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After Battles for Fees, Victory for Comic Con and (partially) Grumpy Cat

Posted in Agreements, Articles, Civil Procedure, Famous Marks, Infringement, Law Suits, Product Packaging, Sight, Trademarks

The battle for attorneys’ fees after an intense trademark dispute often leaves many prevailing parties empty handed. This is because the Lanham Act only provides for attorneys’ fees in “exceptional cases.” Congress’s (and courts’) reluctance to award attorneys’ fees stems from the “American Rule,” which provides that each party to a lawsuit is responsible for paying its own fees–unless a statute provides otherwise. But the Lanham Act erects a high bar to obtaining fees by requiring that the case be “exceptional.”

On the one hand, trademark owners should not have to fully shoulder the burden of what often turns into expensive litigation just to enforce their rights. Indeed, the estimated cost of protecting one’s rights can dramatically affect the calculus of whether to sue for infringement in the first place. But on the other hand, trademark violations are sometimes debatable and unclear. In such circumstances, the American Rule provides some protection to litigants who would otherwise be discouraged from seeking redress due to the risk that they might have to pay the defendant’s fees in the end if they lose. Thus, the Lanham Act strikes a balance, providing for reimbursement in cases of brazen and clear infringement–or brazen and clear abuse of the litigation process–while retaining the benefits the American Rule otherwise provides.

The Lanham Act’s fee provision has come up recently in two high-profile trademark cases: one involving Comic Con (reported on previously here and here), the other meme-famous Grumpy Cat (also reported on previously here). But the result was legally different in both cases, with Comic-con obtaining millions in fees under the Lanham Act, while Grumpy Cat obtained nothing under the Act, but recovered nevertheless pursuant to a contract between her and the infringer. What explains the different results?

Comic-con: The Comic Con (short for “comic book convention”) dispute began when the San Diego Comic Con sued the Salt Lake Comic Con for infringing on San Diego’s “Comic-Con” trademarks. The San Diego convention was one of the first comics-fan conventions.  And it is the largest convention of its kind, drawing more than 130,000 attendees each year. Salt Lake’s convention began in 2013, but it has quickly grown to over 120,000 attendees. Thus, it is probably no surprise that San Diego took exception to Salt Lake’s competing event and use of the same “Comic Con” name–though, as my colleague Jessica Alm pointed out, there are many other conventions across the United States using the same name.

San Diego Comic Con sued Salt Lake Comic Con for infringement. But despite the seemingly-debatable nature of the dispute (because the name could be generic, and it would be difficult to prove consume confusion), less than a year ago a jury determined that Salt Lake was liable for infringement in the amount of $20,000. Thereafter, San Diego moved for fees in the amount of $5 million–a little disproportionate, one would think (but perhaps not in view of San Diego’s requested $12 million in damages).

The district court judge granted $3.9 million. The reasons? Salt Lake repeatedly disregarded court rules, violated confidentiality rules, squandered judicial resources by relitigating issues, based arguments on irrelevant law, and attempted to bias the jury during the trial. The judge felt that the case stood out from others due to the “unreasonable manner it was litigated.” Expect an appeal on the $20,000:$3.9 million ratio.

Grumpy Cat: The Grumpy Cat dispute began when Grenade Beverage LLC, which had licensed Grumpy Cat’s trademarks (names and likenesses) to be used in trade dress and advertising for a new line of iced coffee products called “Grumppuccinos,” also used the marks in connection with a new coffee bean product without Grumpy Cat’s permission. Like the Comic Con litigation, the parties also litigated this case for three years. In addition, a jury awarded Grumpy Cat over $700,000–much more than San Diego Comic Con. But only $1 of that was for breach of the licensing agreement.

But unlike the Comic Con litigation, a federal judge recently denied Grumpy Cat’s request for approximately $320,000 in fees under the Lanham and Copyright Acts. The judge did, however, granted Grumpy Cat fees under the licensing agreement with Grenade Beverage–though, the judge said that there needs to be additional briefing on how much in fees can be awarded under the contract. Central to the judge’s decision on the Lanham Act fees issue was the fact that Grenade Beverage had not acted frivolously or in bad faith when they adopted an interpretation of the licensing agreement that entitled them to use Grumpy Cat’s marks in a line of Grumpy-Cat- branded “coffee products,” rather than just iced coffee. This reasonable difference of opinion–and, presumably, reasonable litigation behavior throughout the case–did not make out “exceptional” circumstances justifying fees under the Lanham Act.

In general, the Comic Con and Grumpy Cat cases provide two high-level teachings when it comes to fees. First, it is important to choose professional counsel, make reasonable litigation decisions, and take good faith positions throughout the course of a case. Otherwise, that conduct in and of itself may make the case “exceptional,” putting you on the hook. Second, attorneys’ fees provisions in a licensing agreement can serve as a helpful back-up if the Lanham Act fees request fails. But in providing for such fees, one should consider whether it is truly advantageous in the circumstances to remove the American Rule’s protections. That requires some thought…I need a Grumppuccino.

P.S. In April, I wrote about the USPTO’s attempt to obtain attorneys’ fees when it prevails in district court patent litigation. The Federal Circuit rejected this attempt, stating “the American Rule prohibits courts from shifting attorneys’ fees from one party to another absent a ‘specific and explicit’ directive from Congress. The phrase ‘[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings’ [in 35 U.S.C. § 145] falls short of this stringent standard.”