Reinforcement that Trademark Classes are Irrelevant

"woman putting postits on a wall showing that trademark classes are irrelevant"

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has said before that trademark classes are irrelevant to determining likelihood of confusion. A recent decision involving the SWISS certification mark reinforces this point. Pearl 9 Group, LLC filed a trademark application to register the mark I.W. SUISSE for “clocks and watches; parts for watches; watch bands and straps; ***; timepiece dial faces, and parts for timepieces ***” in International Class 14. The Trademark Office refused registration of Pearl 9’s mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered certification mark SWISS for “horological and chronometric instruments, namely, watches, clocks and their component parts and fittings thereof” in Class A.

The Board held that the classification as a certification mark has very little effect on our determination as to whether or not there is a likelihood of confusion. Because the certification mark owner does not itself use the mark, the question of whether there is a likelihood of confusion is based on a comparison of the mark as applied to the goods or services of the certification mark users.

Using trademark classes in a trademark search only helps to narrow the universe of marks that trademark searchers need to evaluate. From there, the trademark searcher is left to sift through the results using only intuition to determine whether anyone of those marks is likely to prevent the registration of the proposed mark being searched.

And any software program that includes only the similarity of the marks and irrelevant International Class numbers yet provides a “score” for the search results begs the question of what that score represents. If all the search is telling is that there are similar marks registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, that information is largely unhelpful and something you can discover by yourself and for free.

And over reliance on trademark classes will result in overlooked trademarks that may be consequential marks in the likelihood of confusion analysis. That may have been the case in the Pearl 9 case. Focusing solely on International Class 14 where jewelry and watches are classified, would have resulted in missing the SWISS certification mark in Class A.

Confusion Likely by More than One Hometown Pizza

"hometown pizza logo"

Pizza Inn, Inc. filed an application to register the mark AMERICA’S HOMETOWN PIZZA PLACE (standard characters) for “restaurant services; carry-out restaurant services.” The company voluntarily disclaimed PIZZA PLACE; thus, admitting that AMERICA’S HOMETOWN was the dominant portion of its mark. The Trademark Office refused registration of Pizza Inn’s mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark HOWTOWN PIZZA (standard characters) for “restaurant services.”

This application was facing an uphill battle from the beginning. The services descriptions were identical, so less similarity between the marks is necessary in order for a likelihood of confusion to exist. And the descriptions are not technical or vague, so it would be inappropriate for the Trademark Office to consider any extrinsic evidence of the use of the mark in the marketplace. Finally, the cited mark – HOMETOWN PIZZA – was incorporated in its entirety in Pizza Inn’s proposed mark.

The only chance the Applicant had was to argue that HOMTOWN PIZZA was so conceptually weak that the addition of AMERICA’S and PLACE were sufficient to avoid confusion. Pizza Inn offered eight third-party registrations that were for or included the term HOMETOWN for “restaurant services.” And of those eight third-party registrations, two were dead registrations, which are given no consideration during the examination of a trademark application. So Pizza Inn really only had six, third-party registrations.

Pizza Inn was four registrations shy of the ten mark where the Trademark Office has found a crowded field exists for a particular term. And the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that the third-party registration evidence offered by Pizza Inn was insufficient to establish that HOMETOWN PIZZA was conceptual weak; thus, entitled to a narrow scope of protection. What Pizza Inn should have done was offer evidence of third-party use not registrations of HOMETOWN PIZZA. A simple Internet search reveals numerous restaurants called HOMETOWN PIZZA.

Consumers Likely to Confuse MASTERMIND Beer with MASTERMIND Vodka

"mastermind vodka bottle"

The craft beer and spirits markets continue to grow at an astonishing rate. According to a Bloomberg article, there are eight times as many breweries in the U.S. as there were a decade ago, and seven times as many distilleries. This rapid growth is leading to the problem the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recently dealt with in the In re Fiddlehead Brewing Company, LLC case.

