Photo of Steve Baird

View my professional biography

Just so you know, I'm all about brands and the law, both professionally and personally. I regularly annoy family and friends in retail stores by focusing on product labels—not to buy the product, but to read the fine print and ask, “Who owns these brands” and “Did they really register those marks?”

To understand the depth of my passion for brands and helping clients achieve their business goals, legally, you must understand that my interest in business and branding goes back to the late 1960s. The very first brand I recall profiting from was Jiffy®. Even before being old enough to deliver papers for the Iowa City Press Citizen, between episodes of Bewitched®, I would bake cupcakes and walk my finished product door-to-door, sampling along the way, of course, throughout our Kimball Road neighborhood, mostly selling them to husbands whose wives didn't bake enough (probably watching Bewitched®), according to them at least. One hundred percent profit margins are easy when you can use the necessary equipment and raw materials directly from Mom's kitchen. Mass producing "hot pads" (pot holders, not real estate) and selling them door-to-door was another favorite childhood business venture at the ripe age of six. Graduating to lawn-mowing age worked well with my paper routes because I could easily see who needed help cutting their grass and, in some cases, avoiding neighborhood ridicule. Yes, you're right, Dad loaned me his Lawn-Boy® mower on weekends, rent-free, and even bought the gasoline (Dad was not brand loyal at all with gasoline, so I have no brand memory there). Another pure profit opportunity. Let's just say that Mom and Dad were generous, unsecured investors in my development and future. Thanks Mom and Dad, I now understand the meaning of overhead and capital improvements!

I bucked a lot of family tradition and jokes to become a lawyer and a trademark guru. There is not one lawyer in the family tree, as far as my sister knows (and she would know). Nearly everyone is, or was, a teacher of some kind. That must be where my passion for educating others about the legal implications of branding comes from. Basically, I have been speaking about the legal implications of branding since the early 90s, after permitting my pharmacist’s license to expire (after being a victim of an armed robbery where Dilaudid® was on the top of the gunman’s list of desired controlled substances), and shortly after working for an 86 year old federal judge whose chambers had a nice view of the White House in Washington, D.C. While I’d like to say that the movie My Cousin Vinny inspired me to become a lawyer, it was released two years after I graduated from law school. So, really, I guess it just inspired me to be a better lawyer and leader. For now, you can call me a “thought-leader” in the trademark world, and the thankful leader of a very talented group of creative and insightful lawyers and staff who are dedicated to putting our intellectual property clients in the best possible position to achieve their business goals.

When I'm not in the office, "cracking the whip," making sure others in the group keep their bios on this blog short and sweet, working (which isn't to say I'm not still thinking about my clients' businesses), or soaking it up in the hot-tub with my soul-mate, I am a dedicated family man - a.k.a. the chauffeur. Until they reach the driving age, I'll continue to shuttle my four wonderful kids around to their athletic and other events, at which you can find me cheering in the stands.

No worries, I’m back at the keyboard, refreshed after a busy January, from the ATA Show in Louisville to Las Vegas for the SHOT Show, then Austin, and well beyond.

2019 is off to a rapid start, not sure where the first half of February went, so I’ll make sure this is a good one, and with a little luck, it might even be a great one:

Did my iPhone capture a production anomaly in the soap on display? Note the disconnect between the word and the stuff that I’m not sure I’d want to rub on me.

How often do we hear, “Oh it’s good enough,” or “Yeah, it’s pretty good”? — Good seems pretty watered down today, bordering on being just OK, a passing grade.

Kind of reminds me of AT&T Wireless’ funny Just OK Is Not OK commercials. Let’s just say, good seems much further from CNP than BGE — Barely Good Enough.

A Friday evening shopping run to Whole Foods provided inspiration for this blog post; as you will recall, it’s not the first, others preceed it, e.g., here, here, and here.

So, imagine my surprise that someone actually would try to “brand” soap as good.

Turns out, that someone has infused more than the common meaning into the word, incorporating the more active “do-good” kind, with a real social impact.

Before learning of that aspect to the brand, I was left wondering, is good — well, enough to serve as a distinctive trademark, in other words, is it ownable, as IP?

Turns out, it apparently is, Good Soap is federally-registered for “sustainably manufactured beauty products, namely fair trade shea butter soap” — no less than 500+ pages of evidence was submitted to establish acquired distinctiveness.

At the end of the day, I’m still left wondering about the reasonable scope of rights?

