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.

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.

Where Font Stylization Stops and Design Begins

Trademark applications for words are generally filed with a standard character drawing. A trademark registration issued with a standard character drawing extends protection in the words to all forms of stylization, size, and color. A standard character drawing does not extend protection to all possible design elements in a mark. A recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decision did not help to determine when font stylization stops and design begins.

Anthony Fisher filed a trademark application for bumper stickers and clothing and submitted the following drawing of his trademark:

In his application, Mr. Fisher identified the letters “VF” as the literal element of the mark and described his mark as “two fish hooks connecting in the middle to form the stylized letters ‘VF’.” Mr. Fisher’s trademark application sailed through examination by the Trademark Office and was published for opposition where it was promptly opposed by V.F. Corporation.

V.F. Corporation alleged that Mr. Fisher’s stated “VF” stylized mark was likely to cause confusion with its prior registered VF marks, two of which are for standard character drawings. V.F. Corporation’s registrations were for retail store services featuring apparel, backpacks, and outdoor gear and equipment. The Board found that Mr. Fisher’s clothing was related to V.F. Corporation’s retail store services, but not his bumper stickers. Nevertheless, the salient issue, in this case, was the similarity of the marks.

The Board gave no consideration to the words used by Mr. Fisher when preparing his trademark application. The Board said that it is not the description of the mark but the drawing that depicts the mark for which registration is sought. Against this backdrop, the Board proceeded to tell Mr. Fisher what his mark is. The Board said “we do not discern the letter ‘F’ and it is highly unlikely that prospective consumers would. In fact, consumers likely would not perceive any letters in [Mr. Fisher’s] design mark, but instead may only perceive a stylized checkmark.” As demonstrated by the Board, the question of whether something is stylization or design is subjective.

Under the circumstances, the Board telling Mr. Fisher what his mark is benefitted him, but it highlights a possibly troubling practice. The Board’s precedent is settled that it should not substitute its judgement on confusion for those parties on the firing lines in the marketplace. This rationale should extend to trademark applicants as well. The descriptions offered by the trademark applicant should be given more weight than the treatment the description received in this case.

Single Word Defeats Entire Whiskey Distillery Logo

"whiskey in a glass"

When it came to the similarity of the marks likelihood of confusion factor, a whiskey distillery threw the kitchen sink at the Trademark Office and still lost because of a single word. Unfortunately for the applicant, this was a situation where the Trademark Office should have exercised its discretion to look at the two marks in the real world marketplace to determine if a likelihood of confusion exists. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has time and time again stated that the literal portion of a mark is entitled to more weight in the analysis of the marks than any designs. But should a single word – absent a showing of fame – be afforded so much weight that it can bring down an entire logo?

Mystic Mountain Distillery LLC filed a trademark application to register its logo on the Principal Register for “whiskey”:

The Trademark Office refused registration of Mystic Mountain’s mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark OUTLAW (in standard characters) for “alcoholic beverages.” Because of the identical nature of the goods, less similarity between the marks is necessary for a likelihood of confusion exists. Mystic Mountain did nothing to narrow the goods descriptions and failed to demonstrate that the OUTLAW term was weak.

Without a doubt, there were significant headwinds to Mystic Mountain’s trademark application. About a year ago, the Board in Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Christopher Webb stated that it may take into account the real-world use of the marks to determine if they create confusingly similar impressions. The unanswered question is when will the Board take into consideration the real-world use of the mark and the answer may be that as a party you have to ask for it. If the Board would have considered the specimens and real-world use of the OUTLAW mark, it would have seen that the overall commercial impression is different than the impression given by Mystic Mountain’s logo.

Smith & Wesson House Mark Can’t Distinguish Shared Terms

Years ago it was a successful strategy to avoid a likelihood of confusion by adding a house mark to a proposed mark regardless of whether the shared term was conceptual weak. However, times changed and what used to be a successful strategy now only works under certain circumstances.

