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A Zero Sum Game in the Trademark World?

Posted in Advertising, Articles, Branding, Genericide, Loss of Rights, Marketing, Product Packaging, SoapBox, USPTO

We’ve had a lot of nothing — meaning zero, and the trademark meaning, if any, of zero — on our mind lately, so imagine my surprise to see this soap “brand” for the first time last week in a hotel:

Not sure how to pronounce it, but as we know, there really is no “correct” way to pronounce a trademark, so it could be Zero, or perhaps a telescoped version of Zero Percent, who knows?

What we do know for sure is that neither Zero nor Zero Percent functions as an inherently distinctive trademark to identify, distinguish, and indicate a single source of this body collection:

Why Applicant’s Mark is Deemed Descriptive

“Applicant seeks to register the designation “ZERO%” for bath soaps in liquid solid and gel form; Body lotions; Hair shampoos and conditioners; Shower Gel.” Had applicant not applied under 1(a) and submitted specimens of use consisting of the bottles for shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel and hair 2 in 1, the mark would likely not have been seen as descriptive.

However the specimen bottles show graphically just what “ZERO%” describes about the applicant’s product. On each bottle is the following legend, explaining the mark:

 “ZERO sulfates

 ZERO parabens

 ZERO phthalates

 ZERO artificial colours

 ZERO animal testing”        

Thus it appears that “ZERO%” refers to the ingredients that are NOT present in applicant’s soaps and hair care and body lotion and shower gel products.  Sulfates and parabens have long been regarded as suspect with respect to human skin. Testing on animals is considered cruel. The ZERO% describes a certain purity in applicant’s products and a certain ethical sensibility about not making money from suffering animals.

In a parallel situation Diet Coke did very well when Coca Cola produced a ZERO caffeine soda, with, of course, zero calories.  Both caffeine and calories are enemies of healthful ingestion.

Applicant is applying the same logic to its toiletries and hair care products. This is to be applauded, however, the mark chosen, “ZERO%,” even without benefit of an explanation on every bottle, would have to have referred to SOMEthing about the goods. “ZERO%” of what? would be the logical question. And there is the answer, front and center, on the bottle.

Another way to look at this is: if using the name of an ingredient of the goods is descriptive use, then surely using a term that indicates the absence of unhealthy or unethical ingredients would also be descriptive.

Two major reasons for not protecting descriptive marks are (1) to prevent the owner of a descriptive mark from inhibiting competition in the marketplace and (2) to avoid the possibility of costly infringement suits brought by the trademark or service mark owner.  In re Abcor Dev. Corp., 588 F.2d 811, 813, 200 USPQ 215, 217 (C.C.P.A. 1978); TMEP §1209.  Businesses and competitors should be free to use descriptive language when describing their own goods and/or services to the public in advertising and marketing materials.  See In re Styleclick.com Inc., 58 USPQ2d 1523, 1527 (TTAB 2001).”

This descriptiveness refusal might be the most conversational and empathetic explanation I’ve seen over the course of my trademark career. Nicely done, USPTO Examining Attorney Jill C. Alt.

More than 6 years ago, Applicant Gilchrist & Soames, accepted the Examining Attorney’s invitation to amend to the Supplemental Register, for marks only “capable” of becoming distinctive.

In most cases, the attentive owner of a Supplemental Registration, in use for 5 consecutive years, already would have filed for Principal Registration, arguing in favor of acquired distinctiveness.

Gilchrist & Soames hasn’t (yet), and given what Zero has evolved to mean, will the noted parallel to Coca Cola’s Zero soda, cleanse zero to mean “incapable” of trademark status as a soap type?


In terms of zero sum games, in the trademark world, even if Zero and Zero Percent turn out to be generic, perhaps Gilchrist & Soames gained more in marketing than they would lose in trademark.

As we share another Labor Day together on DuetsBlog, we’re thankful for the emotional labor of those on this journey with us, and we hope you agree this effort is a win-win, no zero sum game.