Infringing LIL’ BEANIES is not Like Taking Candy from a Baby

The Willamette Week reported that a Portland vegan ice cream company changed its name to Little Chickpea after Gerber complained that the company’s proposed LITTLE BEAN name was likely to cause confusion with its registered mark LIL’ BEANIES. Little Chickpea said in the story that Gerber insisted that the company change its name even though it had decided to discontinue the LIL’ BEANIES brand. It is questionable whether this is true, but if it is then Little Chickpea formerly Little Bean made a mistake prosecuting its application.

Nestle – the parent corporation to Gerber – owns a federal trademark registration for LIL’ BEANIES in connection with “bean-based snack foods; grain-based snack foods.” In the article, Mitch Camden said that “when he applied for a trademark he was initially told ‘everything looked good.'” This means that his trademark lawyers did a trademark search and told him LITTLE BEAN mark was available for him to register. The Trademark Office disagreed and issued a registration refusal asserting that the LITTLE BEAN mark was likely to cause confusion with the LIL’ BEANIES prior registration.

We have to assume that Little Chickpea’s attorneys searched for goods identified in the LITTLE BEAN trademark application, which included “processed chickpeas.” A chickpea is a bean, so it is difficult to understand how Little Chickpea’s attorneys would have concluded that chickpeas are unrelated to “bean-based snacks.” Nevertheless, Little Chickpea’s attorneys attempted to overcome the registration refusal and were unsuccessful. In a last-ditch effort to overcome the refusal, it appears that Little Chickpea’s attorneys reached out to Gerber to obtain consent to the registration of the LITTLE BEAN mark and Gerber refused.

Willamette Week also reported that Mr. Camdem was told Gerber has discontinued the LIL’ BEANIES product line and had no intention of doing anything with it. If this is true, then Little Chickpea had a good claim for abandonment. A trademark is abandoned with the use of the mark has discontinued with no intent to resume use of the mark. Abandonment is a ground for cancellation, which would have cleared the way for Little Chickpea to obtain a federal registration for its mark without having to go through what it described as an expensive rebrand.

The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is often true for any legal issue but it is especially true in the context of trademark law. A proper and thorough trademark is essential to avoiding costly disputes and rebrands.

Do You Believe in Miracles … Trade Channels Decide TTAB Case

Before you get too excited about the headline, this most recent TTAB decision may be another curveball and something that will not become the norm. On the other hand, it could be the start of something so we will be watching to see if another trend develops. The trend that may be starting is whether the introduction of uncommon trade channels to the goods or services description can defeat goods or services descriptions that are unrestricted as to channels of trade.

Minibar North America, Inc. filed a trademark application to register the mark MINIBAR SMARTSNAX (in standard characters) for “packaged snack foods, namely, candies, nuts, pretzels, popcorn, and cookies.” The Trademark Office refused registration of the MINIBAR SMARTSNAX mark on the ground that is was likely to cause confusion with two prior registered marks: SMART SNACKS (in standard characters) for “candy, caramels, chocolate and chewing gum” and THE SMART SNACK (in standard characters) for “dried fruits; dried fruit mixes; dried fruit snack foods; snack mix consisting primarily of processed fruit, processed nuts and/or raisins; shelled, roasted or otherwise processed nuts; candied nuts; raisins.” None of the goods descriptions in any of the marks at issue identified trade channel or class of consumer restrictions.

We also see again a trademark owner attempting to register the broadest goods description as possible. This is another example supporting the trademark search theory that you need to start broad with your search descriptions. Starting with a narrow description will result in missed registrations.

In response to the Office Action, Minibar North America did the smart thing and voluntarily amended its goods description to include a trade channel limitation. Minibar North America amended the goods description in its MINIBAR SMARTSNAX application to: “packaged snack food, namely, candies, pretzels, popcorn, and cookies packaged for sale to hotels, motels, and temporary stay facilities for distribution through refrigerators and food storage cabinets having sensors to detect presence and removal of packages” in International Class 30 and “packaged snack food, namely, processed nuts packaged for sale to hotels, motels, and temporary stay facilities for distribution through refrigerators and food storage cabinets having sensors to detect presence and removal of packages” in International Class 29. The Trademark Office maintained the refusal and Minibar North America appealed.

