— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

No one does the Carlton quite like Carlton Banks.  (Queue Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual.)  Since actor Alfonso Ribeiro first performed the unique dance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it has been readily associated with him.  When the dance move recently appeared as a purchasable avatar dance in the popular video game, Fortnite, players quickly recognized Carlton’s signature move.

 

Fortnite is a battle royale-style combat game in which players, through their avatars, fight to the finish.  In-game purchases allow players to download character skins, clothing, and emotes (dances) for their avatars to perform on the battlefield.  In January 2018, the makers of Fortnite introduced a new emote available for purchase: a Carlton-esque dance called the Fresh.  When a player purchases and downloads the Fresh emote, the player’s avatar can perform the dance move on command.

Ribeiro filed suit against Fortnite creator, Epic Games, last month in a California federal district court.  The suit has been widely reported as a copyright case, prompting many to analyze whether short dance moves like the Carlton are eligible for copyright protections.  Their collective answer: probably not.

Copyright Choreography

While choreographic works are eligible for copyright, the US Copyright Office states that it will not register for copyright “short dance routines consisting of only a few movement or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive.”  Individual steps or movements, such as the Waltz step, hustle step and grapevine are not copyrightable, according to the Copyright Office’s guidance in Circular 52.  Social dances are similarly not eligible for copyright registration.  “[U]ncopyrightable social dances are generally intended to be performed by members of the public for the enjoyment of the dancers themselves,” as opposed to registrable choreographic works, which are “intended to be executed by skilled performers before an audience.”  At most, it is unclear whether the Carlton is complex enough, or includes enough movements or length, to be eligible for copyright protections.  Of course even if the Carlton dance is copyrightable, NBC Productions might have something to say about ownership of the copyright.

But Ribeiro’s suit against the makers of Fortnite alleges more than mere copyright infringement.  In addition, Ribeiro is suing Epic Games for violation of his statutory and common law right of publicity.

Vanna White-bot, Here’s Johnny Toilets, and the Right of Publicity

In general, the right of publicity protects an individual’s right to control the commercial use of her name and likeness.  In California, courts have defined a broad right of publicity.

Federal courts have determined that the California common law right of publicity is not strictly limited to an individual’s name and likeness.  In White v. Samsung Electronics, Vanna White sued Samsung for its depiction of a robot adorned with blond wig, gown, and jewelry in a VCR ad.  971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992).  The familiar robot was posed next to a gameshow letter board reminiscent of the Wheel of Fortune.  The caption read, “Longest-running game show. 2012 A.D.”  Notably, the case is from 1992, and the ad was part of a campaign depicting use of various Samsung products in a futuristic setting.  Recognizing that although the defendants did not actually use White’s name or image, the court determined that the ad was clearly intended to depict White and presented colorable right of publicity claim.

In another case, the Ninth Circuit held that Ford Motor’s use of a Bette Midler sound-alike voice was a violation of Midler’s right of publicity, even without any use of Midler’s name or image.  Midler v. Ford Motor Co., 849 F.2d 460 (9th Cir. 1988).  And in Carson v. Here’s Johnny Portable Toilets, the Sixth Circuit held that the defendant’s use of the phrase “Here’s Johnny” to market portable toilets was a misappropriation of Carson’s persona.  810 F.2nd 104 (6th Cir. 1987)

In light of this precedent, Ribeiro’s right of publicity claims seem stronger than his copyright claims.  The complaint also includes claims under the Lanham Act and California statutes for unfair competition.  Ribeiro alleges that the company’s use of the dance move creates a false impression that either Epic Games created the dance move or that Ribeiro provided sponsorship.

What are your thoughts on these unfair competition claims?   Are they stronger than the copyright infringement claims?

The Vanna White case also included a Lanham Act unfair competition claim.  The court in that case recognized a celebrity’s ability to bring such claims to protect her persona.  The court permitted the Lanham Act claim to proceed to a jury along with White’s right of publicity claim.  Ultimately, the jury found for White and awarded over $400,000.

