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.

Walmart Loses Lengthy Trademark Infringement Lawsuit

"Walmart's Backyard Grill mark at the center of trademark infringement lawsuit"

Walmart’s recent trademark infringement lawsuit loss demonstrates the importance of trademark owners understanding their branding risk tolerance during the naming stage. In this case, Walmart had a high branding risk tolerance that will likely end up costing it millions of dollars.

In about 2011, Walmart Stores went down the path of launching a new line of barbecue products. The new mark it decided to adopt was BACKYARD GRILL. According to the most recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Walmart instructed its trademark attorneys to conduct a trademark clearance search for this new mark. It’s trademark attorneys warned Walmart of a potential conflict with a prior registered mark THE BACKYARD (in standard characters) for “retail store services in the field of lawn and garden equipment and supplies” owned by Variety Stores, Inc.

Walmart made the decision not to follow its trademark attorney’s advice and filed an intent-to-use trademark application for:

Mark Image

in connection with a variety of goods and services including “barbecues and grills” and “retail store services featuring a wide variety of consumer goods of others.” With such a broad identification of goods and services descriptions, Variety Stores’ THE BACKYARD mark should have been cited against the registration of Walmart’s pending application. Surprisingly, Walmart’s BACKYARD GRILL mark sailed through the examination phase and was published for opposition where Variety Stores promptly opposed its registration.

The dispute did not stop there, nor did it deter Walmart’s plans to use the BACKYARD GRILL mark. A little over three years after the opposition proceeding commenced, it was suspended for a lawsuit filed by Variety Stores against Walmart alleging trademark infringement.

In 2016, Walmart lost the lawsuit and was ordered to pay Variety Stores $32.5 million dollars. This amount was a disgorgement of the profit Walmart had earned on its BACKYARD GRILL products. However, this award was reversed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on the ground that the case should have gone to the jury. The case was retried in front of a jury in October 2018 and the jury found that Walmart willfully infringed Variety Stores’ THE BACKYARD trademark. Now the case moves into further proceedings to determine Variety Stores’ monetary compensation.

The Heavy Burden of Proving Fame for Dilution Purposes

"Peter Piper Pizza has no trademark dilution fame"

Most companies that have been using a federally registered trademark for ten years or more often mistakenly assume that the mark is famous. Long periods of use is a factor in the ultimate fame determination, but fame for dilution purposes is much different than fame for likelihood of confusion purposes. In fact, trademark owners would be better offer not using the word “fame” in the context of a likelihood of confusion. Recently, we saw this mistake play out in a case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

OTG Experience, LLC filed applications to register the mark PETER PIPER and PETER PIPER SMARTRUCK (in standard characters) for a variety of mobile food related services. OTG Experience’s applications were published for opposition and Peter Piper, Inc. opposed their registration relying on its prior registrations for PETER PIPER PIZZA (in standard characters with PIZZA disclaimed) in connection with “pizza” and “restaurant services.”

Peter Piper Pizza was founded in Arizona in 1973, and has used the PETER PIPER PIZZA mark for over 40 years. The company generates about $300 million in annual revenue across about 143 locations (although 43 are in Mexico) and spends about $20 million annually in advertising. While these numbers are significant, they were not enough to establish the fame of the PETER PIPER PIZZA mark.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board held that it is the burden of the party asserting fame to clearly prove it. In other words, fame needs to be proven by clear and convincing evidence. This standard requires the evidence presented must be highly and substantially more probable to be true than not and the trier of fact must have a firm belief or conviction in its factuality.

What this means for trademark owners is that offering numbers alone is highly unlikely to result in a fame finding. What a trademark owner needs to do is offer context for the raw statistics to demonstrate the general reputation the mark was with the public. Unfortunately, more often than not, trademark owners fail to provide the necessary context and the fame assertion fails because of it. That is what to Peter Piper Pizza.

Nevertheless, the raw statistics were enough for the Board to find that the PETER PIPER PIZZA mark was on overall strong mark entitled to a broad scope of protection. OTG Experience tried to counteract the strength evidence by relying on third-party use. Unfortunately, OTG Experience could only find three examples, well below the 10 minimum it appears is required to establish the weakness of a mark.

Study Shows Correlation Between A Trademark Filing And Growth

"working paper title about the benefits of a trademark filing"

When dealing with intangible property, it is often hard for a business owner to understand why money should be spent on, for example, a trademark filing. Obtaining a trademark registration can be expensive depending on the path the business owner chooses when starting the trademark registration journey. And the effects of that decision to make a trademark filing may go unnoticed or the positive effects of that decision may be misattributed to something else in the business.

A working paper titled An Anatomy of U.S. Firms Seeking Trademark Registration was recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, and it may provide the clarity and understanding business owners need to see that a trademark filing makes a business money. The working paper was also released in perfect timing with the U.S. Senate’s Resolution to Increase Trademark Protection Awareness.

