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.

2018 Trademark Weakness Trend Carries Over to 2019

In 2018, we wrote frequently on the strength trend we saw emerging from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decisions. The emerging trend was that in order to demonstrate conceptual weakness a trademark applicant had to be able to introduce a minimum of 10 third-party registrations for marks: (1) sharing the same term; and (2) registered for identical or related goods or services. The ability to meet this minimum threshold had a direct bearing on the success of one of the more common arguments made by trademark applicants to overcome a registration refusal.

In 2019, we have seen the first TTAB case to carry over this trend. Morganti Flavio Innovaciones Gastronomicas, S.L. applied to register the mark PINKCOW & Design for, among other goods, “soft drinks.” Anticipating a potential issue with Red Bull GmbH, Morganti voluntarily excluded “energy drinks” from its entire goods description in International Class 32. The Trademark Office found no issue with Morganti’s PINKCOW & Design mark and published the mark for opposition.

Red Bull, on the other hand, had an issue with Morganti’s application and opposed the registration of its mark. Red Bull alleged that the PINCOW & Design mark was likely to cause confusion with its prior registered marks RED BULL for, among other goods, “soft drinks.”

Morganti unsuccessfully argued that Red Bull’s product was an energy drink not a soft drink. Therefore, the goods descriptions at issue were legally identical because they both included the phrase “soft drinks” and the evidence showed that Red Bull’s product satisfies the ordinary definition of an “energy drink” and “soft drink.”

Red Bull was able to demonstrate that its RED BULL was commercially strong. Consequently, Morganti had to demonstrate the conceptual weakness of the RED BULL mark to counteract Red Bull’s evidence. Unfortunately, Morganti fell two short of the minimum number of the third-party marks target with a showing of eight.

Because the Board found that Red Bull’s mark was strong and the goods at issue were legally idential, Red Bull’s mark was entitled to a broad scope of rights. Those rights extended to Marganti’s PINKCOW mark, and so the TTAB granted Red Bull’s opposition.

Did The TTAB Set the Conceptual Weakness Standard at 10?

We previously discussed how much dilution is required to prove a word is conceptually weak. But a recent decision from the TTAB may have zeroed in on a number.

The TTAB recently reversed the Trademark Office’s refusal to register the mark I’M SMOKING HOT for, among other goods, cosmetics based on a prior registered mark SMOKING HOT SHOW TIME also for cosmetics. The facts of this case seemed eerily similar to the facts of the SQUEEZE JUICE COMPANY decision we discussed just five days ago.

In the I’M SMOKING HOT case, the goods at issue were identical, so the relatedness of goods factor weighed in favor of the refusal as did the overlapping channels of trade and target consumer factors. The case law is legion that when the goods at issue are identical, less similarity is required between the marks at issue for a likelihood of confusion to exist.

In the SQUEEZE JUICE COMPANY case, 12 examples of third-party use of a mark similar to SQUEEZE were offered as evidence to demonstrate the conceptual weakness of the cited mark. The Board accepted these 12 examples as sufficient to establish the weakness of the SQUEEZE term for juice bar services. And about a month ago, the TTAB held that nine examples of third-party use was insufficient to establish the conceptual weakness of the term CODE for some type of educational service.

FabFitFun, Inc. – the owner of record for the I’M SMOKING HOT application – offered 10 examples of third-party use of the terms SMOKING HOT for cosmetics. And in this case, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that the 10 examples were sufficient to establish the conceptual weakness of the SMOKING HOT terms for cosmetics.

In addition to the 10 examples of third-party use, FabFitFun offered the definition of “smoking hot” from the MacMillan Dictionary, which is an open dictionary. The definition of “smoking hot” was submitted by Shahbaz Shahin from Bangladesh on August 31, 2015. This definition is not representative of how an American consumer defines or understands “smoking hot,” and should not have been considered by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

Based on its weakness the finding, the TTAB concluded that the addition of SHOW TIME was sufficient to distinguish the cited mark from the I’M SMOKING HOT mark.