Minibar North America did not take the next step to petition to partially cancel the SMART SNACKS and THE SMART SNACK registrations to exclude “sale to hotels, motels, and temporary stay facilities for distribution through refrigerators and food storage cabinets having sensors to detect presence and removal of packages.” Ordinarily, the failure to obtain this corresponding amendment in the cited mark registrations would have been the final nail in the coffin for the MINIBAR SMARTSNAX application, but not this time.

The TTAB restated its settled precedent that unrestricted goods descriptions are presumed to travel through all usual channels of trade and are offered to all normal potential purchasers.” The TTAB took the opportunity to conclude that distribution through refrigerators and food storage cabinets having sensors to detect presence and removal of packages was not a “usual” trade channel for candy, cookies, nuts, etc. Rather, vending machines, convenience stores, grocery stores, and the like were the usual trade channels for candy, cookies, nuts, etc.

The TTAB’s analysis, which was correctly pointed out by the dissent, completely ignored the TTAB’s precedent that the owner of an unrestricted trademark registration is entitled to change its trade channels at any time and that trademark owners often expand into new trade channels.

Moreover, because the amended description included “sale to hotels, motels, and temporary stay facilities,” the TTAB inferred a sophisticated consumer. However, this analysis completely ignored the end consumer of the candy, cookies, nuts, etc. from the hotel, motel, or temporary stay facility. This is individual is not sophisticated like the snack food buyer at a hotel, motel, or temporary stay facility and this person needed to be taken into account by the TTAB. The applicable standard of care for a likelihood of confusion analysis is that of the least sophisticated consumer.

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.

I Pitty the Fool Who Infringes My Trademark

One person we would never mess with is Mr. T who was the muscle for the A-Team. Leafly – a website that is an online marketplace and information source for cannabis companies – didn’t flinch when it received a demand letter from Mr. T saying its MRT listing infringes his trademark rights. In this case, Leafly may have a basis for not flinching.

Mr. T ultimately sued Leafly for trademark infringement because it lists a cannabis strain called MRT which is the acronym for Mr. Tusk on its website. The MRT flower is sold by third parties, not Leafly. Mr. T is seeking injunctive relief only because he claims any misassociation of his Mr. T mark with a cannabis company will damage his ability to license his mark to other companies.

Online retailers have consistently avoided liability for trademark infringement over the years. This trend started in 2007 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of eBay that it did not directly infringe Tiffany’s trademark rights by including listings for Tiffany products (some genuine and some counterfeit) on its website. It continued in 2010 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals again ruled in favor of eBay that it did not contribute to the direct infringement of Tiffany branded goods. In 2014, Amazon avoided a trademark infringement lawsuit because the Court found that the third-party sellers retain full title to and ownership of the inventory sold by the third party. Based solely on the fact that Leafly is an online marketplace appears to strongly cut against Mr. T’s likelihood of success in this case.

But Mr. T faces another uphill battle when it comes to his lack of enforcement. There are several MR. T marks registered on the USPTO’s Principal Register for a variety of goods including automobile parts, restaurant services, rifle scopes, scrubber device, and handyman services. Notably absent from the list of registered MR. T marks is a registration owned by the man himself, Mr. T.

Trademark owners are not required to take on all potentially infringing uses of a mark. In fact, trademark owners need to be thoughtful when constructing an enforcement strategy. But the more identical marks a trademark owner co-exists with, the more difficult enforcement actions can become. In the case of Mr. T, Leafly should be asking why Mr. T can co-exist with these other identifying marks but not the MRT mark on its website.

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.

Lessons from a Rare Trademark Refusal Reversal

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board issues a trademark refusal reversal only about 10% of the time. So when a trademark refusal reversal occurs it is worth spending some time figuring out what lead to the reversal.