The study created a new dataset by combining the USPTO trademark filing data with firm characteristics, performance, and dynamics in the United States as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. The paper then provided a first look at the connection between a trademark filing and the broader measures of firm outcomes.

The study found that a trademark filing is highly correlated with the ultimate success of an early entrepreneurship activity including employment and revenue growth. Firms that do not apply for a trademark registration in their initial years are unlikely to do so unless they experience employment growth. However, difference-in-differences analysis suggests sizable treatment effects, with firms making a trademark filing having substantially higher employment and greater revenue in the period following the first trademark filing.

Hopefully, this paper will be peer-reviewed and ultimately validated because, if accurate, it provides businesses with the most valuable justification for protecting a trademark: namely, that it likely will make you money.  More businesses need to recognize the importance of filing trademark applications and the data suggests that too few businesses understand this. According to the Kauffman Startup Index in 2017 there were about 540,000 new business owners each month during the year. That means for the entire year there were about 6.5 million new business owners in 2017. However, through the third quarter of 2018, there are only 480,111 new trademark applications that have been filed in 2018.

Every business, whether a startup or established enterprise, should pursue trademark protection for not only its business name, but also the names of its goods or services. But if you are going to spend the money to protect your brand, you might as well do it wisely. Engage a naming firm to help with the design of a new name and conduct a trademark search to make sure the name is available.

Multiple Colors Not An Inherently Distinctive Trademark

"Forney Mig Wire multiple color product packaging not an inherently distinctive trademark"

Oberlo blogged about the Color Psychology, which is the important role color plays in how consumers perceive a brand. According the post, color affects our day-to-day decisions including what items to buy. The Drum also wrote about blue being the dominant color used by global industries. Because of its importance in the purchasing decision, more companies should consider protecting colors as trademarks. However, not as many as you think attempt to do this because obtaining a trademark registration for a color – as a non-traditional trademark – can require some effort.

Recently, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board addressed, for the first time, whether multiple colors applied to product packaging can be an inherently distinctive trademark or if the colors must acquire distinctiveness. Forney Industries, Inc. – manufacturer of welding and abrasives tools, equipment, and accessories – applied to register the colors black, yellow, and red applied to packaging for a variety of welding and abrasives goods. The Trademark Office refused registration of Forney’s mark on the ground that the multiple colors is not an inherently distinctive trademark.

Color applied to product packaging is treated the same as color applied to a product and because color applied to a product can never be an inherently distinctive trademark, color applied to product packaging can never be an inherently distinctive trademark. This does not mean that color can never function as a trademark for a product or its packaging, but that color must acquire distinctiveness. It is not immediately protectable as a trademark. And there is no meaningful distinction between a single color or multiple colors when applying this principle.

This case involved color in the abstract. If Forney had applied the multiple colors applied to well-defined shape, pattern, other distinctive design, then the color applies to that extra matter could be inherently distinctive. But since Forney did not argue in the alternative that its multiple color mark had acquired distinctiveness, the Board affirmed the refusal to register Forney’s multiple color mark.

4 Characteristics Trademark Bullies Generally Have in Common

"cartoon about trademark bullies"

Although there seems to be less publicity recently about trademark bullies, that does not mean they have gone away. Trademark bullying is alive and well, and the Associated Press recently published an article pointing the finder at universities as the newest members to this disfavored group. A few examples the article highlighted are:

  • Duke University opposed the registration of DUKE’S FOLLY for “wine” and “custom production of wine for others; providing information about wine-making”;
  • North Carolina State University objected to the use of WOLFPACK – the nickname for its sports teams – by a convenience store in Raleigh, NC called Wolfpack Mini Mart, and a California brewery’s use of Wolfpack to promote its wolf themed beers; and
  • Texas A&M University objected to Erik Nolte’s plans to produce a beer called the 12TH CAN.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office once defined a “trademark bully” as “a trademark owner that uses its trademark rights to harass and intimidate another business beyond what the law might be reasonably interpreted to allow.” Despite this definition, most people believe a trademark bully is any large company that is picking on a smaller company, but this is not always the case.  And while most “trademark bullies” do not have a specific intent to harass the other party, they do have an intention to intimidate their opponent.

The problem with bullies is that they cause their opponent to unnecessarily spend money and sometimes money they don’t have. Here are some characteristics to be on the lookout for to avoid a party that is likely a trademark bully:

  1. Does the person or party own numerous trademark registrations for the same mark?
  2. Do those marks exist in a crowded field?
  3. Does the correspondent information at the USPTO for the trademark owner’s marks identify a solo practitioner, small firm, or large firm with a reputation for aggressive litigation tactics? A common problem in the trademark bully area are lawyers that do not have a deep understanding of the likelihood of confusion factors.
  4. Has the trademark owner been involved in several proceedings before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board?

