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.

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.

Red Hen Protest Shows the Importance of Selecting Unique Marks

"Red Hen"

The owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, VA asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked her to leave her restaurant a couple of nights ago, and then proceeded to arrange a protest of Mrs. Huckabee Sanders family as they dined across the street at another restaurant not affiliated with her restaurant. The events of that night received and continues to receive a lot of attention in the press.

However, the issue with the Red Hen has not been confined to Lexington, VA. Unfortunately, the Washington Post reported that other Red Hen restaurants that are not affiliated with the restaurant in Lexington, VA are feeling the backlash. The owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Washington, D.C. trying to be proactive to avoid a mistaken connection with the Lexington, VA restaurant took to Twitter to explain the difference. Instead of receiving a sympathetic ear, the Twitter mob turned its attention to the post flooding the Washington, D.C. Red Hen with 4,400 tweets – some supportive but some disparaging.

Red Hen restaurants in Swedesboro, N.J., and Old Saybrook, Conn. received similar treatment to the Red Hen in Washington, D.C. However, in addition to the Tweets, these restaurants suffered lower Yelp scores at the hand of the Internet mob.

If you didn’t believe it before, you should now, that a trademark embodies the goodwill or reputation of a business. This case also highlights the importance of selecting trademarks that are sufficiently different from other parties’ marks and protecting the mark you choose from other parties that may choose a confusingly similar mark. And while this situation may be unique, it demonstrates how quickly a reputation can be damages.

In a matter of hours, the Yelp ratings for the Red Hen restaurants were negatively impacted all over a misunderstanding. Yelp has become a trusted source for many people looking to have dinner out. With ratings now in the threes instead of the fives, who knows how much business these Red Hen restaurants will lose over this situation.

Make sure to search your trademark before adopting it. While not on such a public stage, trademark disputes involving similar marks happen all the time and are avoidable if the proper search is conducted.

TailGate Beer Boulevard Brewing Crossroad of Images and Words

"tailgate beer boulevard brewing"

TailGate Beer is a craft brewery in Nashville, TN. Obviously, the name of the brewery is TAILGATE and some of their beers show the design of the backend of a pickup truck with the tailgate down. According to their website, their beer is available in Middle Tennessee only. Tailgate Beer sued Boulevard Brewing Co. over its use of an image of a pickup truck with the tailgate down.

Boulevard Brewing Co. was founded in 1989 and is headquartered in Kansas City, MO. They claim to be the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest and according to their website sell beer in Tennessee. However, again according to their website, do not sell the Pale Ale in Tennessee that is the subject of TailGate Beer’s lawsuit.

This case raises interesting questions for trademark searches; namely, when will an image prevent the registration of word and should images be included in a trademark search for a word. With respect to an image preventing the registration of word, this occurrence is rare because the word needs to be the exact term for the image. For example, if you attempt to register the mark RAILROAD for beer and another brewery has the picture of RailRoad tracks on its beer label, there may be an argument that consumers could confuse the source of the word and image.

However, vary the mark even slightly so that it is not essentially the identical word for the image, and you avoid the likelihood of confusion issue. For example, add to the mark PALE ALE so the mark reach RAILROAD PALE ALE. The terms PALE ALE are clearly generic for the type of beer, but even generic terms are considered when assessing the overall commercial impression of a mark in the likelihood of confusion analysis. This also means that you have varied the word enough to avoid an issue with an image that the word describes.

Boulevard Brewing Co.’s image is not just of a tailgate, it is the image of an entire truck with the tailgate down. So the likelihood of Tailgate Brewing winning on the word/image confusion factor is low. It is also unlikely that they win on the image of truck with its tailgate down being recognized by consumers as their exclusive trademark. Beer and the act of tailgating with a pickup truck is ubiquitous.

