Infringing LIL’ BEANIES is not Like Taking Candy from a Baby

The Willamette Week reported that a Portland vegan ice cream company changed its name to Little Chickpea after Gerber complained that the company’s proposed LITTLE BEAN name was likely to cause confusion with its registered mark LIL’ BEANIES. Little Chickpea said in the story that Gerber insisted that the company change its name even though it had decided to discontinue the LIL’ BEANIES brand. It is questionable whether this is true, but if it is then Little Chickpea formerly Little Bean made a mistake prosecuting its application.

Nestle – the parent corporation to Gerber – owns a federal trademark registration for LIL’ BEANIES in connection with “bean-based snack foods; grain-based snack foods.” In the article, Mitch Camden said that “when he applied for a trademark he was initially told ‘everything looked good.'” This means that his trademark lawyers did a trademark search and told him LITTLE BEAN mark was available for him to register. The Trademark Office disagreed and issued a registration refusal asserting that the LITTLE BEAN mark was likely to cause confusion with the LIL’ BEANIES prior registration.

We have to assume that Little Chickpea’s attorneys searched for goods identified in the LITTLE BEAN trademark application, which included “processed chickpeas.” A chickpea is a bean, so it is difficult to understand how Little Chickpea’s attorneys would have concluded that chickpeas are unrelated to “bean-based snacks.” Nevertheless, Little Chickpea’s attorneys attempted to overcome the registration refusal and were unsuccessful. In a last-ditch effort to overcome the refusal, it appears that Little Chickpea’s attorneys reached out to Gerber to obtain consent to the registration of the LITTLE BEAN mark and Gerber refused.

Willamette Week also reported that Mr. Camdem was told Gerber has discontinued the LIL’ BEANIES product line and had no intention of doing anything with it. If this is true, then Little Chickpea had a good claim for abandonment. A trademark is abandoned with the use of the mark has discontinued with no intent to resume use of the mark. Abandonment is a ground for cancellation, which would have cleared the way for Little Chickpea to obtain a federal registration for its mark without having to go through what it described as an expensive rebrand.

The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is often true for any legal issue but it is especially true in the context of trademark law. A proper and thorough trademark is essential to avoiding costly disputes and rebrands.

Connotation is the Deciding Factor in Registration Refusal

The analysis of the similarity of the marks involves the consideration of three factors: (1) visual similarity; (2) sound similarity; and (3) similar connotation. Generally, the visual similarity of the marks factor trumps the other two factors. But for the second time in about three months, the connotation factor has been the dispositive factor.

Don’t Run Out, Inc. applied to register the mark PUBLIC GOODS (in standard characters with GOODS disclaimed) for a variety of goods including “shampoos.” The Trademark Office refused registration of the PUBLIC GOODS mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark PUBLIX also for “hair shampoo.” With the goods legally identical and the descriptions unrestricted, the registration refusal turned on the similarity of the marks.

The Trademark Office argued that PUBLIX was the plural version of PUBLIC, and with GOODS disclaimed it was appropriate to compare the dominant portion of the marks. While more weight can be given to the dominant portions of the marks at issue, the final decision still needs to be made based on the marks in their entireties. In this case, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that the addition of the term GOODS materially changed the commercial impression of the mark.

“The proper test is not a side-by-side comparison of the marks, but instead ‘whether the marks are sufficiently similar in terms of their commercial impression’ such that persons who encounter the marks would be likely to assume a connection between the parties.” The words PUBLIC GOODS were taken together project the connotation and commercial impression that Don’t Run Out personal care products are available to all consumers due to their affordability, and beneficial to the public because they are environmentally safe. By contrast, the PUBLIX mark has no well-recognized meaning. As a result, when confronted with both marks, prospective consumers are unlikely to assume the respective goods originate from the same source, despite use in part on identical and highly related goods.