The 411 On The Timeline to Register a Trademark

"chalk board with now or later written on it and later with a checked box representing the timeline to register a trademark"

It should not come as a shock that the timeline to register a trademark at the United States Patent and Trademark Office is not quick. But understanding the process and how much time it actually takes is important for companies, trademark searchers, and naming firms because it should inform when the naming process should start. The USPTO issued some timelines based on the filing basis of the application, but they are not the easiest diagrams to follow.

When a trademark application is filed with the USPTO regardless of the filing basis, the application will be assigned to an examining attorney to review the application. This assignment will not happen for three months. To the extent an issue exists with the application, the first office action will likely not issue for a couple of weeks after the assignment of the application. If no issue exists with the application, then the Trademark Office will issue the notice of publication.

Already, there is a three-month delay before you will know whether the mark is available. Let’s assume there are no issues with the application and the notice of publication issues. When the application is published for opposition, this starts a 30-day period when anyone that believes he or she will be damaged by the registration of the mark may formally oppose its registration. So now you are a little over four months before you will know your proposed mark will register.

But let’s assume a first office action issues, then a response to the office action is not due for six months from the date it issued. Most parties do not respond to the first office action right away and most wait until the six month response deadline is close. According to the USPTO’s Data Visualization Center, the total pendency of resolving a first office action is 9.7 months from the filing of the application. It is only after this first office action is resolved that the opposition period begins, which would then kick the timing out another month.

The timeline to register a trademark means that you should start the naming process early. If you don’t start the naming process early, then you need to be more conservative during the trademark search process because you may not have the luxury of starting over with a different mark.

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.

No Entitlement to Use Your Name for Your Business

Phil Davis – founder of Tungsten Branding – recently wrote an article for Forbes about why your last name may not be the best choice for the name of your business. The article identifies many problems with adopting your last name as your company name, but the one problem that recently was addressed by the Tradmeark Trial Appeal Board is that your name may be one of many similar last names. There is no right to use your name as a trademark if it is likely to cause confusion with another mark.

Doofood filed an application to register the mark DOOFOOD & Design for made-to-order meal kits. Doo is part of the Applicant’s name DooJin Kim. The Trademark Office refused registration of this mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with a prior registered mark DO FOOD & Design for a prepared meal kit. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that goods and services at issue were related and the design components of the marks at issue would likely be perceived as background to the literal elements of the marks. The use of pot design in the DOOFOOD & Design mark only reinforced the preparation of food.

Doofood did not offer any evidence of the conceptual weakness of the DO FOOD mark. Instead, it attempted to argue that the meanings of the marks were sufficiently different to avoid a likelihood of confusion. Dissimilarity of sound has trumped similarity in the appearance of the marks at issue. And dissimilarity of appearance has trumped similarity in sound before. But rarely if ever has dissimilarity in meaning trumped similarity as to sound and appearance.

Compounding Doofood’s problem was its lack of evidence on the difference in meanings. It appears that Doofood relied only on argument, which the Board held will never make up for a lack of evidence.

This case highlights that even your name needs to be searched before making the decision to adopt it as the name of your business.

ASKBOT Unlikely To Be Confused With ASK

"ASKBOT home page unlikely to cause confusion with ASK search engine"

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board for the second time this year considered what was happening in the real world marketplace to determine if consumers were likely to confuse the ASKBOT and ASK trademarks. ASKBOT, Spa filed a trademark application to register the mark ASKBOT in connection with software for creating online forms that allow the posting of questions and answers. The ASKBOT software is sold B2B with the users never seeing the registered trademark.

IAC Search & Media, Inc. petitioned to cancel the ASKBOT on the ground that the mark was likely to confusion with its ASK mark for a search engine service. As we have reported time and time again, the Board generally constrains its analysis of the relatedness of goods or services to the descriptions contained in the registration and application at issue. However, when the identification of goods or services descriptions are technical or vague and require clarification, it is appropriate for the Board to consider extrinsic evidence of use to determine the meaning of the identification of goods or services descriptions.

In this case, the Board did not describe what was technical or vague about the descriptions in the registrations at issue. And although it concluded that the consideration of extrinsic evidence was appropriate, it found that the goods at issue were related.

What the Board used the extrinsic evidence for was to identify differences in the channels of trade and classes of consumers. And what the Board found was that IAC Search & Media’s customers and prospective customers were unlikely to encounter the ASKBOT mark because they target consumers whereas ASKBOT, Spa targets businesses.

The nail in the coffin for IAC Search & Media was when ASKBOT, Spa was able to cross the 10 third-party registration threshold by producing 11 third-party registrations for marks containing ASK in connection with services related to online searching. These registrations coupled with the dictionary definition of “ask” were enough for the Board to conclude that the ASK mark was inherently weak and that would be something that IAC Search & Media would be unable to overcome.