But more importantly, on the trademark claims, there is no basis to bring the lawsuit unless Tailgate Beer knows of Boulevard Brewing Co.’s plans to sell its PALE ALE beer in Tennessee. Until that exists, Dawn Donut would prevent the suit from going forward on the trademark claims. This is a good example that not every potential trademark action needs to be pursued and how some trademark attorneys can convince trademark owners to sue out cases that do not deserve to be sued out. As a trademark owner, make sure you interview prospective trademark counsel for their philosophy on enforcement before agreeing to engage them. And you don’t have to use the trademark attorney that works in your corporate attorney’s office. Make sure you find a trademark attorney that understands the business objectives of being a trademark owner.

As trademarks searchers, it is generally unnecessary to include designs in the trademark search. The only time it makes sense to include designs is when the client is contemplating using only a common word in an uncommon way.

How a Brand Agency Should Work with a Trademark Lawyer

"five people giving knuckles showing a brand agency working with a trademark lawyer"

Working with a trademark lawyer may seem like an elementary task, but there are some tips a brand agency should be aware of that will benefit their relationship with their clients. A trademark lawyer or any lawyer’s role for that matter is to advise on risk. The next time you read an opinion from a trademark lawyer on the availability of a mark, the trademark lawyer will not use definitive language that a particular mark is available. Instead, you will see words like “appears to be available” or “reasonable arguments exist.”

The trademark lawyer uses this language primarily because there is no such thing as a perfect trademark search. Even the most expensive trademark search is incapable of finding every potential conflict. What the trademark lawyer evaluates are signals in the search that, according to the law, would suggest the potential for a conflict.

The first tip for a brand agency is have a realistic attitude about what a trademark search will reveal and the a trademark attorney’s opinion about it. The second tip is a financial one. Most, if not all, trademark attorneys will work on flat fees, but you have to ask. The days of the hourly rate have been under siege lately, and you not only can get budget certainty with a flat fee but likely a lower cost as well.

The third tip relates to the flat fee, which is make sure you understand what is included in the flat fee. If you ask for a flat fee on a trademark search, but not the reporting out of the results or any discussion about the results, then you likely end up with a low ball flat fee only to have a larger hourly rate applying later.

The fourth tip is to do the initial screening yourself. Most attorneys will say about areas of law they do not specialize in that they know enough to be dangerous. Well, the same statement can apply to a brand agency. A trademark attorney will charge more for a trademark search than what it would cost to use an online trademark search engine or to do the search yourself. Get the trademark attorney involved for the final search.

The fifth and final tip is to recognize the value a trademark attorney brings to the search process. A trademark attorney provides the most value on the tough registration questions. If there is a mark that the client loves but your preliminary search revealed a question about its availability, have the trademark attorney conduct a more in-depth investigation to determine if there is a path to a registration.

Who is the Reasonable Person in Trademark Infringement Cases?

"reasonable person average joe's logo"

Who is the reasonable person in trademark infringement cases? When the similarity of the marks is being determined, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board will sometimes mention that when comparing the marks “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 Board will then go on to say “the emphasis must be on the recollection of the average purchaser who normally retains a general, rather than specific, impression of trademarks.” If you are a defendant in a case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board and see these paragraphs, it is probably time to brace yourself for a decision that is not going in your favor (that’s assuming you didn’t skip to the end of the decision the minute you received it).

Who is this “average purchaser” that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board references? In one of its most recent decisions In re Spy Tec International, Inc., the Board never defines who this person is and we must assume that the applicant did not offer any evidence to demonstrate who is this person. The “average purchaser” is a concept that is critical to any trademark dispute, yet more often than not who this person is is assumed without any evidence identifying who is the average purchaser of particular goods and services.

Laura A. Heymann of the College of William & Mary Law School discussed this “reasonable person” or “average purchaser.” Although not of much comfort to those of us dealing with trademarks on a daily basis, Ms. Heymann concludes that the “reasonable person” or “average purchaser” is the whoever the judge decides it is, which is usually a product of the judges own bias. The Trademark Trial Appeal Board has said that the “average purchaser” is the least sophisticated of a particular class of consumers.

