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Thinking Outside Section 2(d) Refusals

Posted in Articles, Infringement, Loss of Rights, Trademark Bullying, Trademarks, TTAB, USPTO

Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act is the statutory basis for refusing registration based on likelihood of confusion with another mark. It is invoked on an ex parte basis by USPTO Examining Attorneys, and it is also raised in the context of inter partes cases between adversaries.

When an applicant seeking to register its mark is refused registration based on Section 2(d), it is not uncommon for applicant’s counsel to immediately argue for coexistence, explaining all the reasons why no likelihood of confusion exists, and sometimes that strategy will work.

My preference is to pause after receiving the refusal, to assess the strength of the refusal, to examine the cited mark and registration or application, to consider the relative priority positions, and determine the real necessity for and consequences of arguing no likelihood of confusion.

For example, if it could be determined that the cited registration is actually “deadwood,” the mark no longer in use and abandoned, wouldn’t it be better to hit the pause button on the refusal while the deadwood registration is removed through the filing of a petition to cancel?

Using this approach could prevent the narrowing of applicant’s trademark rights and protect the applicant from taking public positions that could be used against it by adversaries in a future enforcement matter. This strategy is frequently used by sophisticated trademark counsel.

What if the cited prior registration is not “deadwood” though, and the applicant actually has priority of use — if so, and the cited registration is not yet five years old, then it’s fair to ask why arguing for coexistence makes any sense at all, at least as an opening strategy.

Many experienced trademark attorneys with those facts would recognize the leverage given by the refusal and, at a minimum, reach out to counsel for the owner of the cited mark to discuss the multitude of options available to applicant as the senior user of the mark in question.

A tool infrequently used by trademark counsel is the option of a petition for partial cancellation, by invoking the remedy found in Section 18 of the Trademark Act. This can be a powerful tool when an applicant lacks priority and/or the cited registration is more than 5 years old.

Under Section 18, the TTAB may modify or partially cancel a cited registration by limiting and narrowing the specified goods or services. This can be a particularly powerful tool, when an applicant’s options are otherwise quite limited, without priority, or if facing an old registration.

To properly employ this tool, applicant’s counsel must plead and prove that the proposed narrowing in the cited registration would avoid a likelihood of confusion, and that the proposed narrowing of the goods/services description is consistent with the actual marketplace usage.

Think of it as a way to narrow a blocking registration enough to allow for coexistence of applicant’s mark on the Principal Register — it is a way to cure the problem of an over-broad registration, making room for your client’s pending application, if the facts support coexistence.

Even if an applicant may not have the appetite for seeing a Section 18 petition for partial cancellation through to conclusion, it can be a powerful attention-getting device that may level the playing field and spur a dialogue between the parties to explore the possibility of consent.

On a related note, in the context of possible strategies ripe for an applicant whose mark has been opposed by a registration owner having an over-broad description of goods/services, you may recall that we wondered out loud whether Section 18 might become a creative solution:

“I’m looking more forward to hearing about what in-house, corporate trademark counsel think about the decision and how it will influence their trademark enforcement strategies. . . .

But, in the meantime, what no one seems to be talking about (yet) is how the Supreme Court’s B&B Hardware decision might impact the lingering concerns surrounding trademark bullying. (I haven’t seen anyone talking about Section 18 counterclaims as a creative response strategy either, but we’ll save that topic for another day).

Although trademark bullying concerns were not before the Supreme Court, it seems likely this decision scored a victory for those who might fall into the category of trademark bullies. And, as you may recall, a couple of years ago, the Supreme Court didn’t allow trademark bullying concerns to influence its interpretation of the laws in question there: Supreme Court Upholds Nike’s Promise to “Break the Wrist, and Walk Away”.”

To the extent you’re in the Twin Cities or can get here fast, we’ll explore this topic more in tomorrow’s continuing legal education program called “Mastering U.S. Trademark Registration Practice,” during my session at 2:35 PM session entitled: “Strategic Use of Trademark Trial and Appeal Board Proceedings to Advance Trademark Registration Goals.

We hope to see you there, for details on registration, here is the link to the Minnesota Continuing Legal Education site. If you can’t make it tomorrow, the video replay of tomorrow’s live session is Monday March 7, 2016.