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The Sweet Smell of Registration

Posted in Non-Traditional Trademarks, Smell, USPTO

Last year we took a whiff of Hasbro’s application to register the smell of its Play-Doh® for “toy modeling compounds.” We didn’t think the application was ripe for a functionality refusal, but a refusal on the ground of a lack of acquired distinctiveness seemed like a certainty.

An Office Action issued on May 26th, 2017, refusing the application on the ground of a lack of acquired distinctiveness. The Office Action also included a number of Requests for Information to determine whether a functionality should issue, too.

For the uninitiated, a trademark must be distinctive in order to be protectable. Because a scent mark cannot be inherently distinctive, an applicant must establish “acquired distinctiveness,” also known as “secondary meaning,” to obtain a registration. Essentially, acquired distinctiveness means that the claimed mark may not have been a symbol of the source of the goods, but because of advertising, commercial success, publicity, etc., the public has come to recognize the claimed mark as a identifying a particular source for the goods.

For attorneys looking for a good playbook as to how to establish acquired distinctiveness, look no further than Hasbro’s Response, filed on November 27. The Response includes pretty much every piece of evidence that you could ask for.

It included the classics:

  • Sales numbers, more than a billion since 2004 in the U.S.
  • Advertising numbers, $77 million since 2004 in the U.S.
  • Longstanding use, since the year 1956
  • Unsolicited media attention referencing Play-Doh’s “unique and distinctive smell” and its “legendary scent”

It included new hits, like screenshots of social media of consumers talking about the memory of the smell of Play-Doh as a child. It also included “blogs written by experienced attorneys who opine on the source-identifying function and registrability of the applied-for mark.” Looking at those articles, you might even recognize a familiar blog post. No need for any thanks, Hasbro. But on a completely unrelated note, this R2-D2 Play-Doh set looks pretty great. Just saying.

The Response also included the obligatory declaration from a Hasbro head honcho to support these claims. The declarations always have at least one over-the-top assertion that you just can’t help but include. Here, it was the reference that Play-Doh for some people is “as identifiable as their mother’s faces.” Might be a bit of a stretch, not that I’m saying I wouldn’t have included it though. For me, the gem is the strange but unforgettable fact that since 1956 more than 950 million pounds of Play-Doh had been sold. If only it had included a reference as to how big that Play-Doh boulder would be.

And yes, the Response even included the coveted, but not always available “look for advertising”:

I’m not entirely convinced this qualifies as “look for advertising” though. It doesn’t direct consumers to the claimed trademark like a “look for the purple cap!” might do. Just looking at the advertising doesn’t tell me what type of smell I’m looking for. It’s close enough though, and the rest of the evidence is pretty compelling.

So, do you think the evidence was successful? Could the examiner smell what Hasbro was cooking? If you guessed yes, then congrats. The application published on February 27. Now all that is left is to see whether any of Hasbro’s competitors file an opposition to the application.

It’s certainly possible that a competitor might feel that providing Hasbro with ownership of the “scent of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough” might put them at a non-reputational, competitive disadvantage. In theory, it doesn’t seem like granting Hasbro the registration will be problematic, but in practice it will depend upon how broadly Hasbro interprets its rights.

But that may be parting the cart before the horse. Let’s wait and see how the next 35 days go before we start talking enforcement.