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I have always considered myself to be a creative person. Full disclosure: I’m not claiming that I’ve created anything good, merely that I have created things that exist. Over the years I have made skateboarding movies, played bass and guitar in bands, acted in plays, written and performed sketch comedy, and even acted in an independent (i.e. very low-budget) zombie movie. Unfortunately none of these ever blossomed into a career. I guess it was the classic case of being ahead of your time.

Thankfully these hobbies put me on a path to my current career as an intellectual property attorney. In fact, my first legal venture was obtaining copyrights for my band’s debut (and only) album. I had considered law school as an option but I hadn’t committed by the time I finished my undergraduate studies. To buy time I signed up for a student work visa and moved to London. Thanks to destiny, dumb luck, or both, I found a position in a law firm specializing in trademark law and brand management. It was my first exposure to the practice of law, and I quickly discovered that I had found my future career.

When I’m not in the office, I spend my time playing my guitar, obsessing over baseball (go Twins!), or talking up a band, movie, or television show that has recently impressed me.
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If you have heard of Penn State, you have probably heard the phrase “Happy Valley.” The school, the students, and the media regularly use “Happy Valley” in reference to the school and the surrounding community. The school considers the association so strong that Penn State recently applied to register HAPPY VALLEY as a trademark for clothing – and received a refusal to register.

The Trademark Office examining attorney assigned to the application refused registration on the ground the phrase “Happy Valley” is geographically descriptive. This means that the examining attorney concluded the public will see the phrase simply as describing the geographic area where the school is located. The school’s own website seems to confirm the examining attorney’s concerns, as it describes “Happy Valley” as an “also known as” name for the town, State College.

But don’t worry Penn State fans. The university has a strong chance to overcome the refusals so long as Penn State can demonstrate the HAPPY VALLEY trademark has acquired distinctiveness in the minds of consumers. Marks that may initially be considered geographically descriptive or may become distinctive after sufficient use of the mark in commerce.

For example, use of a trademark for five years or longer may be sufficient to overcome a refusal on this ground. In fact, the examining attorney expressly references this option in the Office Action. Accordingly, chances are good Penn State can overcome this refusal simply by submitting a declaration that the university has used the mark in commerce for more than five years. However, the Trademark Office will also consider other evidence such as widespread advertising efforts, significant sales numbers, and substantial media attention and publicity.

As a fellow alum of a Big Ten university (which university isn’t important), I wanted to provide some assistance in gathering evidence in support of Penn State’s potential claim of acquired distinctiveness for the HAPPY VALLEY trademark.

If you’ve heard of Penn State, you know they receive a lot of publicity for their college sports teams. For example, this ESPN article prominently uses HAPPY VALLEY to refer to Penn State with its headline “Iowa silences No. 5 Penn State in Happy Valley.”

The Penn State wrestling program is also among the best in the country. Historically, the Happy Valley-based wrestling squad has the third-most successful program in the country, with 8 (!!) NCAA national championships , just slightly trailing Iowa’s 23 national championships.

Last, but certainly not least, Penn State can point to a visit last month from the Big Ten Tournament Champions and presumptive NCAA ’s basketball player of the year Megan Gustafson. Yet again Penn State received some great publicity associating the claimed HAPPY VALLEY mark with the University, as media ran with the headline “Iowa Cruises in Happy Valley.”

With all this evidence, Penn State fans should feel good about the likelihood they’ll soon be able to purchase HAPPY VALLEY t-shirts with a ® symbol adjacent to the phrase (exclusively from a licensed retailer). Of course, if they need more evidence, I’m sure I can find some fellow Big Ten organizations that would be happy to add some new headlines in 2019.

They say one Bad Apple can spoil the bunch. But what can a Happy Apple do? It depends on which one you buy, but you’ll want to make sure you’ve got the right Happy Apple.

One Happy Apples brand involves fresh apples, apple cider, and caramel apples.  The other Happy Apple is a cannabis infused drink. Sure, the names are nearly identical, but does the candy apple company have a viable trademark infringement claim against the cannabis drink company? A recent ruling from the Western District of Washington involving this dispute suggests that brand owners may have an uphill battle enforcing their rights against the expanding cannabis industry.

For your consideration, a sample of the companies’ respective products is shown below.

