Strength Argument Done the Right Way Wins at TTAB

Simpson Industries recently won an appeal before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board – one of the few reversals that occurred this year – by properly making the strength argument. Because it executed the strength argument well, Simpson Industries was able to narrow the scope of rights in the cited mark, which allowed the differences in the marks to determine the likelihood of confusion test. Here’s how Simpson Industries executed the strength argument.

Simpson Industries applied to register the mark RAINFOREST NUTRITION (in standard characters, NUTRITION disclaimed) for “dietary and nutritional supplements.” The Trademark Office refused registration of this mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark RAINFORST ANIMALZ (in standard characters) for “nutritional supplements.” The goods were legally identical and did not contain any limitations; therefore, Simpson Industries’ only path to success was to win the similarity of the marks likelihood of confusion factor.

Simpson Industries offered 11 third-party registrations for marks containing RAINFOREST, one registration over the 10 minimum. If there was one flaw in the strength argument it was that not all of the third-party registrations identify nutritional supplements and nothing in the decision addressed the relatedness of the food and beverage products and nutritional supplements. Nevertheless, in this case, the Board gave weight to all 11 third-party registrations.

Simpson Industries also offered evidence of third-party use of the term RAINFOREST on a variety of nutritional supplements. The use evidence included not only trademark use, but also descriptive use. The descriptive use was even more persuasive because of the prior position the owner of the cited mark took during the prosecution of its application. Generally, the Trademark Office takes the position that each application must stand on its own facts and rarely relies on statements made by trademark applicants in other applications.

The 11 third-party registrations, third-party trademark use, descriptive use, and prior statements of the owner of the cited lead to the conclusion that the RAINFORST term is conceptually and commercially weak for “nutritional supplements. Because of this weakness finding, the use of NUTRITION – even though it was disclaimed – was enough to distinguish Simpson Industries mark from the cited RAINFOREST ANIMALZ mark.

Service Mark Strength Can’t Be Established By A Strong Trademark

"orange grove trees where Sunkist has strong trademark rights can't establish service mark strength"

Trademark strength for likelihood of confusion purposes is often misunderstood for fame in the context of dilution. The two concepts are different with fame for dilution being difficult to achieve. The common mistake service mark owners make is to assume that because their rights are strong for particular goods or services that this strength transfers to other goods or services. Trademark strength in the likelihood of confusion context does not transfer this way, which is a lesson Sunkist Growers, Inc. learned too late.

Sunkissed Families sought to register the service mark SUNKISSED FAMILIES (in standard characters with FAMILIES disclaimed) for “information in the field of parenting concerning the health of children” in International Class 44. The Trademark Office approved the mark for publication and Sunkist Growers, Inc. opposed.

Sunkist Growers plead numerous registrations for marks containing SUNKIST in connection with a wide variety of goods and services. However, because Sunkist Growers did not plead a family of SUNKIST marks, the Board focused on the registration with the most relevant description; namely, SUNKIST KIDS (Stylized) for “education and entertainment services, namely, providing a website featuring games, quizzes, experiments, educational lesson plans for teachers and educators, and related multimedia materials all in the field of food, health, and diet for the benefit of children” in Class 41. All trademark searchers should note that the Board looked for related services descriptions not overlapping International Class numbers.

Sunkist Growers argued that its mark was commercially strong entitling it to a broad scope of rights. The Board found that while Sunkist Growers provided evidence of its strength in the fruit field it provided no evidence of the strength of the SUNKIST KIDS mark in the education and entertainment services field. Therefore, the Board held that the SUNKIST KIDS mark was entitled to a normal scope of protection afforded to inherently distinctive marks. Sunkissed Families was only able to must 9 instances of third-party use of the SUNKIST mark, which was less than the 10 third-party registrations or use needed to establish conceptual weakness.

The Board Throws Another Curveball on the Strength Factor

"baseball pitcher throwing a curveball like the Board recently did"

The strength factor in the likelihood of confusion analysis is very important, and it’s not easy to establish either way. The strength analysis becomes even more difficult when the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board throws curveballs.

