The grocery aisles are fertile grounds for my keyboard, as you know. And, while I’m generally far more interested in coffee grounds than tea leaves (unless we’re speaking of the iced variety or reading between the lines of court decisions), the above shown box of tea bags caught my eye.
What initially captured my interest is the large yet engaging lower case branding of the word “steep” followed by the diminutive signature line “by BIGELOW” in all caps.
Given the descriptive character of the visually-emphasized word “steep” in connection with tea, and the “by” signature line of the well-known BIGELOW tea brand, my instincts told me a USPTO search would reveal a crowded field of marks containing STEEP, likely fueling my assumption that “steep” couldn’t be owned as a trademark for tea standing alone.
Turns out, STEEP was federally-registered back in 2004, for tea (as a single word mark with no style limitations), pursuant to an apparent showing of acquired distinctiveness under Section 2(f) of the Lanham Act, but the registration expired in 2010 and was cancelled under Section 8 of the Lanham Act in 2010, making way for the crowded field I imagined.
It also turns out, there is more to the story than I have time today to turn over every tea leaf of this one: The apparent principal behind the expired registration is back at the USPTO with a new STEEP application, claiming continuous use of STEEP for tea since 1994.
The irony is that the STEEP BY BIGELOW registration (first use in 2015) is now barring registration of the new STEEP application, here is the recent likelihood of confusion refusal.
So, I’ll leave you with a few questions that come to mind.
First, what’s the next move for the STEEP applicant?
And, looking back in time, did Bigelow add the signature line underneath the prominent use of “steep” to facilitate registration of STEEP BY BIGELOW and perhaps reduce the perceived risk of a trademark conflict with the prior registrant of STEEP for tea?
If so, will Bigelow regret not volunteering a disclaimer of the descriptive word “steep” since the USPTO oddly didn’t ask for one?
Assuming there are prior common law rights in STEEP and Bigelow wants to explain the lack of a disclaimer, might it point to the unitary mark theory?
Better yet, will the ineffective opposition (filed by the apparent principal of the prior registrant of STEEP) bar a future petition to cancel STEEP BY BIGELOW (to clear the path for re-registration of STEEP standing alone)?
If there are, in fact, prior common law rights in STEEP and the principal behind the STEEP application finds a way to federal court, has Bigelow relinquished a classic fair use defense in making “steep” part of its trademark use?
Finally, if risk avoidance is the goal (hoping for a steep slide into neutralizing a likelihood of confusion claim), might it be more effective to play with the meaning of the marks element of a likelihood of confusion claim, perhaps by adding graphic elements that invite other meanings of “steep” as compared to the more obvious one for tea?