Others Join the Fight

Ribeiro is not the only artist to challenge Epic Games on the IP battlefield.  Rapper 2 Milly (Terrance Ferguson) sued Epic Games for creating an emote based on his Milly Rock dance.  And most recently, Backpack Kid (Russell Horning) sued Epic Games for introducing an emote modeled after his viral Floss dance.  Both complaints include claims for copyright infringement, violation of right of publicity, and unfair competition claims.

Can a gang become a brand? This is a question asked in the new Netflix show, Trigger Warning,  produced by and starring Michael Render, AKA Killer Mike, one half of the Grammy-nominated rap group Run the Jewels.

Killer Mike of Run the Jewels performing at Pitchfork Chicago on July 19, 2015 (Photo Credit: Me)

In episode three, “White Gang Privilege,” Mike explores America’s love of the Outlaw, real and imaginary, and typically white: Al Capone, Tony Soprano, Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, Johnny Cash, Gordon Gecko, and Hells Angels, to name a few.  The episode begins with Mike asking: How is it possible for Hells Angels, a known biker gang, to sell t-shirts on Amazon? And what’s stopping black gangs from doing the same thing?

As Mike drives to a trap house in Atlanta to find out, he comments that “even though black gangs … are as well known as the Hells Angels, they haven’t been able to cash in and trademark their brands in the same way.”  So he meets with Crips gang members Yayo, Murdo, AC, and Newny to discuss legitimate business ideas, like zipper and button manufacturing, and, eventually, the gang lands on a new brand of soda: Crip-a-Cola.

Crip-a-Cola packaging as shown on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Spoiler alert: The episode proceeds to follow the gang through all of the typical startup business challenges: getting a loan (or at least trying), creating a minimum viable product (needs more sugar), working with a graphic designer (his first time working with a gang), consulting a beverage industry expert (impressed by the polished product), focus-group testing (everyone is afraid or skeptical at first, especially Mario!), advertising (a music video like commercial), and making that first sale (at a local farmer’s market), all while handling a new market rival (Blood Pop soda produced by the Crips’ rival gang, the Bloods).

Considering everything that went into the episode, and the seriousness of the effort, I was left scratching my head over the obvious, and perhaps true-to-life, startup oversight:  where’s the trademark lawyer?  I spotted at least four issues where a good trademark lawyer could have really helped.

Trademark Notice

Do you see the little circle-R next to the word Crip-a-Cola on the product packaging?  That means “registered trademark” and indicates that Crip-a-Cola is federally registered in the United States.  The only problem is that it’s not registered.  In fact, there isn’t even an application pending!  We’ve blogged before about misuse of the trademark registration symbol here (fraud?) and here (false advertising?).  A good trademark lawyer would have corrected that to a “TM” and filed an intent-to-use application before going live on Netflix (or even to that first farmer’s market).

Clearance

Another possible problem a trademark lawyer could have helped with: Clearance.  Can the Crips actually use “Crip-a-Cola?” despite at a minimum, perhaps calling to mind Coca-Cola?  While “calling to mind” is not infringement, does Crip-a-Cola step to closely to Coca-Cola, since Coca-Cola is a famous brand, and able to wield the full power of anti-dilution law?  What has Coca-Cola done with similar attempts?  A good trademark lawyer would investigate and find out: of course, Coca-Cola will protect its corner, just take a look at the mark CropaCola, which popped up in 2014, and which Coca-Cola quickly opposed, on likelihood of confusion and dilution grounds, asserting the following:

[Coca-Cola] is the world’s largest beverage company, serving more than 1.6 billion consumers each day, in more than 200 countries around the world.  [The] COCA-COLA brand is the cornerstone of its portfolio, which presently includes fifteen billion dollar brands.  COCA-COLA and DIET COKE are the top two soft drink brands in the world. . . .[T]he ‘CROPA’ term in [CROPACOLA] is confusingly similar in sight and sound to the ‘COCA’ term in [COCA-COLA], containing the same number of syllables and a similar phonetic impression, which is compounded by the addition of the ‘COLA’ suffix, in and identical manner as the use of [Coca-Cola’s] COLA suffix.”