         

The Happy Apple Company sued Tarukino, LLC (the producer of cannabis beverage) and requested a preliminary injunction. Notwithstanding the fact that both companies were using the nearly identical HAPPY APPLE wording, the court denied the request in an order issued January 9, 2019. In denying the request, the court’s reasoning, if adopted by other courts, could make it more difficult for brand owners to enforce their trademarks against cannabis products.

The court acknowledged that “both products are apple-related but the similarities end there.” When evaluating a claim of infringement, courts rely on a number of factors to determine whether there is a likelihood of confusion. In Washington (part of the Ninth Circuit), the courts follow the Sleekcraft factors.

As part of the analysis, courts look at how similar the marks are as they appear in the marketplace. This means even though the parties use HAPPY APPLES and HAPPY APPLE, the court looks at all of the packaging, including the font used, design elements, presence of house marks or company names, and other information. These facts seemed significant to the decision, as the judge concluded:

While they both contain the words “happy apple” they look markedly different. The mark used by Plaintiffs uses a different font and includes a cartoon of a caramel apple. The product sold by Defendants includes a picture containing two arrows, an apple, and the words “cannabis infused”, similar to a coat of arms.

Notably, the court appears to have only focused on the packaging for the caramel apple. Neither the cider nor the fresh apples include a carton of a candy apple. If I’m being honest though, the cartoon apple on the packaging looks like it may have had a bottle or two of the other Happy Apple.

The court also relied heavily on the significant regulation of cannabis products under Washington state law, reasoning:

cannabis-containing beverages can only be distributed and sold by retail stores licensed and regulated by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. These retail stores may only sell marijuana, marijuana concentrates, marijuana-infused products, and marijuana paraphernalia. Defendants’ products and Plaintiffs’ products are not likely to be sold in close proximity to each other, and it is unlikely that a purchaser would mistakenly enter a retail store selling marijuana or marijuana-related products and confuse a cannabis-containing apple beverage with the fresh apples, apple cider, or caramel apples sold by Plaintiffs.

At first glance, it seems that the court may be unfairly narrowing the likelihood of confusion as to whether a consumer might confuse the two products. While such a purchase would certainly qualify as consumer confusion, it is not the only type of consumer confusion. Consumer confusion can also occur if a consumer mistakenly believes that there is some type of connection, sponsorship, or other relationship between the Happy Apple cannabis product and the owner of the HAPPY APPLES brand. For example, whether a consumer might mistakenly believe the apples used to make the cannabis beverage were HAPPY APPLES brand apples.

Perhaps the court concluded the highly regulated nature of the industry and the distinctly different channels of trade were simply enough to avoid a likelihood of confusion, especially when comparing how the marks appear in the marketplace.

However, if the highly regulated nature of cannabis products truly carried the day for the defendant, it does not bode well for other trademark owners. All states that have legalized cannabis in any form have maintained strict regulation on how and where such products can be sold. If other courts adopt this court’s analysis, cannabis company defendants arguably begin any trademark infringement lawsuit with a loaded deck.

Of course, this is only a ruling on a preliminary injunction request, not a ruling of non-infringement. It is also possible the court relied on a number of other factors that simply were not referenced in the order. The HAPPY APPLE mark is not necessarily a strong mark, and certainly not well-known like HERSHEY’S or REESE’S. The term APPLE is either generic or descriptive, depending on the context, and HAPPY may not be entitled to a broad scope of protection.

As the cannabis industry continues to grow, there will undoubtedly be many more lawsuits. This is just one of many data points non-cannabis companies must use to determine where to set their trademark enforcement goal posts, and a data point for cannabis companies to use when evaluating new names and trademarks.

Before we think predictions for 2019, let’s consider the vast ground we’ve covered in 2018:

Wow, I’m exhausted, and these highlights are only a small fraction of what we delivered in 2018.

You may recall, earlier this year, I predicted more informational and failure to function decisions.

As our friend John Welch reported, there were more than a few (here, here, here, here, and here).

Stay tuned, on March 13, in New York City, I’ll be diving deeply into the failure to function topic, among others, at Practicing Law Institute’s Advanced Trademark Law 2019: Current Issues.

In terms of my big trademark prediction for 2019, it will be revealed whether the scandalous bar to federal registration is invalidated, whether or not the Supreme Court agrees to hear Brunetti.

So, what is your big trademark prediction for 2019?

