Rare Loss for Plaintiff in Alcoholic Beverages TTAB Case

"Thunder Road whiskey bottle wins at TTAB"

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.

The Heavy Burden of Proving Fame for Dilution Purposes

"Peter Piper Pizza has no trademark dilution fame"

Most companies that have been using a federally registered trademark for ten years or more often mistakenly assume that the mark is famous. Long periods of use is a factor in the ultimate fame determination, but fame for dilution purposes is much different than fame for likelihood of confusion purposes. In fact, trademark owners would be better offer not using the word “fame” in the context of a likelihood of confusion. Recently, we saw this mistake play out in a case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

OTG Experience, LLC filed applications to register the mark PETER PIPER and PETER PIPER SMARTRUCK (in standard characters) for a variety of mobile food related services. OTG Experience’s applications were published for opposition and Peter Piper, Inc. opposed their registration relying on its prior registrations for PETER PIPER PIZZA (in standard characters with PIZZA disclaimed) in connection with “pizza” and “restaurant services.”

Peter Piper Pizza was founded in Arizona in 1973, and has used the PETER PIPER PIZZA mark for over 40 years. The company generates about $300 million in annual revenue across about 143 locations (although 43 are in Mexico) and spends about $20 million annually in advertising. While these numbers are significant, they were not enough to establish the fame of the PETER PIPER PIZZA mark.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board held that it is the burden of the party asserting fame to clearly prove it. In other words, fame needs to be proven by clear and convincing evidence. This standard requires the evidence presented must be highly and substantially more probable to be true than not and the trier of fact must have a firm belief or conviction in its factuality.

What this means for trademark owners is that offering numbers alone is highly unlikely to result in a fame finding. What a trademark owner needs to do is offer context for the raw statistics to demonstrate the general reputation the mark was with the public. Unfortunately, more often than not, trademark owners fail to provide the necessary context and the fame assertion fails because of it. That is what to Peter Piper Pizza.

Nevertheless, the raw statistics were enough for the Board to find that the PETER PIPER PIZZA mark was on overall strong mark entitled to a broad scope of protection. OTG Experience tried to counteract the strength evidence by relying on third-party use. Unfortunately, OTG Experience could only find three examples, well below the 10 minimum it appears is required to establish the weakness of a mark.

Trademark Fame Lacking Admissible Evidence

"Misel Disel preshave liquid too similar to Diesel despite no trademark fame finding"

Plaintiffs arguing trademark fame for purposes of the likelihood of confusion analysis is about as common as defendants arguing the plaintiff’s trademark is conceptually weak. Plaintiffs want to establish trademark fame because strong marks are entitled to a broad scope of protection. For the record, trademark fame for likelihood of confusion purposes is different from fame for trademark dilution purposes.

More often than not, a trademark fame argument fails not because the evidence of fame does not exist, but because the plaintiff fails to properly admit the evidence to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. During the discovery period it is easy to get fixated on obtaining the evidence the party needs and not on the admissibility of the evidence being acquired. This was the problem Diesel S.p.A. encountered in its recent case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

Misel Disel, LLC filed an application seeking registration on the Principal Register of the mark MISEL DISEL (in standard characters) for “smooth shave enhancer, namely, pre-shave liquid.” The Trademark Office reviewed the application and found no conflicting marks that would bar registration under Trademark Act Section 2(d). The MISEL DISEL mark was published for opposition and Diesel S.p.A. opposed the registration of the mark.

Diesel was the owner of several prior registrations for DIESEL (in standard characters) and DIESEL formative marks, but the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board focused on one:  DIESEL (in standard characters) for, among other goods, “pre- and after shave creams and lotions.” The Board found that the MISEL DISEL and DIESEL marks were similar, the goods closely related, and there was no weakness based on the co-existence of third-party registrations. Misel only came up with three registrations for DIESEL and none were for goods remotely close to pre- and after shave creams and lotions.

Diesel argued that its DIESEL mark was famous for likelihood of confusion purposes. To support this argument, it relied on documents only. It offered no testimony, which was Disel’s fatal mistake.

Financial information is key to establishing trademark fame, but this information must be offered through testimony. It is not self-authenticating evidence. Web pages can be self-authenticating, but the Web pages are admissible of what they show on their face only, not to prove the truth of any matter asserted in the them.

Documents produced in response to a Document Request are also inadmissible unless other authenticated through a Request for Admission.

Because Diesel did not give any consideration to admissibility, it was left with minimal evidence on trademark fame and the Board was unable to find that the DIESEL was famous for likelihood of confusion purposes.