According to the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure, a house mark does not identify particular goods or services, rather a house mark identifies the provider of a wide variety of goods and services. The specific goods or services are often identified by a separate trademark or service mark. Because house marks appear on a wide variety of goods and services, they generally are afforded a broader scope of protection. The theory is that the more goods or services the mark appears on or in connection with, the more exposure consumers have to the mark, and the more recognizable the mark will become.

Smith & Wesson Corp. recently, unsuccessfully attempted to revive the old add the house mark strategy. Smith & Wesson filed an application to register the mark M&P SHIELD (in standard characters) for, among other goods, “knives.” The Trademark Office refused registration of this mark on the ground that is was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark SHIELD also for “knives.” Because the identifications of goods descriptions were identical, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that the channels of trade and classes of consumers overlapped.

When it came to the similarity of the marks, the Board stated that the addition of a house mark has been found sufficient to distinguish marks under circumstances where the appropriated matter is highly suggestive, merely descriptive, or has been frequently used or registered by others in the field for the same or related goods or services. The Board found that SHIELD is “slightly suggestive” for knives.

With respect to the frequent use or registration of the term SHIELD, the Board found that Smith & Wesson offered only one third-party registration that included the SHIELD term for a related good. This was far less than the 10 minimum the Board has required in other cases. Therefore, the Board concluded that Smith & Wesson’s inclusion of the M&P house mark was incapable of distinguishing the SHIELD term.

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.

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.

Visual Similarity Sinks SEXIFIT Trademark Application

"Sexifit logo refused primarily because of visual similarity"

SEXIFIT is the name of a workout program primarily directed at women that focuses on strength and core. The workout was developed by a former NFL and NBA dancer. The name is a composite word comprised of a spelling variation of SEXY (i.e., SEXI) and FIT to form the unitary mark SEXIFIT. Unfortunately, the Board’s primary focus on visual similarity would lead to the downfall of a trademark application that included this term.

Procheer Fitness and Dance filed an application to register the mark THE OFFICIAL SEXIFIT & Design mark in connection with “providing fitness instruction services in the field of dance, and physical fitness.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office examined the application and finding no likelihood of confusion issue, published the mark for opposition.

During the 30 day opposition period, ICON Health & Fitness, Inc. opposed the registration of Procheer’s mark alleging it was likely to cause confusion with its prior registrations for IFIT. ICON Health & Fitness owns several fitness brands: Nordictrack, Freemotion, Proform, and iFit. The iFit brand is a mobile application combined with a virtual personal trainer. Although in the fitness or exercise field, a fitness class is different than personal training and definitely appeal to different classes of consumers.

Nevertheless, none of these limitations appeared in THE OFFICIAL SEXIFIT & Design application nor in any of the IFIT registrations. Accordingly, because the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was forced to compare fitness and exercise with fitness and exercise, it had to conclude the services at issue were related. However, what was abnormal was the Board conclusion that ICON’s IFIT mark was famous for fitness instruction services when all the evidence presented demonstrated that IFIT may be famous for fitness equipment. Fame is not transferable this way.

When it came to the similarity of the marks, the Board gave no consideration to the difference in meaning between the THE OFFICIAL SEXIFIT & Design mark and IFIT mark. Likewise, it gave no consideration to the phonetic dissimilarity between SEXIFIT and IFIT. For trademark searchers, this is an example that visual similarity between two marks is generally the most important consideration when evaluating two marks.

The Board also ignored the design elements in the SEXIFIT & Design mark stating that the literal element is the most important because consumers use words to order and refer to goods and services. Focusing on the literal portion of the mark, the Board found that ICON’s entire IFIT mark was incorporated into the SEXIFIT portion of Procheer’s mark. This is another example for trademark searchers to pay attention to. If a prior registered mark is subsumed in its entirety in the mark you are searching and you can’t find dilution or have credible argument about the unrelatedness of the goods or services at issue, then the mark likely is unavailable.