Friedman and Wieder Enterprises Inc. applied to register the mark HULA DELIGHTS (in standard characters) for “gift baskets featuring processed nuts.” The Trademark Office refused registration of the HULA DELIGHTS mark based on a prior registered mark HULA PRINCESS for “shelled nuts and roasted nuts.”

Friedman and Wieder Enterprises attempted to make the weakness argument with respect to the term HULA. In support of its weakness argument, Friedman and Wieder Enterprises submitted 26 third-party registrations for marks containing the HULA word and identifying some type of food product. The applicant was on the right track exceeding the minimum number of third-party registrations generally required to make the weakness argument.

However, Friedman and Wieder Enterprises made the mistake of assuming all food is related. Of the 26 third-party registrations offered, none identified nuts or even gift baskets with nuts. And Friedman and Wieder Enterprises did not offer any evidence or legal precedent to demonstrate that any of the food identified by the third-party registrations was related to nuts. Therefore, despite offering 26 third-party registrations, Friedman and Wieder Enterprises effectively had 0 third-party registrations supporting its weakness argument.

Nevertheless, the Board concluded that even though HULA is arbitrary when applied to shelled and roasted nuts, and there is no evidence of third-party use, there is evidence of third-party registrations for similar marks in connection with a variety of food products. Therefore, the HULA PRINCESS mark was entitled to a narrower scope of protection than what inherently distinctive marks normally enjoy.

Huh? The Board just finished concluding that the 26 third-party registrations were given little probative value. The moral of this story is that any similar mark for a good or service in the same broad category is enough to establish the weakness of a term or mark.

To try and make sense of this case you could chalk it up to simply a bad decision. The problem is that the Board does not reverse itself. So this is a decision that future Examining Attorneys will cite when the situation suits them, and attorneys in inter partes proceedings will cite when the situation suits them. What this case highlights is the importance of starting any legal research with the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and then working your way to the TTAB precedent if necessary.

PopSockets Tries to Convert Bona Fide Sellers Into Counterfeiters

"two women taking a selfie while under an umbrella with a popsocket on the back of the iphone that likely was not sold by counterfeiters"

In an interview for Vox, David Barnett – the founder of PopSockets – said that he saw the first counterfeit product in about 2016. In 2017 and 2018 he claims to have been Amazon’s best takedown customer because his company was taking down 1,000 – 2,000 listings every day from marketplaces around the world. PopSockets claims to have 40 lawyers around the world and has spent over $7 million in 2018 fighting alleged counterfeits.

We say “alleged” counterfeits because not all PopSocket targets are counterfeiters selling or offering for sale a counterfeit PopSocket. Some of the listings on Amazon and other marketplaces are selling authentic PopSockets. However, PopSocket attempts to transform these bona fide sales into counterfeits through the quality control program it established.

Under the first sale doctrine, also known as the exhaustion doctrine, a branded product may be bought and resold without change, assuming that there is no deception present in the resale process. Therefore, once the trademark owner authorizes the initial sale of the product under the trademark, the trademark owner cannot ordinarily prevent or control subsequent sales of goods bearing the mark. For example, down-the-line retailers can display and advertise the branded goods, and secondhand dealers can advertise the branded merchandise for resale in competition with the sales of the trademark owner, provided they do not misrepresent themselves as authorized agents.

However, the first sale doctrine does not apply if the goods differ materially from the authorized goods. One way a brand owner can differentiate authorized goods from unauthorized goods is to adopt a quality control procedure because this program gives consumers ongoing benefits after the point of sale that is not available from the unauthorized product. However, superficial differences between the quality controls of the authorized product and the unauthorized product do not allow the trademark owner of defeat the first sale defense.

The PopSocket is not a complicated product. It is a circular disk that attaches to the back of a cell phone and extends when pulled making it easier for the cell phone user to hold the phone in certain situations. To suggest that a rigorous quality control program conveys a meaningful benefit to consumers beyond the point of sale is a stretch especially when the PopSockets being resold were from authorized retailers, to begin with.