Seems plausible that Crip-a-Cola could expect the same treatment from the largest beverage company on Earth.  This is where having a trademark lawyer in your gang would really help.  For one, to identify issues like these (never mind taste infringement) and identify strategies for going forward, but more importantly, to look for defensible legal positions and creative solutions, for example, perhaps seizing on this line in Coke’s opposition: “Furthermore, the ‘CROPA’ term has no independent meaning, further failing to distinguish it from [Coca-Cola].”  (emphasis added).  Here, Crip-a-Cola may have an advantage: unlike “Cropa”, the term “CRIP,” does have several independent, distinct meanings (perhaps the most helpful is the possible backronym: “Common Revolution In Progress.”) and is likely famous, or infamous, in its own right.

Ownership

What else could a good trademark attorney help with?  How about determining ownership?  Absent a legal entity to own the CRIP-A-COLA mark and the related business, Yayo, Murdo, AC, Newny, and Killer Mike would own Crip-a-Cola jointly as individuals in a general partnership, the worst form of legal entity, due to the shared, personal, and unlimited legal liability each partner shoulders. Better to form an LLC at least, not only to more cleanly own the trademark, but also to remove personal liability, formalize ownership, management, and tax decisions, and adopt buy-sell provisions.

Furthermore, what about competing claims of ownership? Is there an official Crips entity that could claim false association?  Maybe – one trademark application filed July 5, 2018 for the mark CRIPS for “association services” and “Organizing chapters of a Community Revolution In Progress club and promoting the interests of the members thereof” suggests that an entity called Crips, LLC, may have been formed to claim leadership of the Crips.  This would be something any good trademark attorney would investigate, and develop a strategy for dealing with.

Legal Notices

Finally, the last issue in the episode I spotted, where good trademark lawyer would lend a hand, arises from the fine print claim made at the end of the Crip-a-Cola commercial (NSFW):

The fine print states that “unauthorized use of the Crip-a-Cola font is prohibited by law.”  The problem? Fonts, or typefaces, are only indirectly protected by law, and not in gross.  Sure, if your typeface is displayed as a result of computer software code operating on a device, then copyright protects the computer code necessary to display the typeface as a font. This is the main reason why certain fonts are licensed. But if the typeface is “copied” or used without authorization through other means, there is no recourse under copyright law.  Instead, one would have to turn to trademark protection of the stylized mark, which, absent a federal registration would be limited geographically by common law rights based on use, perhaps as narrowly as Atlanta or the State of Georgia.  And except for the famous typefaces of famous brands (for example the Coca-Cola script), such rights would be further limited by the goods in connection with which the typeface is used, to prohibit use on only identical or related goods (for example, complimentary goods, or goods within the likely “zone of expansion”), in this case, rival beverage or food products. So the claim that the “unauthorized use of the Crip-a-Cola font is prohibited by law,” while not entirely untrue, is mostly inaccurate.

Outlaws are known for having their criminal defense attorneys on speed dial.  Maybe it’s time to add the number for a good trademark attorney.

Better Call Saul? Only if he practices trademark law!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You may recall that DuetsBlog informed you in May of 2016 (here) that Beyoncé filed suit in New York federal court against a company and its owners who were using the mark Feyoncé on apparel and other products, such as mugs. She has now dismissed the lawsuit—likely based on a settlement (although the settlement has not been reported yet, and if there is a confidentiality provision in the agreement we may never know for sure).

Beyoncé was understandably troubled when the company began using both Feyoncé (rhyming with her name, the only difference being the beginning letter) and “Single Ladies,” which is the same name as Beyoncé’s famous Grammy award winning Song of the Year. In her complaint, Beyoncé explains that the song “tells the tale of female empowerment – the protagonist celebrates her newly found status as a single woman in a dance club telling her ex-boyfriend (who is jealous of the attention that she is receiving from other men) that if ‘you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Beyoncé alleged that defendants were “seeking to capitalize on the notoriety of ‘Single Ladies’… defendants are selling merchandise bearing the ‘Feyoncé’ mark – a misspelling of ‘fiancé’ intended to call to mind ‘Beyoncé’ and her famous song.”

