In the United States, trademark rights are created through use in commerce not registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. This is why all new businesses or current businesses launching a new product are advised to pay for comprehensive searches. But even an expensive, comprehensive search is incapable of finding every possible threat to a proposed trademark. And here is why, the amount of use in commerce required to establish trademark rights in the United States, assuming the mark is inherently distinctive, is not as much as the average trademark searcher would think. In fact, the required amount of use in commerce is much lower.
This was an issue the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board addressed recently in Dexas International, Ltd. v. Ideavillage Products Corp. Ideavillage Products applied to register the mark SNACKEEZ DUO for beverageware and food containers. Dexas International opposed the registration of Ideavillage Products’ mark on the ground that it was likely to cause confusion with its common law mark SNACK-DUO for food and drink containers.
Ideavillage Products filed its SNACKEEZ DUO application on December 5, 2014 on an intent-to-use basis. Dexas International made the first sale of its SNACK-DUO food and drink container in January 2015, but claimed its trademark rights began in July 2014 based on the interstate shipment of two samples bearing the SNACK-DUO mark to a retailer.
It is well settled that use of a mark in a manner analogous to technical trademark use may furnish a valid basis for claiming priority and maintaining an opposition. Thus, even before proper trademark use in commerce commences, advertising or similar pre-sale activities may establish priority if they create the necessary association in the mind of the consumer. There is specific percentage or number of consumers required to associate the mark with the goods based on the pre-sale activity. Rather, the United States Court of Appeals has simply said that it must be:
more than insubstantial and more than negligible.
As you can imagine, what this means has been decided on a case-by-case basis, and often times requires a very fact intensive inquiry because priority is critical to bringing and maintaining an infringement lawsuit in District Court or proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
In the Ideavillage case, the Board found that the two samples served a commercial purpose because the retailer eventually placed several more orders for the product. Therefore, the Board found that the priority date for the SNACKEEZ DUO mark was July 2014.
As a trademark searcher, if you were searching a mark similar to the SNACKEEZ DUO mark in 2014, there is no way you would have found Ideavillage’s mark. While the decision talks about other pre-sales activity Ideavillage engaged in, it does not say when these activities occurred. It is precisely because the level of use in commerce necessary to establish trademark rights is so low, that no trademark search, irrespective of its price, is capable of finding every possible conflict with a proposed mark. But the place a trademark searcher must absolutely search is the United States Patent and Trademark Office.