But PopSockets is not distinguishing these legitimate resellers from the true counterfeiters. This is the case in a recent lawsuit filed by PopSockets against Lora Suzanne Wilcox. PopSockets were purchased from authorized retailers and then resold on Amazon. This act is squarely within the defendant’s rights, yet PopSockets’ is attempting to argue that its rights were not exhausted when it sold a PopSocket to the first authorized reseller because of its quality control program.

PopSockets will likely lose this case because it is likely the case that no quality issues exist with the PopSockets being resold on Amazon by Ms. Wilcox. She is not one of the counterfeiters PopSockets should pursue. What PopSockets should be more concerned about is potentially losing its trademark rights altogether.

Trademarks should never be used as nouns. They should always be used adjectives. If consumers start using a trademark as a noun, congratulations you have just lost your trademark rights because the trademark is now a generic term. PopSockets appears to be heading in this direction.

At the beginning of the Vox article, the journalist states “[e]very time some asks me, ‘What’s that?” there’s about a 70 percent chance I know exactly what they are referring to. It’s my PopSocket.” Throughout the article PopSockets is used as a noun:

  • I love PopSockets
  • Without a PopSocket
  • PopSockets were originally invented . . .
  • PopSockets sell really well

With the Federal Circuit’s decision in Coke Zero finding that a generic term can exist for sub-categories of the generic term like “no sugar soda pop,” PopSocket should be concerned that it may meet the same fate.

Counterfeiting is bad and counterfeiters should be aggressively pursued by brand owners. But any enforcement campaign must be thoughtfully designed to pursue the actual wrongdoers. Not individuals that are legally reselling branded goods. Otherwise, the label of a trademark bully is fitting.

The Chilling Effect Trademark Bullying Can Have on Speech

"Basketball going through a basketball hoop the NCAA trademark bullying"

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has and continues to aggressively enforce its trademark rights in the MARCH MADNESS trademark. In fact, its reputation for trademark enforcement is so well known that the KFANN sports radio station in Minneapolis, MN will not use the entire phrase MARCH MADNESS in an advertising spot for a local restaurant chain for fear of being sued by the NCAA. Instead, the word MADNESS is replaced with the sound of buzzer to indicate that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament can be watched at this particular restaurant. This is a prime example of the chilling effect that trademark bullying can have on speech even when the speech is legal.

The NCAA’s first Trademark Trial and Appeal Board proceeding was commenced on May 24, 2007 against the University of Kentucky’s BIG BLUE MADNESS trademark application. Since then, NCAA has opposed:

  1. MOJO MADNESS for “prepared potatoes,” which is it ultimately lost when Shakey’s USA, Inc. voluntarily amended its description to “MOJO brand potatoes prepared at Shakey’s restaurants.” As an aside, this is a good example of how details a broad goods description may have to become in order to win a likelihood of confusion battle.
  2. MARCH RADNESS for a variety of clothing articles, which the NCAA won.
  3. LIVE THE MADNESS for a variety of clothing articles, which the NCAA won.
  4. APRIL MADNESS for sweepstakes, which the NCAA won.
  5. MARKDOWN MADNESS for automobile dealerships, which the NCAA lost.
  6. MARCH MATNESS for a website featuring entertainment information, which the NCAA won.
  7. MARCH IS ON! for coordinating and promoting athletic events, which the NCAA lost.
  8. MUNCH MADNESS for dips, processed vegetables, and chips, which the NCAA won.
  9. BASKETBALL MADNESS for downloadable video games, which is ongoing but suspended in light of a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Kentucky. As an aside, the NCAA also petitioned to cancel the mark XOOKER, which is owned by the same owner of the BASKETBALL MADNESS mark. Hard not to construe that action as clear trademark bullying.
  10. And the most recent proceeding against MARCH MULLIGANS for sweepstakes, games of chance, and contests.

These are just the actions taken by the NCAA before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, but the NCAA has a reputation for also firing off demand letters. Some of these actions are legitimate, but several of them are not. It’s this overreaching that creates a trademark bully.