Beyoncé brought a motion for summary judgment. In denying the motion, the court found that there were genuine questions of fact regarding whether there was a likelihood of confusion. It was not enough that the company had tried to “capitalize off the exceedingly famous ‘Beyoncé’ mark.” There were still questions as to whether consumers would believe that Beyoncé was associated with the ‘Feyoncé’ products.

Beyoncé takes intellectual property rights seriously (as we all should). You may recall we blogged about her efforts to protect intellectual property related to her daughter Blue Ivy Carter, here, here and here.

We have likely not seen the last of Beyoncé’s efforts to protect intellectual property.

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.

From time to time, I post squirrelly thoughts. Today, I wonder: Should a large company with famous, distinct trademarks sometimes hold back from aggressively enforcing those trademarks, even when doing so might at first appear to be a useful competitive strategy? I’m sure many executives at McDonald’s–the worldwide fast-food chain that it is so ubiquitous The Economist uses the prices of the Big Mac to measure purchasing power parity throughout the world–are questioning some past enforcement decisions.

If you haven’t heard, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) issued a decision cancelling McDonald’s “Big Mac” trademark registration within the European Union. Although the decision was based on certain procedural and evidentiary issues, it resulted from a proceeding brought by McDonald’s European competitor “Supermac’s,” an Irish fast-food burger chain opened in 1978, in response to McDonald’s aggressive enforcement tactics.

Supermac’s offers a similar cornucopia of comfort food items, including chicken nuggets, french fries, and the “Mighty Mac,” which is:

A succulent double burger complete with two 100% Irish beef patties, melted cheese, crispy lettuce, diced onion with ketchup and burger sauce served in a toasted sesame seed bun.

Sound familiar? Here’s how McDonald’s describes the Big Mac:

Mouthwatering perfection starts with two 100% pure beef patties and Big Mac sauce sandwiched between a sesame seed bun. It’s topped off with pickles, crisp lettuce, onions and American cheese for a 100% beef burger with a taste like no other. It contains no artificial flavors, preservatives or added colors from artificial sources. Our pickle contains an artificial preservative, so skip it if you like.

Perhaps for these reasons, McDonald’s vigorously opposed Supermac’s trademark registrations a few years ago, arguing that the similarity between the names “McDonald’s” and “Supermac’s” (the Mc/Mac usage) would cause confusion among consumers.

Which one is the Big Mac, and which is the Mighty Mac? (hint: in order)

In 2017, Supermac’s retaliated against McDonald’s enforcement activities, seeking cancellation of McDonald’s own flagship marks. Central to Supermac’s narrative is McDonald’s “trademark bullying”–a topic we’ve discussed generally on DuetsBlog numerous times. Specifically, Supermac’s argued that McDonald’s purposefully engaged in anticompetitive conduct, including “registering brand names . . . which are simply stored away in a war chest to use against future competitors.”

It is not readily apparent that EUIPO ruled against McDonald’s on grounds related to bullying or overly-aggressive enforcement because, ostensibly, the ruling is based on McDonald’s failure to prove genuine use of “Big Mac” as a burger or restaurant name–which seems hard to believe given, among other things, The Economist’s Big Mac Index. However, Supermac’s is calling this a victory for small businesses, and a win in “a David versus Goliath battle against trademark bullying by a powerful multinational.” As a result of EUIPO’s ruling, companies may now freely use “Big Mac” throughout the entire EU. McDonald’s has said it intends to appeal the ruling.