Accordingly, primarily focusing on visual similarity, the Board granted ICON’s opposition and denied registration of Procheer’s THE OFFICIAL SEXIFIT & Design mark.

Acronym, Nickname & Abbreviation Rebrands Top 2018 Worst List

"picture of an acronym, nickname, and abbreviation"

AdAge ended 2018 with its list of the worst rebrands of 2018. The unremarkable list included:

  • XANDER – short for Alexander Graham Bell – AT&T’s advertising unit
  • DUNKIN’ – abbreviation of DUNKIN’ DONUTS
  • FIG – abbreviation of FIGLIULO & PARTNERS
  • CAPRI HOLDINGS – new name for Michael Kors Holdings
  • M/H VCCP – acronym for agency Muhtayzik Hoffer
  • RTW RETAILWINDS – new name for New York & Co. Inc.
  • REFINITIV – Blackstone’s financial and risk business
  • KONTOOR BRANDS – VF Corp’s jean brands and outlet business
  • VMLY&R – name of merged entity comprising VML and Y&R
  • WW – acronym for Weight Watchers
  • Tribune Publishing – reversal of acronym TRONC, which stood for TRIBUNE ONLINE CONTENT

About 64% of the rebrands on the list involve an acronym, nickname, or abbreviation. Generally, naming professionals will say that a name should be easy to read, say, and spell. You would think that an acronym, nickname, or abbreviation would check all the boxes for a good name, but as you can see that it not always the case and why working with a professional is important.

Whether you are moving to a similar acronym or an entirely new word or phrase, you will have to spend some significant money to educate the market about your new name. Distinctiveness is an important characteristic of any new name. In the naming context, distinctiveness lets you stand out from the crowd. And in the legal context, distinctiveness provides broader protectable rights.

Consideration of an abbreviation, nickname, or acronym is a must when assessing the similarity of the marks confusion factor. And to adopt an abbreviation, nickname, or acronym of the long form for an otherwise problematic mark is not an acceptable work around. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has held on more than one occasion that “the users of language have a universal habit of shortening full names – from haste or laziness or just economy of words.” In re Abcor Development Corp., 588 F.2d 811, 200 USPQ 215, 219 (C.C.P.A. 1978).

Interworking of the Similarity of the Marks Factor

"Cartier watch and two rings are jewelry that was the subject of a case involving similarity of the marks"

A recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decision is a good example of how the similarity of the marks, relatedness of the goods or services, and strength factors work together. Tai Fook Jewellery Company Limited sought to register the mark T MARK (in standard characters) for, among other goods, jewelry. The Trademark Office refused registration of Chow’s trademark application on the ground that its mark was likely to cause confusion with a prior registered mark TJ MARC & Design also for jewelry. .

Chow made the same losing argument about the sophistication of the consumers claiming that jewelry is personal; therefore, consumers will exercise care when making a purchasing decision. However, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board said what it was said numerous times before that if the restriction does not appear in the goods or service description, then it will not read a limitation in to the description. Accordingly, the Board found the goods are legally related.

When goods or services are legally related, the channels of trade and classes of consumers are deemed to overlap. Moreover, less similarity between the marks at issue is required in order for a likelihood of confusion to exist.

Chow also made the common losing argument about the strength factor. Chow introduced a table of six third-party registrations – four shy of the 10 we believe is the minimum required to establish a weak mark – and then only one third-party registration containing the letters TJ and covering jewelry. Therefore, the rights in the TJ MARC & Design were not limited to a close representation of its mark.

When it came to the similarity of the marks factor, the Board stated that marks must be considered in light of the fallibility of memory. The proper focus is on the recollection of the average purchaser who normally retains a general rather than specific impression of trademarks.

Because the goods were legally identical, the fact that the marks began with the letter “T” and ended with the word MARK or MARC made the marks more similar than dissimilar. The crown design element and use of TJ instead of just the letter “T” were insufficient to distinguish the two marks because the TJ MARC & Design trademark was not weak, and consumer focus on the literal elements of a trademark before any design element (although this is debatable).