was the first to apply the loosened exceptional case standard to trademark infringement cases. Since then, the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and most recently the Second Circuits along with a smattering of District Courts in the other Judicial Circuits have all held that the Supreme Court’s Octane Fitness decision applies to trademark infringement cases.

The most recent application of the Octane Fitness decision came from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. 4 Pillar Dynasty LLC and Reflex Performance Resources Inc. (collectively the “Plaintiffs”) sued New York & Company, Inc. and New York & Company Stores, Inc. (collectively the “Defendants”) for trademark infringement. The District Court for the Southern District of New York initially awarded the Plaintiff treble damages in the amount of about $5.6M. However, after post-trial motions, the Court reconsidered its trebling decision and changed the award to the stipulated amount of the Defendants profits, which was $1.8M. The Court did award Plaintiffs its attorneys’ fees.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision not to treble the monetary damage award because the Court failed to applied the loosened exceptional case standard from Octane Fitness. The Octane Fitness standard requires a court to consider the totality of the circumstances in deciding whether a case is exceptional.

The totality of the circumstances standard considers not only the respective merits of the parties cases but also the parties conduct during and even leading up to the commencement of the case. While it is still unlikely that failing to conduct a trademark search will alone warrant a finding that a case is exceptional, it certainly will be a consideration.

Number 1 Misconception When Searching Trademarks

We talk to a number of naming firms and serial entrepreneurs who conduct their own preliminary trademark searchers each year. And every year we observe the same misconception. Non-lawyers place far too much emphasis on International Class Numbers and ignore the relatedness of the goods. This is also the flaw in every trademark search tool available in the market, with the exception of BOB.

The reason this misconception exists is due to the lack of education on this issue because the legal precedent on this subject is legion. That’s why we focus on the relatedness of goods factor in a significant number of our posts. Our hope is to spread the word and educate non-lawyers about this crucially important factor so that trademark searching becomes more effective. More effective trademark searching should lead to fewer trademark disputes.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recently issued a decision highlighting again the importance of evaluating the relatedness of goods factor and not International Class Numbers. Ernest Everett James filed a trademark application to register the mark LIQUOR SLINGER DISTILLING (standard characters with LIQUOR and DISTILLING disclaimed) for “liquor” in International Class 33. The Trademark Office refused registration of Mr. James’s mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark SLINGER for “drinking glasses; shot classes” in International Class 21.

The Board found there is an inherent, complementary relationship between the parties’ goods: liquor is served in and drunk from drinking glasses and shot glasses. Indeed, a shot glass is defined as “[a] small glass used for serving liquor.” The Trademark Office also offered Internet evidence showing it is common for distilleries to sell branded glassware. All of this evidence supported the Trademark Office’s argument, which the Board agreed with, that liquor and glassware are related goods.

A person searching trademarks for a liquor brand that focused too heavily or entirely on International Class 33 where the product is classified is sure to a miss a problematic mark in another International Class because of the relatedness of goods factor.