With the mildly laudatory Good, it’s probably no surprise that other coexisting soap marks have slipped into the same laudatory-themed bubble bath as Good Soap:

Besides all those, why did the USPTO allow this Good soap mark to coexist, much less achieve federal registration without a showing of acquired distinctiveness?

Perhaps another less-than-wonderful style of truncated examination at the USPTO?

With a broader identification of goods, covering simply “soaps” — and no apparent “do-good” double meaning, how did the informational matter refusal slip by too?

Back to what Good might mean to consumers, at first blush, it seems facially about managing normal expectations, but Great is about exceeding them.

Assuming the product attributes live up to the name, wouldn’t a brand rather be great than simply good? In other words, can Good Soap, ever be a Great brand?

By the way, this is not anywhere close to our first soapbox when it comes to getting lathered up over soap trademarks:

You can be the judge of what is good versus great. Yes, lather, rinse and repeat.

Over the last decade, we’ve covered Super Bowl topics, it’s that time of year again!

We’ve probed the NFL’s overzealous activities and asked hard fair use questions.

And, with Big Game LII in our backyard, we had a front row ambush marketing seat.

With digital marketing, that front row seat can be anywhere your iPhone takes you:

The top half of the email advertisement from Tuesday, landing in my inbox (shown above), seems to have a better argument for a nominative fair use defense than the the bottom half of the same ad (shown below), agree?

Assuming Birch’s is not an actual licensee, seems to me a rather difficult argument that use of the Super Bowl LIII logo is really fair and necessary for communicating truthfully, but, what say you?

UPDATE:

Hot off the email press and inbox from yesterday, here is another Super Bowl ambush, note their favoring of “Big Game” over “Super Bowl”:

So, they may have avoided the NFL’s wrath, but what about the Patriots and Rams logos on the helmets, fair use, or not, friends?

Here’s to looking at you again, James!

Las Vegas has a welcoming brand, probably best known by the nearly decade old famous and iconic slogan: What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.

LVCVA owns it for gaming machines, slot machine services, and “promoting the Las Vegas, Nevada area as a destination for leisure and business travelers.”

If you’re not aware of the origin and the connection to Minnesota, here you go.

Las Vegas has welcomed the SHOT Show for many years, so here we are, once again, connecting with our many brand-toting friends in the industry.

Although I haven’t yet noticed evidence of it on the streets or the strip, the famous WHIVSIV slogan is reportedly back from its brief hiatus.

MGM Resorts’ Aria appears to be building on the meaning of Vegas with a fairly new slogan of its own that interestingly employs the term being used as a verb:

Given all the other places we’ve seen and reported on brandverbing to date, and now that we know it happens in Vegas too, only time will tell if it stays in Vegas:

As you know, we have welcomed the challenge by marketing types to press the edges and not fall into the assumed knee-jerk legal trap when it comes to weighing the true risks of genericide based on the verbing of brands, but if you’re not Google, this recommended reading from our archives — on the subject of trademark verbing and the risk of genericide, is still highly useful:

Who will be the next to jump on the brandverbing bandwagon? How long will the ride last?

All that said, Aria’s This is How We Vegas, should not be confused with This is How We Hotel, much less, This is How I Vegas, for sure, or even this one either:

 


A local real estate agent has argued that the above design is unique enough to make the SOLD! designation distinctive and registrable as a service mark for “information in the field of real estate and real estate services,” among other goods and services. The USPTO wasn’t sold on the idea, but not for the expected reason.

Given the USPTO’s growing love for the “merely informational matter” category of incapable subject matter — essentially contending the subject matter fails to function as a trademark or service mark — I fully expected to find that refusal in the file history of the application, prior to abandonment of the application, but no.

Instead, the USPTO denied registration based on two prior marks owned by unrelated entities: (1) SOLD.COM for “providing access to, and information on, specific real estate listings and related products and services via a global computer network;” and (2) SOLD IN 32 DAYS for “real estate brokerage” services.

The USPTO surprisingly failed to raise the merely informational, failure to function refusal; perhaps it would have arisen had the Applicant been able to overcome the likelihood of confusion refusals, as the remaining descriptiveness refusal couldn’t prevent the Applicant from amending capable matter to the Supplemental Register.

It’s hard to conceive any rendition of SOLD! being considered inherently distinctive for much of anything in the field of real estate; even if the design elements were so unique to make the distinctiveness sale fly, it would still require that the wording SOLD! be disclaimed as non-distinctive matter — either descriptive or incapable.