With the holiday season half way over, and Christmas less than a week away, you’re running out of time to bring some holiday cheer to those around you. Luckily, Chipotle, Taco Bell, and Jimmy Dean have your back and they’re ready to help you surprise and delight your food-obsessed friends and family this Christmas.

Perhaps your spouse just can’t get enough burritos from Chipotle? Well, how about Chipotle-branded guacamole, salsa, or tin foil wrapping paper on their gifts?

Or maybe your childhood memories are filled with the scent of a hearty breakfast on Christmas morning at your grandparents’ home. I’m sure your grandma or grandpa would be giddy with excitement when their gift comes wrapped in this sausage scented Jimmy Dean wrapping paper.

If your best friend is more into Taco Bell. You could go all out and build a tower of gifts, with guacamole, cheese, and the rest of the ingredients filling your gift stack wrapped from top (tortilla) to bottom (tortilla).

In today’s age of social media and cable cutting, creative marketing efforts like the above could encourage and deepen brand loyalty among consumers. It’s also a whole lot of free advertising as consumers share this content on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. In fact, the Taco Bell CrunchWrapping paper apparently reached #16 on Amazon Canada’s Best Sellers list before it sold out, so the preliminary results suggest the campaign was a success. With this success, it would not be surprising to see more brands join in on the fun next year, so keep an eye out next November for 12 feet of high definition Arby’s roast beef!

Video games offer a melting pot of intellectual property: trademark law, copyright law, and even patent law all come together in a delicious mix of intangible property. However, not all video game franchises are equal. Few can claim the same level of longevity, success, and nostalgia as Nintendo’s Mario Brothers series.

Among the most popular titles of the franchise is Mario Kart, a game in which characters from the franchise race each other in go karts. The characters repeat catch phrases, seek out power ups (invincibility, speed, etc.) and cartoonish weapons (banana peels, turtle shells, etc.), all with the singular goal of being atop the podium at the end of race. Over its 25+ years of existence, the game has resulted in significant sales, widespread nostalgia, and, unsurprisingly, numerous attempts from others trying to make money off of the characters. But a recent lawsuit in Japan brought media exposure to what might have been the greatest attempt yet to profit off the franchise: real life go-karting in Mario Brothers costumes in the streets of Tokyo.

How fun is that? From what I can tell, riders aren’t allowed to throw things at each other (thanks a lot, safety laws), but this tour would still be great. The attraction even attracted professional race car drivers. You don’t even need to provide your own costume, they’ve got a ton for you to choose from.

Race car drivers weren’t the only people to discover the tour. Nintendo’s lawyers did, too. I’d like to imagine they participated at least once before suing them, if only under the pretense of “fact development.” Nintendo sued and ultimately prevailed on claims of copyright infringement. The company has to pay Nintendo 10 million yen (about US$89,000) and can no longer hand out Mario Brothers character costumes.

It’s hard to quibble with Nintendo’s actions here. The MariCar company intentionally distributed character costumes in order to attract customers.

But what are Mario Kart fans supposed to do now? Well, there will be an official Super Nintendo World opening at Universal Studios Japan ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The theme park will include a Super Mario World featuring Bowser’s castle, Peach’s Castle, and, yes, a “Mario Kart attraction.”

But if you prefer the thrill of participating in likely infringing activities, you can check out the Australia-based MUSHROOM RALLY race event purportedly coming to Denver, soon. Participants will have a chance to battle it out in Las Vegas for the championship race. Ticket prices are yet to be determined and are limited to just 600 participants. I suggest you read the fine print on the refund policy though – just a hunch…

Photo credit: G. Baird

Another Creative Brand Protection event is in the books, thanks to our incredible panel of experts:

  • Karen Brennan, Senior Director, Intellectual Property, Best Buy
  • Anne Hall, Technology Strategy Manager-Life Sciences, University of Minnesota
  • Aaron Keller, Co-Author: The Physics of Brand; Co-Founder Capsule Design
  • Tim Sitzmann, Trademark and Brand Protection Attorney, Winthrop & Weinstine

Their insights and perspective on launching new brands and refreshing mature ones were priceless.

Aaron Keller, Tim Sitzmann, Karen Brennan, Anne Hall (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Anne Hall’s storytelling gifts were on display for all to learn from and enjoy (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Photo credit: G. Baird
Photo credit: G. Baird

Despite tricky last minute weather with a rainy metro area, an engaged audience still joined us.