Soletanche Freyssinet applied to register the mark CMC (in standard characters) for “non-metallic underground columns for land stabilization and reinforcement that are fabricated and installed on-site.” The CMC application began with a broader goods description but was narrowed to the current description following a first Office Action. Two of the descriptions included in the original description were “reinforcement rods not of metal” and “non-metallic materials for building.”

The Trademark Office refused registration of Soletanche Freyssinet’s CMC mark based on a prior registered, identical mark CMC (in standard characters) for “full line of metals in sheet, rod, bar, angle, round, beam, castellated beam, cellular beam, flat beam, joist, strip, tube, plate, billet, square, and wire, form.” There were no limitations in the cited CMC mark and Soletanche Freyssinet did not petition to partially cancel the cited CMC mark to have any limitations imposed on the prior registration.

Instead, Soletanche Freyssinet focused on narrowing its identification to the true nature of its goods. In doing so, it introduced a level technicality that would allow the Board to consider evidence instead of relying solely on the words in the description of the goods to decide the relatedness of goods factor. Soletanche Freyssinet offered the declaration of one of its executives who explained the nature of its goods and how they differed from those goods offered under the cited CMC mark.

The Trademark Office did not offer any evidence only argument and speculation. It appears that the Trademark Office continued to argue the descriptions that Soletanche Freyssinet deleted from its application and not the amended description. For example, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board quickly dismissed the argument the rods identified by the cited CMC mark could be used for stabilization just like Soletanche Freyssinet’s non-metallic rods. In reality, the “columns” identified in Soletanche Freyssinet’s application could have been made of non-metallic rods, but the Trademark Office did not offer evidence to establish this fact.

The Trademark Office offered evidence that in a general construction context, beams and columns are used to support other structures. But because Soletanche Freyssinet’s description identified that its columns were “fabricated and installed on-site” the general construction context was irrelevant. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board required the Trademark Office to offer evidence in the relevant context.

Starting broad is still a good filing strategy, but voluntarily narrowing the description if a registration refusal issues is important. When making the amendment, introducing where the goods are sold or services are performed can be helpful. Finally, support the amendment with evidence. The Board, in this case, seemed to look at the declaration from Soletanche Freyssinet to understand why the particular words were used in the amended description.

USPTO’s Strength Decision Supported by Substantial Evidence

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently held that the USPTO’s strength finding was supported by substantial evidence when only 8 third-party registrations with no evidence of use were offered by the trademark applicant. The USPTO refused registration of JS ADL LLC’s ARTISAN NY & Design mark in connection with a variety of clothing items and accessories on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with a prior registered mark for ARTESANO NEW YORK also for a variety of clothing items. The USPTO found that “artesano” is Spanish for “artisan” and JS ADL did not dispute this finding. In doing so, JS ADL’s primary argument was that the words ARTISAN and NEW YORK are so weak that its use of the Spanish word “artesano” and Design element was sufficient to avoid a likelihood of confusion.

To support its argument, in its Office Action response, JS ADL submitted 8 third-party registrations for marks containing the term ARTISAN for various clothing items and accessories. JS ADL actually submitted a total of 10 third-party registrations, but 2 were surnames. JS ADL did not submit any evidence of use for any of these third-party registrations.

The USPTO maintained the registration refusal despite JS ADL’s weakness argument and evidence. Curiously, JS ADL did not submit a Request for Reconsideration and instead chose to simply appeal the USPTO’s decision. To forego a Request for Reconsideration is a gutsy call because the record on appeal is frozen. In other words, all the trademark applicant’s evidence – save for some limited exceptions – must be submitted to during the prosecution of the application. To JS ADL’s credit, the TTAB has not been consistent on whether evidence of use is required in order to establish trademark weakness. Just two months ago, the Board found trademark weakness relying only on third-party registrations, no evidence of use. In this case, it turned out to be a mistake for JS ADL not to submit a Request for Reconsideration.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the USPTO’s registration refusal and JS ADL appealed that decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit reviews the TTAB’s factual findings for substantial evidence. Where there is adequate
and substantial evidence to support either of two contrary
findings of fact, the one chosen by the TTAB is binding on
the Federal Circuit regardless of how the Court might have decided the issue if it had been raised de novo. This makes a reversal on appeal very difficult because the benefit of the doubt favors the Board.

