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Trader Joe’s Takes on Trademark “Schmo”

Posted in Articles, Branding, Dilution, Fair Use, Famous Marks, First Amendment, Food, Infringement, Law Suits, Mixed Bag of Nuts, Sound, Squirrelly Thoughts, Trademarks, TTAB, USPTO

In recent USPTO news, Trader Joe’s, the supermarket chain known for its eclectic and unique foodstuffs, recently filed an opposition to registration of the mark “Trader Schmo,” which is described as designating a wide variety of Kosher foods. Understandably, Trader Joe’s took issue with the mark, and particularly its use in the food category. The company instituted an opposition (which I cannot help but note is #999,999), arguing that “Trader Schmo” will confuse consumers because consumers will naturally switch “Joe’s” with “Schmo,” given the popular phrase “Joe Schmo.”

This is not the first time Trader Joe’s has taken legal action to protect its brand. Notably, just a couple years ago the company sued “Pirate Joe’s,” a counterfeiter with a backstory almost too unbelievable to be true. Pirate Joe’s was a “rebel Canadian grocery operation,” which bought Trader Joe’s products in the United States and “smuggle[d] them across the border to Vancouver” to sell them. Pirate Joe’s eventually ran aground under the immense pressure of its legal fees.

Pirate Joe’s Comes Crashing Down, Credit: Georgia Straight

This new dispute reminds me of the famous “Dumb Starbucks” experiment by comedy TV series Nathan For You. Over one weekend in 2014, the show opened a coffee shop that looked just like a real Starbucks, except that its name and every drink it sold was preceded by the word “dumb.” The comedian behind the prank (or “art“) claimed that “Dumb Starbucks” was permissible fair use because both the use of the Starbucks mark, as well as the store itself, was one big parody. One cannot help but notice some parallels to Trader Schmo; the latter word refers to a hypothetical “dumb” person.

Comedian Nathan Fielder, Credit: New Yorker

Dumb Starbucks and Trader Schmo raise difficult questions about permissible comedic use under trademark law. On the one hand, the marks free ride on the notoriety of other marks, bringing attention. On the other, it seems unlikely the marks would cause actual consumer confusion, making them harmless jokes. Whether Trader Schmo runs afoul of the Lanham Act will likely depend on two major inquiries: (1) whether it constitutes infringement or dilution, and (2) whether statutory fair use defenses apply.

InfringementPreviously on this blog, I explained that infringement usually centers on likelihood of confusion, which is evaluated using a variety of factors:

whether the use is related, the strength of the mark, proximity of the use, similarities of the marks, evidence of actual confusion, marketing channels employed, the degree of care likely to be exercised by consumers, the user’s intent in selecting the mark, and the likelihood of expansion of product/service lines.

The factors could support a finding of infringement here. The uses are related (food). The strength of the Trader Joe’s mark rides the line between arbitrary and fanciful to descriptive; who is Trader Joe in the abstract, and what does he sell? Surely the marks are similar…sounding. But on the other hand, would an average Joe really mistake Trader Schmo for Trader Joe’s? As a counter, though, it seems reasonable to infer that Trader Schmo was selected because it is similar to Trader Joe’s.

Dilution: So there might be infringement. How about dilution? This occurs when the similarity between the accused mark and a famous mark is likely to impair the distinctiveness or reputation of the famous mark. Dilution does not require any actual or likely consumer confusion. Depending on how good Trader Schmo’s Baba Ganoush, Gefilte fish, Matzo ball soup, and Borscht taste, Trader Joe’s could have an argument for dilution–especially if Trader Schmo’s grows large enough to undermine the distinctiveness of Trader Joe’s as a famous brand.

Fair Use: Generally speaking, the fair use provisions for infringement and dilution both require: (1) that the accused mark be used in a descriptive sense and not as a mark, and (2) that use of the accused mark be fair and in good faith. However, fair use does not provide a defense to infringement if there is likelihood of confusion–but we’ll gloss over that for now.

First, Trader Schmo could arguably be descriptive, delineating traded products. And the word ‘schmo’ has Jewish roots, which could describe the Kosher foods the mark designates. On the other hand, Trader Schmo isn’t inherently descriptive in that it actually describes a product or a characteristic or quality (e.g., Vision Center, a store for glasses). And it’s being used as a mark. So fair use might not even apply.

Assuming descriptiveness, the second element (the ‘fair’ aspect of the doctrine of fair use) often implicates the kinds of First Amendment interests that protect parody, satire, and criticism. But there’s no indication that Trader Schmo is intended to comment on Trader Joe’s. Moreover, courts have rejected the idea that a use is “fair” or in good faith if its similarity to a protected mark is deliberately concocted to garner attention. Trader Joe’s could have a good case for that here–just as Starbucks likely had against Dumb Starbucks.

A high-level analysis of the Trader Schmo mark suggests it could constitute infringement or dilution and is not fair use. This conclusion underscores trademark law’s general distaste for humor when it comes to commerce, as opposed to actual social commentary and comparison.