Fiddlehead Brewing Company filed an application to register the mark MASTERMIND for “beer.” The Trademark Office refused registration on the ground that Fiddlehead Brewing’s mark was likely to cause confusion with the prior registered mark MASTERMIND VODKA for “spirits.”

The marks at issue were virtually identical, so the salient issue was whether beer is a related good to spirits, but more specifically vodka. The Board could not have more clearly stated that International Class Numbers are irrelevant when it comes to the relatedness of goods determination when it said:

The fact that the USPTO classifies Applicant’s beer in Class 32 and Registrant’s spirits in Class 33 does not establish that those goods are unrelated under § 2(d). *** The determination concerning the proper classification of goods or services is a purely administrative determination unrelated to the determination of likelihood of confusion.

If you are a trademark searcher and are looking at the International Class Numbers, STOP DOING IT. You need to dig deeper and look at the relatedness of goods and services, but we digress.

The Examining Attorney offered several websites of businesses operating a brewery and distillery under the same brand, and news articles discussing breweries that are also producing distilled spirits. The Board also cite prior decision after prior decision that held beer and other alcoholic beverages including wine are related goods. Accordingly, it is no surprise that the Board found Fiddlehead Brewing’s beer to be related to the owner of the cited mark’s “spirits.”

Despite the saturated nature of the alcoholic beverage market and numerous decisions from the Board on relatedness, breweries, distilleries, and wineries continue to hold a false hope that their case will be the one that does not get caught in the relatedness of goods trap. But the better strategy is to find an available mark. And the only way to do that is to pay attention to the relatedness factor, which is something BOB does for you.

2018 State of Branding: Sound Similarity Key to Determining Similar Names

“Google home mini virtual assistant 2018 State of Branding importance of sound similarity to determine similar names”

Sound similarity between two trademarks may be growing in importance to determine similar names after the report released by Bynder and OnBrand. Bynder and OnBrand released the 2018 State of Branding Report and  GoodHands added to the report with their own comments on the state of branding. According to the report, 40% of respondents were investing in voice assistant technology for marketing purposes.  This means that sound similarity between marks may need to be scrutinized more closely when conducting trademark searches.

The similarity of the marks is one of two potentially dispositive likelihood of confusion factors to determine is similar names exist. The other dispositive factor is the relatedness of the goods or services factor. The similarity of the marks factor broken down into three sub-factors:  (1) visual similarity; (2) sound similarity; and (3) similar meanings. The analysis of these three sub-factors leads to a conclusion regarding the overall commercial impression of the marks and ultimately determining if they are similar names.

For the most part, visual similarity has dominated the other two sub-factors by receiving the most weight in the similarity of marks analysis. This is because consumers place more emphasis on things they can see. But sound similarity has been a close second to visual similarity. The reason sound similarity has not historically been on even par with visual similarity is because this sub-factor is more important in markets where goods or services are ordered or purchased by name. A good example of where sound similarity is important in the bar or restaurant market where orders are taken orally as opposed to a retail environment where consumers browse shelves or racks of product.

The rise of Internet shopping and increase use of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, are increasing the importance of sound similarity, which is being noticed by marketers according to the 2018 State of Branding report. As trademark searchers, we need to pay attention to this trend and when a mark may be visually different from other marks in the search results but sound similar we may need to raise the warning flag whereas in the past we could stand down.

Using a Hashtag as a Trademark Requires a Trademark Search First

"hashtag in lights"

A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic. Sharing content on a specific topic can be accomplished by adding the hashtag topic to the message. Others searching for that topic can search for that hashtag topic to find other messages on the same social media platform. Hashtags have become such a prominent part of our society that the word was added to the Oxford dictionary in 2010 and to the Scrabble dictionary in 2014.

Given its popularity, naturally there is a tendency to want to trademark a particular hashtag. The motivation to get trademark protection usually stems from someone’s desire to control a certain phrase. However, there are a few requirements that must be met in order for a hashtag to be protected as a trademark.