5 Good Record Keeping Tips when Searching Trademarks

"computer screen with cursor over new file for record keeping"

Good record keeping practices should be followed when searching trademarks, and there are a few reasons why this is the case. The first reason is simple and self-interested. As a trademark searcher for others, you want a CYA (i.e., cover-your-ass) file in the event a trademark dispute occurs. And you especially want this CYA file in the event your client choses a name that has a questionable, clearance report. As an aside, under no circumstances should a naming firm or trademark searcher indemnify a client for trademark infringement. You are not a trademark lawyer, and should not put yourself in the position as insurance company for your clients.

But we digress. The second reason to follow good record keeping practices is because plausible deniability is not going to be a defendant’s friend in a trademark dispute. The lack of documentation surrounding a defendant’s trademark search always get’s the plaintiff’s attorneys worked up. Any testimony given about the search including its details is always met with arguments of bias and self-interest. As a trademark searcher, if your documents and notes as a lay person corroborate the trademark attorney’s legal review, then you remove one distraction a plaintiff’s attorney can make to a jury.

The third reason is for historical reference. As a trademark owner, you hope to be in business for a long time, maybe even generations. Invariably, your brand will have to modernize over time. Having a record of why the trademark was selected in the first place and what existed at the time is helpful information to have when deciding how to rebrand. Not too often when more information was unhelpful.

Here are some practices to follow when searching trademarks:

  1. Save your search equations, including those that you ultimately did not use;
  2. Save your search results. If you use a trademark search engine like BOB, you can download your search results in a PDF or Word format. If you are manually searching the USPTO database, print the TESS search results and any notable individual records;
  3. Save any additional investigation taken on a particular individual mark;
  4. Save any notes taken about the search or about the mark in terms of the meaning or inspiration for the mark; and
  5. Save the ultimate, lay opinion on the availability of the mark.

Keep in mind that all of these documents are discoverable in a lawsuit and will not be protected by the attorney client privilege. Keep this in mind as you preparing any documents, but don’t let that discourage you from employing good record keeping practices.

Parody of Music Names in Branding

"picture of a music concert representing trademark parody"

Parody is something that seeps into the branding process from time to time. Depending on the good or service, parody of a recognizable music name could be appropriate. Esquire magazine highlighted the ten most memorable music parody brands. Our favorite was DON A HENLEY AND TAKE IT EASY for clothing.

In trademark law, there is nothing illegal about drawing inspiration from something for a name. Where the line is crossed is when the manifestation of that inspiration is likely to cause confusion with another party’s trademark. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has found on multiple occasions that the right of the public to use words in the English language in a humorous and parodic manner does not extend to use of such words as trademarks if such use is likely to cause confusion.

What this presumes is that the music name functions as a trademark in the first place, and trademarks cannot exist in a vacuum. Trademarks must attach to a good or service. In the case of music names that most likely means that the band or musician name attaches to primarily entertaining services. This is significant because trademark rights are limited to the goods or services they are used in connection with plus what would be considered a natural zone of expansion.

Unfortunately for DJ Khaled, that means his trademark infringement complaint filed against Curtis Bordenave and Business Moves Consulting Inc. d/b/a Business Consulting over trademark applications filed for DJ Khaled’s 18-month old son’s name ASAHD, ASAHD COUTURE, and A.S.A.H.D. A SON AND HIS DAD for clothing and magazine publishing services will likely fail. DJ Khaled named his son an acronym A.S.A.H.D., which means A SON AND HIS DAD.

This acronym has not been used with any goods or services, so there are no trademark rights associated with the acronym. Moreover, whatever notoriety DJ Khaled has in his name, that does not transfer to his son’s name. What his case demonstrates is that you need to know thy enemy when you select a name, which we have to assume the defendants fully anticipated in this case.