Not every use of another party’s trademark amounts to infringement. Under the doctrine of nominative fair use, a party – even a competitor – can use another party’s trademark to refer to that party provided only so much of the trademark is used to refer to the trademark owner. In other words, don’t use the full logo if the words are enough to refer to the trademark owner. In the case of the KFANN advertising spot, the radio station can legally use MARCH MADNESS to refer to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and should fear reprisal from the NCAA because of its overly aggressive trademark enforcement behavior.

Pharma Case Provides Lesson for Searching A Fanciful Mark

"picture of three white pills displaying a fanciful mark"

A recent TTAB decision is instructive on how to break up a fanciful mark when conducting a trademark search. When faced with a fanciful mark, it may be tempting to search only for the entire coined term. But it is important to break up the fanciful mark and search the parts even if the parts themselves are not known words.

AbbVie Biotechnology Ltd. applied to register the mark SKYRIZI (in standard character form) for pharmaceutical preparations and substances. The Trademark Office found no issue with AbbVie’s application and published it for opposition. However, Novartis AG had an issue with AbbVie’s SKYRIZI application and filed a Notice of Opposition against the registration of AbbVie’s mark. Novartis claimed rights in a prior registration for IZIRIZE (in standard character form) also for pharmaceutical preparations.

The parties agreed to use the Board’s Accelerated Case Resolution procedure through with the parties stipulated that the goods were related, the channels of trade were overlapping, and the parties targeted the same class of consumer. The two factors that remained in dispute were: (1) similarity of the marks; and (2) strength of the IZIRIZE mark.

AbbVie argued that RIZ was a conceptually weak term when used in connection with pharmaceutical goods. Regardless of the industry, the 10 third-party registration minimum trend we saw emerge in 2018 applies. To support its argument AbbVie offered 19 third-party registrations for marks that contained the letter string RIZ for pharmaceutical products. For example, ACARIZAX; BACTRIZOLE; RIZIMO; and ORIZON. Despite the evidentiary issues with the admission of the third-party registrations, the TTAB found that the 19 third-party registrations established the RIZ word string was conceptually weak for pharmaceutical products.

The weakness finding is instructive of the importance to break up even fanciful marks into any logical components and include those parts in any preliminary trademark search. In this case, the Board did not find that RIZ was a known word, acronym, or abbreviation. Nevertheless, the Board focused on it to determine whether it was a weak term, and the strength of a mark has a direct impact on the similarity of the marks analysis. Having found that RIZ was weak, the Board found that the use of SKY as opposed to IZI was sufficient to distinguish the marks at issue. And these two factors where enough to outweigh the stipulated factors that favored a finding of confusion. Therefore, the Board dismissed the opposition proceeding.

Not breaking up a fanciful mark and searching any logical components could result in a missed record that could be a knockout.

Petition Started Over Disney’s HAKUNA MATATA Trademark

"Disney Hakuna Matata t-shirt"

Using a foreign word in the United States as a trademark is a common naming practice. Sometimes, the foreign word possesses a cache that its English counterpart does not. Depending on the word, this practice can have some negative consequences.

In August of 2018, we saw the outrage from Hawaii when a Chicago-based restaurant chain tried to tell a single location Hawaiian restaurant it could not use the word ALOHA as part of its business name. And as 2018 was drawing to a close, we saw the same outrage against Disney manifested in a petition posted on the Change.org website. The petition was started by Shelton Mpala and has 178,813 supporters.

The problem, as Shelton Mpala sees it, is that “Hakuna Matata” is a Swahili phrase that translates to “no trouble” in English. It is a word that has been used by most Kiswahili-speaking countries and Disney’s trademarking the word is stealing a portion of African culture.

Disney has trademarked the phrase HAKUNA MATATA for t-shirts. But Healthy Pride Supplements has trademarked the same phrase for “multi-vitamin preparations; vitamin supplements; dietary and nutritional supplements” and another company has trademarked the phrase for wedding planning.

Trademarking a foreign word does not mean the word cannot be used in any context or any purpose. What it means is that in a commercial context on certain goods and services, prospective purchasers have the right not to be confused between the goods or services being offered in the marketplace. After all, trademark law is a consumer protection law.