Like domain names, a hashtag at its core is no different from a street sign. It functions to direct people to relevant content in cyberspace. If its status as a cyberspace street sign does not change, then it cannot be protected as a trademark because consumers do not recognize it as an indicator of source nor rely on it to distinguish goods or services.

If you start to use the hashtag in a trademark sense, then you may start to develop trademark rights in the phrase following the #. In most cases, the Trademark Office will require that you disclaim the use of the # because it is functional. A disclaimer is merely an acknowledge to the world that you will not claim exclusive rights in the disclaimed matter apart from your mark as a whole. In other words, other people can use the #.

Whether you can protect the phrase following the # depends on whether it is registrable just like any other word for the applied for goods or services. That means surviving a likelihood of confusion inquiry.

As trademark searchers, we should not concern ourselves with generic, descriptive, or purely functional matter when we construct our search equations. We don’t concern ourselves with this matter because it can only muddy our search results with irrelevant results. Instead, we should focus on the phrase separate from the #.

For example, it does not make much sense to search for FIRST BANK in connection with “banking services.” BANK is generic of banking services and no one would be able to tell another bank that they can use the word bank in their trademark. Instead, the focus should be on FIRST. The same strategy applies when asked to search a hashtag.

Handling Difficult Conversations About Trademark Search Results

"couple having difficult conversations"

If you are conducting a trademark search for someone else, difficult conversations about one of the trademarks being searched is going to happen. As of July 2, 2018, there are 312,339 pending trademark applications and 2,386,268 live registrations in the United States Patent and Trademark Office TESS database. That is almost 2,700,000 records that need to be considered when selecting a trademark and it only takes 1 record to prevent the registration of a proposed mark.

Inc. published an article about The No. 1 Mistake People Make When Handling Tough Conversations. According to the author John Hall – CEO & co-founder of Influence & Co. – the No. 1 mistake leaders make is worrying about their own performance instead of the team. Some of Mr. Hall’s tips are transferable to a client relationship, but there is one tip that makes a big difference in the client context. You can avoid difficult conversations if you demonstrate you are invested in and care about your client by adding value about the search results beyond just the results. In other words, show the client that you tried to find ways to make sure the name they fall in love with is available for their use.

To add this value requires a more critical analysis of the search results. It means that there may be a way around a search result colored red. Or that a small change to a mark may avoid an issue with a search result colored yellow.

If you are a naming firm or professional trademark searcher, here is strategy to employ to demonstrate to your clients that you are invested in their business while using your time and money in the most cost-effective way. First, use a trademark search engine to conduct the preliminary trademark search. When reviewing the search results, sort them by green first, then red, and finally yellow. Set the green marks aside, and turn your attention to the red marks. Review the list of red marks for any you suspect your client would really like. Put those list of red marks in separate list. Then turn your attention to the yellow marks. Similar to the red marks, make a list of the yellow marks you suspect your client would really like.

If you do not have a relationship with a trademark attorney, then you should get one. Send the list of red marks and yellow marks to the trademark attorney along with the relevant search results. Have the trademark attorney reviewing the prosecution history for the marks to determine if he or she sees a potential path to registration for any of the marks on the list. If a path exists, have the trademark attorney provide the patch details.

When you structuring a relationship with a trademark attorney this way, you maximize the value the trademark attorney brings to the clearance process. You are not wasting money on a search, which can be done in a more cost-effective way.

Through this process you will avoid difficult conversations with your client because they will see the extra mile you went to ensure they can use a name they ultimately fall in love with.

Airline Entertainment Equipment Is Unrelated to Broadcasting Services

"Delta airline entertainment equipment, like P.G.A. Electronic's CARAT system, that allows broadcasting services providers to deliver content"

P.G.A. Electronic wins a rare reversal from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board for its CARAT application. Given the surprises the Trademark Office delivers from time to time, it is possible that airline entertainment equipment could be related to television and radio broadcasting services. These goods and services could be related because they are both involved in the delivery of content to consumers. The Trademark Office has held in prior cases that when the goods or services are ingredients in or compliments to the other good or service, that is an indication of relatedness.