The Federal Circuit agreed with the USPTO that JS ADL’s evidence did not establish that ARTESANO NEW YORK is a weak mark. First, the Court held that evidence purporting to show that the individual components of a composite mark are weak does not necessitate a finding that the combined terms also form a weak mark. Second, JS ADL did not offer any evidence of use for the marks displayed in the third-party registrations. Accordingly, the Federal Circuit affirmed that USPTO’s finding on strength.

Three Tips for Reviewing Search Results with Broad Descriptions

The USPTO’s Acceptable Identifications Manual has been a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because trademark applicants can find pre-approved goods or services description that accurately covers their actual goods or services, which eliminates one potential Office Action (i.e., registration refusal) the Trademark Office could issue against a pending trademark application. However, the Trademark Office has pre-approved some very broad descriptions.

In the software context, two of the broad descriptions are “computer software consultancy” and “downloadable software development kits (SDK).” These descriptions cover many fields for and functionality of the actual software. In the advertising context, there is a description of “advertising services.” This too covers a lot of ground. Nevertheless, trademark applicants routinely use these descriptions. In fact, a majority of trademark attorneys start with a pre-approved description and resort to crafting a manual description only if no legitimate option from the Acceptable Identifications Manual exists.

As trademark searchers, we know that the Trademark Office’s likelihood of confusion analysis is limited to the goods and services descriptions used in the application. And we also know that we need to use broad descriptions when we search even though this strategy may return a significant number of results to review. Here are three tips for reviewing results that include broad descriptions like “advertising services”:

  1. Look at the marks first. If the marks are similar, then look at the goods or services descriptions.
  2. If the goods or services descriptions are broad, then search the Internet to determine what goods or services the trademark owner is actually offering.
  3. If the goods or services the trademark owner is actually offering are similar to what you or your client is offering, put that mark in the “no” column. However, if the actual goods or services are different than what you or your client is offering, then put that mark in the “yes” column with an asterisk. The caveat is that the broad description used by the prior trademark owner may illicit an Office Action from the Trademark Office, but it may be overcome with a petition for partial cancellation to narrow the broad description to the marketplace reality.

Brand Name for Hemp Products May Be Protected

The United States Patent and Trademark Office recently announced that it will accept trademark applications for hemp-based products. This is a departure from last year when we discussed strategies for brand name owners to secure some trademark protection for any cannabis-based product. Last year, all products containing any part of the cannabis plant were illegal under federal because marijuana was on the federal list of controlled substances.

The 2018 Farm Bill changed the definition of marijuana to exclude hemp. Many people may not know that hemp and marijuana are different. While both plants contain cannabinoids, hemp contains a very low concentration of THC (0.3% or less) whereas marijuana contains concentrations of THC ranging from 15% – 40%. THC is the cannabinoid that induces psychoactive effects and gives the sensation of the user getting “high.”

But before every hemp producer gets too excited about this recent development and rushes to the Trademark Office to register all their brand names, a word to the wise. Make sure you can substantiate that your product satisfies the definition of hemp. In other words, your products contain no more than 0.3% of THC.

With marijuana still on the federal list of controlled substances, it is highly likely that that the Trademark Office will want to ensure that the marks being registered are used with hemp, not marijuana-based products. The Trademark Office will pursue this inquiry by issuing a Request for Information.

The examining attorney may ask questions designed to obtain specific information that is factual in nature from the applicant. The examining attorney may also request literature, exhibits, affidavits or declarations, and general information concerning circumstances surrounding the mark, as well as, if applicable, its use or intended use.  Requests for information that is not public knowledge, but is within the knowledge of the applicant or available to the applicant, are particularly appropriate.  

A trademark applicant has a duty to participate in the examination process by responding directly and completely to each request for information. Failing to respond or to properly respond can result in the abandonment of the application to register the brand name.