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A Disclaimer for Disclaimers at the USPTO

Posted in Goodwill, Loss of Rights, Trademarks, USPTO

You know that feeling when you’ve nearly crossed the finish line? You have done the work, put in the time, and the only step left is to run through the tape.

There can be similar moments with trademark applications, too. Admittedly, it may not be as exciting for other people, but I certainly enjoy it. But one situation frequently arises where there is just one small thing to take care of. The attorney (or owner) will get a call or an e-mail from the Examining Attorney with a brief introduction and then, “Everything appears to be in order with the application, we just need you to enter a disclaimer of the term _______.”

That’s it! Just need to say “Okay” and your mark will be published and, if no third-party objects, you’re on the fast track to having a shiny new trademark registration.

After successfully navigating the application process, you may just want to say “Okay” so you can finally run through that tape. But before you do, make sure you understand the fine print.

Under Section 6 of the Lanham Act, the Trademark Office may require a disclaimer of any “unregistrable component” of an otherwise registrable mark. The disclaimer will appear on the Certificate of Registration. For example, if you’ve registered the mark BOONDOGGLE RESTAURANT for restaurant services, disclaiming RESTAURANT, the Certificate will state “No claim is made to the exclusive right to use ‘RESTAURANT’, apart from the mark as shown.” As a result, the owner makes a statement of public record that this portion of the mark is merely descriptive.

This can make it difficult to enforce rights in trademark against third-party marks who share that disclaimed term. If you attempt to enforce your trademark against a third-party, they’ll be able to quickly determine if you have disclaimed any portion of the mark. If you have, that may provide the third-party with a reasonable basis to kindly ask that you check the sturdiness of that sand over there.

While it is not impossible, there must be some other element of the mark that is similar to your mark. For example, Purina Dog Food (owned by Nestle S.A.)  successfully opposed registration of the mark WAGGIN’ STRIPS (disclaiming STRIPS) based upon their prior rights in the mark BEGGIN’ STRIPS (disclaiming STRIPS). In addition to sharing the disclaimed term STRIPS, the marks also shared a similar structure and similar sound and therefore the Board found a likelihood of confusion. (decision available here).

Disclaimer practice makes sense for our Boondoggle Restaurant. The term RESTAURANT has no source identifying function in relation to restaurant services; it is generic. In these situations, agreeing to the disclaimer is a simple and easy .

However, disclaimers are also required for descriptive terms. And, as we’ve discussed, there is a fine line dividing descriptive wording from suggestive wording. The determination is also very subjective. While a term may be descriptive to one Examining Attorney, a different Examining Attorney might consider the term suggestive without a second thought. Like all people, Examining Attorneys are not infallible. The Examining Attorney might misunderstand your goods or services, could be having an off day, or maybe they have a heightened opinion of what qualifies as a descriptive term. Regardless, once you enter that disclaimer, it is there in the public record and can’t be swept under the rug.

Accordingly, the next time you receive a disclaimer request, take a second before you run through the tape. Ask yourself whether the term really is descriptive. Would you be comfortable with your competitors using the term? Why did you choose it? Is there a reasonable basis to assert that the term is suggestive?

Rather than take the easy way out, it may be worthwhile to invest in the time to prepare a response to the office action, arguing against the disclaimer. While it may add some extra cost on the front end, failing to explore this option can harm the strength of your trademark, which you may regret down the road.