Photo credit: G. Baird
Photo credit: G. Baird
An engaged audience with excellent questions (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Matt Smyth reading the fine print with encouragement from Kyle Kroll (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Kyle Kroll working the room and sharing the DuetsBlog wealth (Photo credit: G. Baird)

In typical DuetsBlog-style, we avoided legalese, to bring trademark and branding types together.

Photo credit: G. Baird

If there are topics you’d like to have us cover next time, please let us know, we’d love your input!

Yeah, we usually mean this Apple, when we spill digital ink, not today, instead the edible varieties:

Hat tip to Erik Pelton who tweeted about the federal registration of LUDACRISP for fresh apples.

We know something about non-ludicrous trademark protection for apples > First Kiss and Rave.

They are newly minted brands for the MN55 Apple, a cross between HoneyCrisp and MonArk.

As it turns out, Honeycrisp might have been a trademark, but for its inclusion in a plant patent.

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, does that include juris doctors who are into trademarks?

Or, would it be ludicrous for Apple, you know the iPhone XS one, to name a device Honeycrisp?

If only Honeycrisp could be a University of Minnesota apple trademark; Apple still has a chance.

To grasp lessons learned from the Honeycrisp story, and fully digest the Best Buy brand refresh, join us in Minneapolis on Thursday, a few seats remain for our Creative Brand Protection II event:

Winthrop & Weinstine’s Trademark and Brand Protection practice group will host a few hours of trademark and brand protection education, food and drink, and networking!

For the educational portion of the evening, we’ll share valuable insights and guidance for those who love brands and want to learn creative strategies for maximizing their value.

Yours truly, will moderate a panel discussion joined by:

  • Karen Brennan, Senior Director, Intellectual Property, Best Buy
  • Anne Hall, Technology Strategy Manager-Life Sciences, University of Minnesota
  • Aaron Keller, Co-Author: The Physics of Brand; Co-Founder Capsule Design
  • Tim Sitzmann, Trademark and Brand Protection Attorney, Winthrop & Weinstine

The panel will share best practices and creative approaches to both launching new brands and refreshing a mature brand. The panel will develop a robust discussion using the University of Minnesota’s MN55 apple launch and Best Buy’s brand refresh to explore the following themes:

  • Transforming a commodity into a valuable brand
  • Strategies for selecting and owning names and marks
  • Carving a path for global trademark and brand protection
  • Legal considerations for refreshing a brand’s visual identity

Reserve your spot now, space is limited. We hope you will join this lively and informative event!

And, I’ll say it again, if only Honeycrisp was an apple trademark, or an Apple trademark . . . .

In the meantime, since Honeycrisp is generic for fresh edible apples, is this stylization distinctive?

Nope, the pedestrian style is not striking enough to be trademark ownable, contrast Miller’s Lite.

As we move into Week 2 of the NFL, the big clash in North Country is Sunday’s Green Bay Packers – Minnesota Vikings game. All the buzz is whether the second-coming-of-Favre Aaron Rodgers will prevail over the vaunted Vikings defense. But here in my trademark bubble, I’m more interested in the Jacksonville Jaguars versus former Jaguar player Dan Skuta. This isn’t a contract negotiation battle, but instead a dispute over who owns the claimed trademark rights in the word SACKSONVILLE. The dispute is now the subject of a pending opposition at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

In the Notice of Opposition to the team’s application, Skuta claims to have been the first to coin the term “Sacksonville,” back in July of 2015, but his pending application was refused based on a possible likelihood of confusion with the team’s already filed application. He created a Twitter account and hired a graphic designer to create the logo below, which appears on Skuta’s website.

 

In the team’s application to register the claimed #SACKSONVILLE mark, the Jaguars claim a first use date of September 1, 2017.  However, the team has the ability to present evidence of use earlier than the date of first use listed in the application. One article notes that the team has used the phrase as a social media hash tag at least as early as 2013. But in most circumstances, merely using a word as a social media hashtag does not constitute use in commerce.

Unsurprisingly, one local Jacksonville news outlet is skeptical, siding with the team over a “forgettable linebacker . . . who may have been better at anticipating trademark uses than he was at reading offenses.”