In the case of Disney, that does not even mean that HAKUNA MATATA can never be used on a t-shirt by anyone. A purely ornamental as opposed to a trademark use of the phrase HAKUNA MATATA is allowed despite Disney’s trademark rights.

Nevertheless, while the Chicago-based restaurant may have had a better argument regarding the use of ALOHA by another restaurant, companies choosing to adopt foreign words as their trademark in the United States need to consider the non-trademark backlash that may result because of the general misunderstanding of trademark rights.

KFC’s Unique Brand Extension: a Fire Log

"KFC brand extension into a fire log"

Kentucky Fried Chicken a/k/a KFC took its brand to a whole new level with the KFC fire log. Now, you can have the smell of KFC’s fried chicken not just at dinner time, but all day long. At least you could have had that smell if you were lucky enough to get your hands on one. Apparently, the KFC fire log sold out in hours.

KFC’s decision to launch a fire log under its well-known KFC brand is a bold, but helpful brand extension. It is helpful because brand extensions increase the strength of the mark. The more opportunities consumers have to encounter a mark, the more likely they are to associate the mark with a single source.

It is also a common misconception that a trademark must be used at all times otherwise the trademark rights are abandoned. A trademark must be continuously used, but that use needs to be consistent with the nature of the goods or services being offered for sale. In this case, KFC is offering the logs for a limited time. So long as KFC repeats this activity in 2019, it will be able to maintain its trademarks rights for KFC in a fire log.

Another good example of this are businesses at county or state fairs. There are several businesses that exist solely to sell their goods for a limited time during a state or county fair. But they do this every year and don’t lose their trademark rights when the fair closes for the year.

What is also interesting about the article is KFC’s statement that “[t]he smell of the Colonel’s Original Recipe fried chicken is unmistakable.” This statement suggests a non-traditional trademark in the form of a smell. The definition of a trademark in the Trademark Act is extremely. It says that anything can function as a trademark provided it is capable of distinguishing and indicating the source of goods or services. If the smell of the Colonel’s fried chicken is unmistakable, then pursuing non-traditional trademark protection may be worth considering. These types of trademarks generally require more effort to protect, but they are a great addition to any trademark portfolio.

Using Sans-Serif Font Makes a Bland not a Brand

"Brandless website showing sans serif brand"

A recent Fast Company article identified displaying a trademark in sans-serif font as the hottest branding trend in 2018. If you were part of this trend, the article labeled your trademark a bland not a brand. According to the article, blanding occurs when the trademark lacks any meaningful differentiation from its competitors. Even a coined trademark is incapable of being a brand if it is not accompanied by something that makes is visually pop. The author says “[t]he point is differentiation; by definition, that’s what branding is.”

We have the large tech companies:  Apple, Google, Aribnb, and Uber, to thank for this trend. Because of the nature of their businesses and market status, just the word in sans-serif font functions as a brand not a bland. Their success has spawned a legion of imitators who can’t do the same thing. “The problem is that the blands haven’t earned the branding they ape.”

The article alludes to differentiation occurring through more than just sight, which is absolutely true. All the messaging done through advertising and public relations ultimately is embodied in the trademark, and that is what consumers recognize when they see a trademark even if it is just the word. If your brand strategy is to use the trademark in a sans-serif font, that is perfectly okay so long as you are using other collateral to differentiate your business and to tell your brand story. The experience consumers have with your business will influence the differentiation in the marketplace more than any visual cues your trademark may possess.

For example, look at the evolution of the Google trademark. The color placement and font style has changed over the years, but that is pretty much it. Starting out, the GOOGLE trademark could have been considered a bland not a brand by the article’s standard. Over time, Google has clearly become a well-known brand that consumers trust regardless of how the GOOGLE term is presented.

The question for young companies is whether you need eye-catching branding to begin with or if can build the differentiation you need other ways. What is important for young companies to keep in mind is that it takes time to build a brand and is something that can’t be rushed. Patience is key and so is the commitment to sticking with the brand strategy.

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.