In In re P.G.A. Electronic, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decided whether airline entertainment equipment is related to television and radio broadcasting services. P.G.A. Electronic filed a request for extension of protection of an international registration for the mark CARAT (in stylized form) through the Madrid Protocol. P.G.A. Electronic filed the CARAT application in connection with airline entertainment equipment. The Trademark Office refused registration of the mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with a prior registered mark CARAT for radio and television broadcasting services.

The central issue in this case was the relatedness of the goods or services because the marks were virtually identical. The only difference was the stylization of the CARAT word used by P.G.A. Electronic. When the marks at issue are identical, less similarity between the goods or services at issue is required for a likelihood of confusion to exist.

The Examining Attorney offered third-party registrations for marks that covered broadcasting services and some form of content transmission.  Because of the transmission aspect of these third-party registrations did not exclude transmitting in airplanes, the Examining Attorney argued this was evidence that the goods and services at issue in the case were related.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed, but held that the Examining Attorney failed to prove that P.G.A. Electronic’s customers were airline passengers and not the technicians who install the CARAT equipment in the airplanes. Accordingly, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board held that airline entertainment equipment is unrelated to radio and television broadcasting services.

Trademark Registration Process and Trademark Cost

"trademark application used in the trademark registration process and trademark cost"

Most people do not understand the trademark registration process nor the trademark cost to register a mark. And while a lot of attention is given to the cost of litigation and the cost to rebrand, the trademark cost to register a mark should not be overlooked.

The first decision a trademark owner must make to begin the trademark registration process is to decide whether to file on a use basis or on an intent-to-use basis. Sometimes the decision will be made for you because you are filing a trademark application before you have a product or service to sell. Filing on a use basis as opposed to an intent-to-use basis could end up saving the trademark owner in the long run.

There are three options when filing a trademark application. A TEAS Plus application costs $225 per International Class of Goods or Services, requires all communication to be conducted through e-mail, and requires the trademark application to select a goods or services description from the Manual of Acceptable Identifications. A TEAS RF application costs $275 per International Class of Goods or Services, requires all communication to be conducted through e-mail, and allows the trademark applicant to submit a custom goods or services description. A TEAS Regular application costs $400 per International Class of Goods or Services and can be filed on paper, but this option will soon be phased out. The costs identified in this paragraph do not include attorney’s fees, which can be the total cost to file a trademark application to $500-$1,000 per International Class of Goods or Services.

After the trademark application is filed, it will be assigned to an examining attorney within 3 months. Once assigned, the Examining Attorney will examine the application for any registrability issues. Most trademark applications receive some form of refusal from the Trademark Office. If a refusal issues, the trademark applicant has 6 months to respond to the refusal.

A formal refusal represents minor issues such as:  a disclaimer requirement, clarification to the description of goods or services, clarification to a description of the mark, etc. The cost to address a formal refusal is about $200-$400. A substantive refusal represents a significant issue with the application. The substantive refusals are those found in Section 2 of the Trademark Act with the most prevalent substantive refusal being likelihood of confusion. The cost to overcome a likelihood of confusion refusal can be in the thousands of dollars because it may take multiple rounds of responses and even an appeal to overcome the refusal.

Assuming no registration refusal issues or a registration refusal is overcome, the trademark application will be published for opposition in the Official Gazette. The publication date starts a 30-day period where another party can object to the registration of your proposed mark. And if an opposition proceeding does commence because a mark is too close to someone else’s, then you are looking at litigation type costs to defend yourself.

If no opposition proceeding is filed, then if you filed the application on a use basis, then the certificate of registration will issue. On the other hand, if you filed on an intent-to-use basis, then the notice of allowance will issue. Before the certificate of registration issues, you will need to file a Statement of Use. the cost to file a Statement of Use is $100. If you are not ready to file the Statement of Use within in 6 months after it issues, then you can file a request for an extension of time up to 5 times following the Notice of Allowance date. However, each extension of time will cost you $150. None of these costs include attorney’s fees.