It is possible that Skuta may have used the mark in commerce before the team. Skuta hasn’t made his case any easier by including in the logo what appears to be a jaguar skull and the same Jacksonville Jaguar teal color. On top of this, the play on words with “Jacksonville” potentially creates association with the team, too.

It’s a bit of a mess: are there even any trademark rights and, if so, who owns them? It seems the team likely should be the owner, but perhaps they fumbled the rights along the way. We may have to wait for the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to weight in to see who emerges from the scrum with the ball.

PepsiCo recently made waves with its purchase of SodaStream, but the company is now making news in the food business. This time the news is all about Pepsi’s Frito-Lay division, and its mischief making Chester Cheetah and his crunchy, cheesy, Cheetos brand. Pepsi recently sent a cease and desist letter to World Peas, a manufacturer of healthy-ish snack foods and its recent marketing of Peatos brand snacks.

 

What are Peatos exactly? They’re a crunchy snack food made primarily from peas and lentils, but, Peatos are not intended to be a “health food.” The company describes its mission as making “90% of people eat 10% better, not 10% of people eat 90% better.” The goal appears to be: make a snack that is a little bit better for you without sacrificing flavor. Product quality aside though, is Pepsi correct that the PEATOS mark is confusingly similar to the CHEETOS mark?

Courts consider a variety of factors in evaluating whether someone is infringing another’s trademark: do the marks create similar commercial impressions; are the products at issue competitive, similar, or related; how strong are the marks in terms of meaning and commercial strength; are the goods sold through similar channels of trade (i.e., through the same types of stores); and others. The two factors that tend to play the most prominent role are the similarity of the commercial impressions of the marks and the similarity of the goods.

In the Peatos versus Cheetos dispute, many of the factors would favor Pepsi. The goods are competitive (even if one is a bit healthier), both are sold in the grocery stores, and the CHEETOS mark is an arguably famous and strong mark. But even if every single factor but one were to favor Pepsi’s claim of infringement, it would not be enough if the marks are so dissimilar that no confusion is likely. So what do you think, how similar to Cheetos is Peatos?

The only difference in sound is the initial letter P versus the CH sound. Visually, the marks have a few more differences in letters. As far as I’m aware, neither mark has a defined meaning. The PEATO mark has additional meaning of one its ingredients (Pea).

But what about the overall commercial impression of the marks? What is the impression that Peatos will make in the mind of a consumer? For me, the immediate impression is that the product is a Cheeto made from peas. In fact, I can’t imagine that World Peas came up with the name in any other way other than “What should we call a Cheeto made from peas? Oh! Peatos would be a good pun!”

A likelihood of consumer confusion does not require actual consumer confusion. It also does not require that consumers confuse the products themselves, or that a consumer incorrectly think that Pepsi makes Peatos. A likelihood of confusion exists whenever a consumer might mistakenly believe that there is some type of endorsement, connection, or affiliation between the two parties. Given Pepsi’s recent purchase of SodaStream and the general trend toward healthier consumer choices, is it really that much of a leap to imagine a famous brand of snacks extending into a pea-based version of itself?

Setting aside the similarity in the marks, World Peas is actively drawing a connection between Cheetos and Peatos through use of a tiger and a similar color scheme for its bag and logo. The fact that the actual Peatos products look like Cheetos isn’t likely an issue, but it doesn’t help, especially if Pepsi argues a claim of post-sale confusion.

In addition to all this, World Peas makes explicit Cheetos comparisons on its website. Granted, these comparisons likely qualify for a fair use (although the use of the Cheetos logo may be more than necessary). However, when you know you’ll be poking the tiger, do you really need to pull its tail and poke it in the eye too? If the company truly plans on sticking with the Peatos name, it may have been best to not exacerbate Pepsi’s concerns and use a different colored logo, avoid the tiger on the packaging, and maybe not so aggressively market yourself as a healthier version of Cheetos. While Pepsi may have still come knocking, Pepsi would at least have less ammunition for its claims.

I wouldn’t say this a clear cut case of infringement, but given all these facts, there is at least a colorable claim of infringement . The company must have known it would receive a demand letter regarding the name. Perhaps the plan was to enjoy the free press for its new product and then switch the name, knowing the name change would also be heavily publicized?

Apart of from the potential legal liability, it isn’t a terrible plan, and I’m certainly interested in trying a bag of Peatos. Once I find a bag, I’ll be sure to let you know whether they’re g-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-eat!