EUIPO’s ruling seems absurd, but it makes me wonder if McDonald’s could have avoided this ruling, and the trademark bully label, by taking a less aggressive stance in enforcing its trademarks. Instead of seeking to prevent registration of the Supermac’s and other marks in a transparently-competitive posture, McDonald’s could have decided to target its enforcement on certain products and names (e.g., Mighty Mac), or simply compete on the basis of quality and price. McDonald’s could have also considered creative ways to discourage Supermac’s from using similar marks, employing humorous methods akin to Bud Light sending a medieval jester to deliver a cease and desist message on a scroll to Modist Brewing. Increasingly, brands need to seek a balance between uncovering and prosecuting all possible misuses and not enforcing rights at all. This latest EUIPO may, at its heart, be a lesson in more selective enforcement.

Update: This article was referenced, and Kyle was quoted, by the Washington Post on February 11, 2019.

Who comes to mind when I list the following character traits: lives in a dystopian metropolis, has a deceased parent, fights criminals, rides a motorcycle, has seemingly-superhero strength, is fearless, has dark hair, and–oh, by the way–his name is “Wayne.” More than that, you learn all these facts about Wayne by watching a trailer for a series about Wayne on YouTube, which informs you throughout that Wayne is a character “from the guys who wrote Deadpool,” a fictional superhero. Take a look for yourself:

It should probably come as no surprise that many people watching the trailer–myself included–thought this Wayne might be “Bruce Wayne,” the well-known secret identity of Batman. The comments to the official trailer demonstrate as much. Consider, for example, the “top comment” for the trailer:

The Bruce Wayne most consumers know is the wealthy orphan owner of Wayne Enterprises by day, crime-fighting superhero by night. YouTube’s Wayne shares many of the same traits (except, perhaps, the wealth), and one could certainly believe that the Wayne series might be an origin story for one of the most popular superheros of all time. Of course, by the end of the trailer, you get the impression that the Wayne you’re watching probably isn’t (though there’s no disclaimer):

In total there are over 7,200 comments for the trailer at the time of writing this post. Since the official trailer, YouTube has released additional teaser trailers for the series, each making it clearer that Wayne probably isn’t Batman. Yet, viewers still aren’t quite sure:

What I find interesting about these comments is that they are a readily-available (though perhaps unreliable) data set for proving, or disproving, the existence of customer confusion. Assume that DC Comics, the owner of the Batman mark and Bruce Wayne character (which does not appear to have been registered, but to which DC Comics could have common law rights and copyright protection) could sue YouTube for infringement or dilution. Arguably, the comments on the Wayne trailers show that consumers are drawing a connection between DC Comics and the Wayne series given the name, mood of the series, and common character traits with Batman. In this, YouTube may be free riding on Batman’s popularity. Depending on just how many comments reference Batman, the comments themselves could serve as strong quantitative data of confusion–akin to the kind of survey data usually used to prove that element of a trademark claim.

On the other hand, many of the comments for the series do not reference Batman or Bruce Wayne. Do non-references indicate a lack of confusion, or perhaps a confusion that is dispelled quickly after watching the trailers? This relates to the doctrine of “initial interest confusion,” which is temporary confusion dispelled before a sale or some other commercial harm, but still may be actionable because the party creating the confusion free rides on another’s mark to gain attention. Since widespread access to the Internet, initial interest confusion cases have increased tenfold, but courts disagree about the vitality of the rule. Regardless, that confusion appears to persist in this situation–as demonstrated by the comments for each new trailer–shows that the confusion here may be of the continuing and uncured variety on which many trademark claims are based.

Wayne fully releases on YouTube in January 2019. There do not appear to be any lawsuits pending at the moment. And there does not appear to be a “Wayne” trademark registration for the series. But if YouTube (or the series’ creators) file for one, DC Comics could oppose the registration–and has done so for similar marks in the past. We’ll keep you updated with any new developments! In the meantime, let us know what you think in a comment below.

Earlier this year I posted about a trademark dispute regarding the use of the term “Square Donuts” for square-shaped donuts. The case involved proceedings both in federal court and at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), between the Square Donuts cafe in Indiana (which claimed decades of prior use and a trademark registration); and the Family Express convenience-store chain (which sold square-shaped donuts called “square donuts,” claiming the term is generic). As we discussed, the case raised the interesting question of whether the term Square Donuts is generic for cafe services that feature square-shaped donuts (which still look delicious by the way, see below).