The trademark cost while not on par with litigation cost is nevertheless money that can be saved by conducting a trademark search first. Probably more important is the time lost due to the trademark registration process. Once you file the trademark application, it will be at least 5 months before a certificate of registration issues.

All Brands are Trademarks, But Not All Trademarks are Brands

"brands trademarks"

What comes first the trademarks or the brands? These words are not synonymous, and understanding the difference is important. Vocabulary in general is critically important to understanding new topics and being able to converse intelligently about them.

The Federal Trademark Act defines what constitutes a trademark very broadly. “A ‘trademark‘ includes any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof – used by a person – to identify and distinguish his or her goods . . . from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods, even if that source if unknown.”

Traditionally, a trademark is thought of as words and designs, but it can include smells, tastes, colors, shapes, touch, and sounds. What determines if any of this matter can function as a trademark is whether consumers rely on it when making purchasing decisions. Consumers come to rely on any matter when making purchasing decisions by having experiences with the matter. Those experiences can be good or bad, but those experiences are embodied in the trademark and the trademark starts to represent and stand for those collective experiences. The collective experiences embodied in a trademark is referred to as the goodwill associated with the trademark.

When someone mentions the word brand they are referring to “the sum total fo the thoughts, opinions, associations, and experiences people have with your company.” Brand is more synonymous with goodwill than it is the word trademark. And because a brand requires consumer experiences, all brands are trademarks but not all trademarks are brands.

A company can do a lot to influence the experiences consumers have with the trademark. For example, you can have attractive packaging and marketing collateral, and have excellent customer service. All these things positively reflect on the company and create a quality expectation by consumers every time they encounter the trademark. When this expectation is created, you then have a brand.

The path from trademark to brand depends in part from the selection of your starting point. Select matter that consumers immediately recognize as a trademark, and your path will be shorter than if you select matter that takes time for consumers to recognize is a trademark in the first place.

Concert Speakers and Consumer Speakers are Related

"Guardian Audio concert speakers and consumer speakers"

Have you ever noticed or even pay attention to the brand name of the concert speakers? No, us either. But according to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, most consumers must pay attention to and could be confused by a similar trademark used on a concert speakers and consumer speakers. The astonishing aspect of this case was the level of detail the applicant – David Mottinger – included in its identification of goods description in order to avoid the issue the Trademark Office had with his application.

In In re David Mottinger the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board had to decide whether GUARDIAN AUDIO for – take a breath – “audio equipment for use in commercial entertainment systems for use in large public venues, namely, amplifiers, speakers, receivers; all of the foregoing sold only to sound contractors for commercial installation, and to sound production companies, and none of which are targeted to or designed for use by the general consuming public” was confusingly similar to EGUARDIAN for, among other goods, the broadly worded audio products that could include consumer speakers and concert speakers.

This case was no exception to the tried and true statement made by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that the relatedness of goods determination must be made based on the descriptions contained in the application and registration at issue. With respect to Mr. Mottinger’s GUARDIAN AUDIO application, there is not much more detail he could have included to avoid the issue the Trademark Office had with his application. But because the EGUARDIAN registration broadly described its audio goods, the Board found there was overlap; thus, the relatedness factor favored a likelihood of confusion.

Moreover, it is high time the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board stop with this policy of only considering what is described in the application and registration. In this case, Acceptto Corporation – the owner of the EGUARDIAN registration – uses the mark only as the name of a driver. But because it only had to show use on 1 of the goods described in the then application it was able to register the mark for the entire goods description if it was willing to the risk on a fraud claim most likely because the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has been so milk toast on fraud claims since the Bose decision. All the Board’s policy is doing is pushing more people to file partial cancellation actions, which will further clog the TTAB docket.

Trademark searchers need to pay attention to how marks are actually being used if a mark appears problematic from the search results.