A good general business practice is to apply to register trademarks early. You’ll find out if there is an issue. You’ll have time to change rather than having to take everything off the shelf under the threat of a lawsuit. Yet a recent decision from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in New York Yankees Partnership v. IET Products and Services, Inc. presents a good example of when you’re better off avoiding the application process all together.  It also raises some interesting questions in light of the B&B Hardware ruling (doesn’t everything these days?)

At issue were two applications, a standard character mark for the phrase THE HOUSE THAT JUICE BUILT along with a design logo of a syringe wearing an Uncle Sam hat (shown below, left). Both applications identified apparel and baseball caps. The New York Yankees opposed, asserting claims of likelihood of confusion, false association, and dilution by blurring based upon prior rights in the phrase THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT along with the logo of a baseball bat wearing an Uncle Sam hat (shown below, right).

Combined Juice Logos

In case you’re not up to date on your slang, “juice” is hip way to reference steroids. So when you hear that an athlete is “juicing,” it’s likely a reference to allegations or admissions that the athlete has used steroids (although there’s an outside chance they recently purchased a new blender).  A discussion of the steroids problem in baseball could fill a number of pages (enough for a congressional report, perhaps). While the problem was rampant among players for all teams, some of the most well-known players during the steroid era played for the New York Yankees, including Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, David Justice, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, and, most recently, Alex Rodriguez.

The applicant’s primary defense was that its marks were a parody of the Yankees logo and stadium nickname, and therefore were protected by Section 43(c)(3) of the Lanham Act, which provides that:

The following shall not be actionable as dilution by blurring . . . any fair use . . . of a famous mark by another person other than as a designation of source for the person’s own goods or services.”

The Board took this opportunity to clarify the case law regarding the use of the parody defense in Trademark Trial and Appeal Board proceedings. In the Board’s 2012 decision of Research in Motion Ltd. v. Defining Presence Marketing Group Inc., the Board had stated that it would “assess an alleged parody as part of the circumstances to be considered for determining whether the [opposer] has made out a claim for dilution by blurring.” In doing so, the Board relied upon the Fourth Circuit decision of Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. Haute Diggity Dog, LLC.

The Board reasoned that because the Lanham Act’s fair use defense is limited to use “other than as a designation of source,” it would be “virtually impossible to conceive of a situation where a parody defense to a dilution claim can succeed in a case before the Board” (But you’re saying there’s a chance?).  As a result, the Board rejected the defense and found the applied-for marks to be likely to dilute the Yankees’ marks.

The case was submitted on brief on June 12, 2014, well before the B&B Hardware decision. Yet the Board did not issue its decision until nearly a year later on May 8, 2015, approximately a month and a half after the Supreme Court issued the B&B Hardware ruling. In light of this timing, the B&B decision may not have played a role in the outcome of this decision.

However, it is worth noting that the Board declined to reach the Yankees’ likelihood of confusion claim, instead issuing a ruling on the claim of dilution by blurring. It is often the reverse, because the evidentiary standards involved in a claim of a likelihood of confusion claim are easier to meet than the standards for a dilution claim. This is particularly true with respect to the evidentiary showing required to establish fame for dilution. In light of B&B Hardware, will the Board be more likely to abstain from reaching likelihood of confusion claims in the future?

Also, the Board seemed to make a concerted effort to identify the facts and issues which it did not consider in reaching its decision. The result is that if the Yankees sue the applicant for trademark infringement, the applicant need not be concerned about a preclusive ruling from the Board regarding likelihood of confusion or the applicability of the parody defense to the claim of dilution.

It appears that the Board may be taking care to provide clear guidance on the issues that were (and weren’t) decided.  While we’ve certainly been critical of the B&B decision on this blog, perhaps there is a silver lining after all.