Perhaps fortunately for the parties involved, but unfortunately for our curious readers, it appears there will never be a decision answering this question, as the case is headed to a settlement and dismissal. A docket entry on August 30, 2018 in the federal court proceeding states “Settlement Reached,” following a settlement conference between the parties.

However, the case has not yet been dismissed, as the parties have not yet finalized the settlement and dismissal documents. After the court recently granted a joint motion for extension of time, the deadline to file dismissal papers is by the end of this month. In the meantime, there do not appear to be any public updates or press releases yet, regarding the nature of the settlement, on the parties’ respective websites (here and here). However, I do note that the Family Express sub page, “Our Brands,” no longer features “Square Donuts” as one of their “our proprietary brands,” as it did at the time of my previous post in May.

Therefore, just a guess, but perhaps the parties have reached a licensing agreement, in which Square Donuts will maintain its registration and claim to trademark rights, and Family Express will have a license to continue using the Square Donuts name for its donuts. Alternatively, perhaps Family Express has agreed to entirely give up calling its donuts “Square Donuts.” Based on the deadline for dismissal at the end of this month, I’m sure there will be more significant news soon, regarding the nature of the settlement and any changes to the parties’ branding and websites. What do you think will happen — any predictions? Stay tuned for updates.

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA)’s decision last year to end its boys-only policy was met with mixed reactions.  Some lauded it as a progressive victory.  Others, including former Girl Scouts, viewed it as a thinly-veiled corporate strategy and a loss for girls.  As part of an early adopter program, more than 3,000 girls have already signed up to be BSA Cub Scouts.

To help solidify its more inclusive policies, the Boy Scouts also announced a new branding strategy.  Beginning in 2019, the organization will be known as Scouts BSA.  The rebranding efforts include a new tag line: “Scout Me In.”

The Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) has been openly and decisively against the Boy Scouts’ policy change.  In a public letter to the Boy Scouts, the GSUSA expressed its concern regarding what it perceived as the “short-sightedness of thinking that running a program specifically tailored to boys can simply be translated to girls.”

In a blog post on its website, GSUSA wrote, “We believe strongly in the importance of the all-girl, girl-led, and girl-friendly environment that Girl Scouts provides, which creates a free space for girls to learn and thrive.”  It continued, “The benefit of the single-gender environment has been well-documented by educators, scholars, other girl- and youth-serving organizations, and Girl Scouts and their families. Girl Scouts offers a one-of-a-kind experience for girls with a program tailored specifically to their unique developmental needs.”

The Girl Scouts are now suing the Boy Scouts for trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition.  The GSUSA asserts that its right to use the SCOUT and SCOUTING marks in connection with development programs for girls has been long recognized by the TTAB and the Boy Scouts.  GSUSA notes that the two organizations’ use of the SCOUT, SCOUTS and SCOUTING marks have, until recently, “either been preceded by words like BOY or GIRL . . . or appeared in a context making clear that the programs at issue were developed by one organization or the other.”  In the complaint, the Girl Scouts provide evidence of confusion among the public resulting from the Boy Scouts’ use of the ungendered terms.  Cited examples include cases of girls accidentally signing up for Boy Scouts programs and parents believing the two organizations have merged.

The GSUSA seeks an order blocking the Boy Scouts from using SCOUT, SCOUTS, SCOUTING, or SCOUTS BSA without “an inherently distinctive or distinguishing terms appearing immediately before it,” in connection with services directed to girls.

This is not the first time the two groups have fought over branding.  Prior to 1917, the Girl Scouts were instead known as the Girl Guides.  When the change to “Girl Scouts” was announced, the chief executive of the Boy Scouts accused the group of “trivialize[ing]” and “sissify[ing]” the term.  According to the Atlantic, the Boy Scouts even sued over the name change.

