I write today regarding a squirrelly thought: are the benefits of registering a hashtag trademark almost always outweighed by the consequences? In light of a recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) ruling and the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure’s (“TMEP”) provisions, hashtag marks offer much less protection than traditional character-based marks, such that the latter are preferable in most situations.
We’ve all seen hashtag words and phrases (without spaces between the words) in social media, most commonly on Twitter–but also now on other sites, such as Facebook and Instagram. By affixing a hash symbol (#) to a word or phrase in a post, users can garner attention, join in a movement, and possibly “go viral.” Popular recent trending examples are #MeToo and #TakeAKnee. And of course, who could forget:
Hashtags serve filtering, identifying, and promoting functions that have commercial advertising value. Thus, it is no surprise that hundreds of individuals and companies have applied for trademarks on “hashtag marks,” seeking to control the use of certain hash-preceded words and phrases. In fact, at the time of writing, there are over 1,900 such registrations. Hashtags are hip, and everyone wants one–or so they think.
In 2016, the USPTO added TMEP § 1202.18, which explains when “hashtag marks” may be registered:
A mark consisting of or containing the hash symbol (#) or the term HASHTAG is registrable as a trademark or service mark only if it functions as an identifier of the source of the applicant’s goods or services. . . . Generally, the hash symbol and the wording HASHTAG do not provide any source-indicating function because they merely facilitate categorization and searching within online social media . . . .Therefore, the addition of the term HASHTAG or the hash symbol (#) to an otherwise unregistrable mark typically will not render it registrable.
Recently, the TTAB applied this rule and other doctrines, holding that the addition of hashtags usually do nothing to make a mark distinctive. In the case, the TTAB rejected singer Will.I.Am’s application for a hashtag mark for #WILLPOWER because it was too similar to other registered marks containing”willpower,” and the hash symbol had no source-indicating distinctiveness, merely operating as a metadata tag for social media platforms.
The TTAB decision and TMEP provisions greatly narrow the registrability of hashtag marks, as well as their enforcement scope, such that it seems as if there is very little upside to applying for such a mark in most circumstances. An applicant does not need to register an otherwise-registrable mark as a hashtag mark in order to protect the mark if hashed. In such cases, a hashtag registration provides no more protection than a traditional character registration; the hash adds no additional layer of distinctiveness, just as it would not lend distinctiveness to an unregistrable word or phrase. Thus, an applicant should only apply for a hashtag mark in instances in which the non-hashed word or phrase lacks distinctiveness without the hash. If there is a case to be made for a traditional mark, the applicant should pursue that mark instead because traditional marks can be enforced more broadly.
If an applicant applies, however, only for a hashtag mark, then non-distinctiveness absent the hashtag will work to preclude the registrant from enforcing the mark in non-hashed situations. Even if the hashtag mark could be a mark on its own without the hash, the fact that the hashtag mark is either the first or only mark could result in a presumption against non-hashed distinctiveness–after all, why apply for a hashtag mark at all in such circumstances? It may also be more difficult to prove that non-hashed phrases, which in their non-hashed form are separated by spaces, infringe the hashtag mark. Imagine, for example, two competing phrases (the first example of which is a registered hashtag mark):
Life of a Busy Executive
If the hash provides the distinctiveness for the first example (and perhaps in tandem with the lowercase and squished text), then presumably the second phrase without the hash (and with spaces) would not tread on that distinctiveness, working against a showing of consumer confusion and infringement. Of course, the holder of the hashtag mark could prevent identical use by competitors in commerce, but not similar non-hashed uses.
Emerging trademark law teaches that hashtag marks are extremely narrow–intentionally so–and as we’ve discussed before, hashtag marks are also greatly susceptible to fair use defenses. There appear to be few upsides to seeking such marks, at least without first trying for a traditional mark. So although trademark commentary as of late has focused on the trendiness of obtaining a hashtag mark, the more important question is whether it is worth doing so. In most cases, the answer will probably be “no.”