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.

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.