Readers of this blog may recall that in the past year, I wrote extensively about the U.S. Supreme Court case of Oil States v. Greene’s Energy. But I paid little attention to another important case decided around the same time: SAS Institute v. IancuOil States centered on whether the USPTO’s inter partes review (“IPR”) process (challenging a patent at the USPTO, rather than in court) was constitutional. SAS followed up with a seemingly less-pressing issue: whether, when the USPTO institutes an IPR to reconsider a patent by accepting an IPR petition, the USPTO must decide the patentability of all of the claims of the patent that the IPR petitioner challenged in the IPR petition. The Supreme Court ruled that IPR is constitutional in Oil States and that the USPTO must decide the patentability of all of the claims which were challenged in the accepted IPR petition in SAS.

Just this week, I was attending a “Supreme Court Preview” event hosted by the Eighth Circuit Bar Association. One of the topics was upcoming patent cases before the Supreme Court. I’ll admit; they’re not as juicy as last term (but perhaps only lawyers would have salivated over last year’s cases). However, one gave me a squirrelly thought: Return Mail v. United States Postal Service. The major issue in Return Mail is whether the federal government is a “person” who may petition to institute review proceedings before the USPTO.

Credit: Channel 3000

Technically, Return Mail doesn’t involve IPR, but rather a different proceeding called covered business method (“CMB”) review. CMB review, as its name implies, is limited to review of business method patents–that is, patents that claim a method or apparatus for performing data processing or similar operations relating to the practice, administration, or management of a financial product or service. But CMB review is very similar to IPR; a person files a petition with the USPTO seeking review, and the USPTO decides whether to institute proceedings. For example, in the Return Mail case itself, Return Mail, Inc. sued the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) for infringement of a business method patent described as: encoding information about the name and address of intended recipients in the form of a barcode, returning undeliverable mail to a processing location, scanning the barcode, obtaining the corrected information, and then providing that information to the sender to choose whether to resend with correct addressee information. (Description in the Federal Circuit opinion.)

Credit: Postal Reporter

Does Return Mail’s patent seem a little…obvious? Sounds like USPS might have a good shot at challenging the patent via CMB review, right? That’s what the USPS thought, so it petitioned for CMB review of certain claims of the patent. There’s just one problem: current patent law says that only a “person” can institute CMB review, and that person must meet certain other requirements, which include being sued or charged with infringement. Is the USPS–an arm of the government–a person? Current patent law does not define the term. In a short opinion, the Federal Circuit held that the federal government is a “person” for the purposes of CMB review. There was a fiery dissent. The Supreme Court granted cert on this specific question.

And here is where the squirrely thought arises. Just like CMB review, IPR review starts with a petition by a “person.” But unlike CMB review, an IPR petitioner need not have been sued or charged with infringement. Indeed, an IPR can be instituted by any person “who is not the owner of a patent.” 35 U.S.C. § 311. The USPTO must review all claims challenged in a petition if the USPTO accepts the petition. But the USPTO might not want to do that in every case–as in SAS. If the government is a person, can it escape SAS‘s mandate by filing its own petition for IPR limited to the claims it actually thinks should be evaluated?

The process would go something like this: (1) the USPTO receives an IPR petition from a third party and reviews the petition, (2) the USPTO determines it would like to institute review on some of the claims of the patent challenged in the petition, but perhaps not the same claims as those listed in the petition, (3) the USPTO works in collaboration with another governmental agency (say, for example, the Attorney General or USPS), (4) the other governmental agency files a petition for IPR of the same patent, but on the claims and grounds desired by the USPTO, and (5) the USPTO accepts the governmental petition, achieving the goal of escaping SAS‘s mandate that it decide the patentability of claims listed in the third party petition that the USPTO thinks need not be considered. And voila! Return the earlier petition for IPR as uninstituted to sender.

Thus, affirming the Federal Circuit could provide the government an escape from SAS, so to speak. While reversal could preclude agencies like the USPS from seeking cost-effective review of patents with the USPTO. What do you think?