Rare Loss for Plaintiff in Alcoholic Beverages TTAB Case

Breweries, distilleries, and wineries that are defendants in Trademark Trial and Appeal Board cases have not fared well this year. More often than not, alcoholic beverage defendants foolishly cling to overly broad goods descriptions that ultimately prove to be their downfall. The scene was set for another plaintiff victory in a recent TTAB case, but in a rare turn of events the defendant prevailed because it properly offered sufficient third-party use evidence to establish the term in common with the plaintiff’s mark was conceptually weak.

Thunder Road Brands, LLC applied to register the mark THUNDER ROAD (in standard characters) for “alcoholic beverages, namely, Tennessee sour mash whiskey and moonshine.” E. & J. Gallo Winery opposed the registration of the THUNDER ROAD mark based on its prior registered mark THUNDERBIRD for the broad description “alcoholic beverages except beers.” Thunder Road Brands did not bring a motion to narrow E. & J. Gallo Winery’s broad description to the actual THUNDERBIRD product, which is a flavored fortified wine.

Accordingly, with the goods being legally identical – thus less similarity between the marks required for a likelihood of confusion to exist – and the marks sharing the THUNDER term in the first position, things were not looking good for Thunder Road Brands. Its only hope was to convince the TTAB that the THUNDER term was so incredibly weak that the difference between ROAD and BIRD was enough to avoid a likelihood of confusion.

E. & J. knew this and offered evidence of its commercial strength:  (1) continuous use since 1957 (over 60 years); (2) sales volume and revenue from 2009-2016; (3) advertising expenses from 2009-2015; (4) two YouTube videos showing a THUNDERBIRD television advertisement; and (5) third-party publicity in two songs, one by ZZ Top and the other by The Beastie Boys. The TTAB was unpersuaded by this evidence because it was stale and showed a downward trend. Strength or fame must be determined at the time of trial.

Similarly, E. & J. relied on two stale brand awareness studies, but more importantly E. & J. failed to properly authenticate the studies. Nevertheless, while the evidence did not establish fame for likelihood of confusion purposes, the Board did find that the evidence demonstrated the THUNDERBIRD mark was entitled to broader than normal scope of protection. However, based on what happened next, “broader than normal” probably means THUNDER used with a bird name.

Thunder Road Brands offered 25 third-party registrations and 13 Internet examples of THUNDER formative marks mostly for beer. These examples were relevant because the Board found that beer, wine, and spirits are related goods. The Board held that these third-party examples were enough to outweigh the evidence of commercial strength offered by E. & J. to the degree that it concluded the THUNDER term for alcoholic beverages is overall a weak term.

What makes trademark issues deceptively simple is the interplay between the likelihood of confusion factors, which are generally overlooked by attorneys that merely dabble in trademark law. In this case, because the Board found the THUNDER term was weak, the difference between ROAD and BIRD was sufficient to distinguish the marks despite the goods being legally equivalent.

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