What do you think? Are SOLD.COM and SOLD IN 32 DAYS really capable of serving as service marks for real estate services? If so, do you agree that SOLD! is capable, but properly refused registration because it’s too close to both of the prior marks? If they can coexist peacefully, then why can’t SOLD! peacefully coexist too?

I’m not a fan of the USPTO’s growing emphasis on the merely informational, failure to function refusal, as incapable matter, but here I am thinking it may have been the most appropriate refusal for each of these claimed marks, which would have allowed them to peacefully coexist and kept them off the Supplemental Register.

I’ve heard about how some believe they are so gifted they can sell ice to an Eskimo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the USPTO is in the market. Having said that, if SOLD! was worth giving it the old college try, then why not honor our previous tempting invitation to test this wingspan pose with the USPTO?

I don’t think LeBron or Nike would mind, do you?

 

Last Friday, the Supreme Court decided it will hear the Brunetti case, and take a closer look at Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the portion forbidding federal registration of trademarks having matter that is scandalous or immoral.

So, it appears my big prediction for 2019 is pointing in the affirmative direction:

“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.”

Now that the Court has decided to review Brunetti, it will be the one to decide whether the “scandalous” and “immoral” bars to registration violate the First Amendment, not the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

So, perhaps Chief Justice John Roberts was foreshadowing a review of Brunetti, when he was speaking in Minneapolis, and said: “Obviously, if any court finds an Act of Congress unconstitutional, we will take it . . . .

To piggyback on what I wrote back in October:

“There are plenty of good reasons for the Court to decide the constitutionality of the “scandalous” and “immoral” language, separate and apart from the disparagement language found to violate the First Amendment in Tam (here, here, here, here, here, and here).”

“If the Court does hear Brunetti, let’s hope Section 7 of the Lanham Act — the provision expressly noting that federal registrations are issued ‘in the name of the United States of America‘ — won’t be some uninteresting and ignored ‘nuance’ of trademark law to the justices.”

You may recall, I previously said this about the Federal Circuit’s overreach in Brunetti:

“What is striking about the CAFC ruling is its breadth. It isn’t guided by the Supreme Court’s Tam decision — requiring viewpoint discrimination — as the Tam Court found with disparagement.”

“The CAFC did not decide whether the ‘scandalous and immoral’ clause constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination, instead it seized on mere content as lower hanging fruit for invalidation.”

“The problem with focusing on content alone is that it proves too much. Trademarks, by definition, are made up of content, and many other provisions of federal law limit the right to register based on content, so, if this analysis holds, what additional previously-thought-well-settled provisions of federal trademark law will fall? Importantly, some even allow for injunctive relief: tarnishment.”

I’m thinking the Court will decide that the Federal Circuit went too far in Brunetti, and it will find a way to retain the “scandalous” bar to federal registration, though I’m doubting the “immoral” bar will survive, so stay tuned.

What are your predictions dear readers?

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?

Congratulations to Stanford University’s Women’s Volleyball Team, winning the NCAA DI National Championship this past weekend in Minneapolis’ Target Center, defeating Nebraska in Set 5:

The competition was incredible, a real seesaw battle, Stanford winning Set 1 (28-26), Nebraska Set 2 (25-22), Stanford Set 3 (25-16), Nebraska Set 4 (25-15), setting up the Set 5 tiebreaker.

Even from our elevated vantage point, it was a challenge to ignore Stanford’s wild band, erratic cheerleaders, and bizarre dancing tree, during the many breaks in the action.

The Stanford Tree, not in the University’s official logo and seal, instead the spastic and gyrating Tree mascot, is simply “a member of the band” — as the University has no “official” mascot.

 

As the Sets progressed, an interesting pattern emerged, but not related to the random, spontaneous, and irrreverent motions and defiant gestures of the merry band of cheerleaders and Tree mascot. Any choreography appeared impossible to script.

No, the pattern I noticed was that each of the first 4 Sets was won by the team that had its back to the band, in other words, turned 180 degrees away from the Stanford Tree.

 

 

In contrast, the losers through Set 4, always faced the Tree, in defeat, coincidence, I think not.

The teams switched sides at the close of each Set. During Set 5, with its back to the Tree, Stanford was up 8-7 at the half, then switched sides again to face the Tree, but somehow was able prevail, in the end, while facing the Tree, winning the 5th and final Set: 15-12.

So, with all this turning away from the Tree mascot, positioning the team to win a National Championship on the one hand, and disavowing the Tree mascot on the other hand, specifically rejecting it as not the University’s mascot, I’m left wondering, who owns it?

In other words, clearly there is intellectual property wrapped up in the Tree mascot costume, I’m seeing both trademark and copyright at work here, but really, who owns it?

Put yet another way, who should Reese’s call for a co-branding opportunity to have the Tree mascot appear on packaging for these little gems, or perhaps, the gems themselves?

Can the University automatically own the intellectual property in an “unofficial” mascot? What are the legal distinctions, if any, between official and unofficial mascots?

For what it’s worth, disavowing the Tree, and its unofficial status, apparently hasn’t prevented the University’s payment of NCAA fines against Stanford when the Tree is especially unruly.

At Stanford, it appears that the student selected by the band to perform as the Tree for the academic year, wears the costume created by his or her predecessor from the previous year.

As to copyright, do you suppose there is a work for hire arrangement in place? So, who would you call to license the IP associated with the Tree? Here is a list of the apparent creators.

As I mentioned last week, Apple’s present iPhone Xs billboard advertising campaign is ubiquitous at the moment, especially this image, totally flooding the Minneapolis skyway system, and beyond:

Putting aside whether the unique lighting and reflective nature of the indoor billboards do justice to the art of the iPhone Xs ad, I’m also questioning whether the Xs repetition might be, excessive?

See what I mean? Above and especially below, with stretches of hundreds of feet — in the frozen tundra of our Minneapolis skyway,  nothing in sight, but the same, glaring and reflective Xs ad:

A few questions come to mind. Repetition in branding, yes it’s important, but are there no limits?

In other words, we know Apple can afford to dominate our skyway billboard space, but should it?

And, if so, with what? Apple’s user-generated content campaign was welcome, brilliant and unique.

But, what is the end goal of covering the Minneapolis skyway, with a train of identical Xs boxcars?

Isn’t the art of the ad lost when it is the only thing in front of you, or should I say Outfront of you?

A boring train of Xs boxcar ads builds no momentum to a destination, like Wall Drug ads on I-90.

Where is this train of repetitive ads supposed to take us, online to drive more holiday unit sales?

That seems doubtful, the ad doesn’t explain why one should replace an earlier version with the Xs.

Ironically, Apple’s current struggle is distancing itself from the stock market’s focus on unit sales.

Billboard advertising is said to be effective for brand awareness, but Apple hardly struggles there.

I’m not seeing the point of this ad, and repetition won’t solve the problem of a saturated market.

I’m just left feeling like I paid too much for my Xs, because Apple wasted too much on these ads.

If you’ve paid attention to any billboards in the Twin Cities over the last year or so, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t discussed this one yet, knowing my passion for billboard ads:

The Kris Lindahl billboard ads — especially this one —  are hard to ignore. They are almost as ubiquitous as a certain iPhone Xs ad. Plus, this one strikes a pretty distinctive wingspan pose.

Apparently there is an art or science behind poses for real estate agents, but as far as I can tell from a Google search, none appear to cry out “wingspan” like Kris’ does, so is the pose ownable?

Seems pretty clear from how his name is used as a mark on this billboard that Mr. Lindahl’s eponymous Lindahl Realty firm is on the way to registering his personal name as a service mark.

While it isn’t always a cake walk, in obtaining federally-registered service mark rights in a personal name, what I’d really like to see Mr. Lindahl attempt next is registration of his wingspan pose.

What would you rate his chances, putting aside whether you like the above billboard ad or not?

You’re well aware of the fact that we have a burning desire for great brands and trademarks.

Outside Whole Foods last evening, with snow falling, I found a beautiful display of firewood:

A smile came to my face as I read the SnuggleWood brand name for this kiln-dried firewood.

We’ve written a lot about the many legal benefits of suggestive over descriptive trademarks.

I’m fortunate to have enjoyed many evenings snuggling with loved ones around a blazing fire.

Later, it also brought warm and toasty feelings to see a federal trademark registration exists:


Sadly though, the fire was doused after learning that an earlier, broader trademark registration for the single word SNUGGLEWOOD lapsed, extinguishing more than 15 years of nationwide priority.

Apparently ownership changed between the original 1998 filing and a decade later when renewal evidence was due, so the USPTO rejected the evidence, as no clear chain of title was provided.

It’s sad to see because trademark ownership and chain of title issues are preventable and fixable.

Let’s hope for the SnuggleWood brand that it is never burned by unregistered trademark rights that could have developed in remote geographic parts of the country before the new filing in 2014.