Florida start-up entity BAD MOMS, LLC beat the producer of the movie with the same name to the punch! Specifically, the company sued the producer for declaratory judgment and an injunction preventing the movie producer from using the mark in connection with any of the Florida company’s goods and services or those related thereto. Both parties have pending applications for BAD MOMS and related trademarks. The lawsuit came after the movie producer sent demand letters to the Florida entity asking it to abandon its applications for BAD MOMS trademarks and cease using the mark. The movie producer brought counterclaims against the start-up company.

The Florida start-up company was founded by a single mom working her way through college and law school. The company organizes and hosts events for single-moms to share experiences, provide education and create a network. In addition, the company sells wines and spirits under the BAD MOMS mark.

Earlier this month, the dispute heated up when the movie producer asked a federal judge to sanction the start-up company for failing to follow a discovery order. The attorney founder of the company denied that the motion is warranted and asked for an extension of time to respond to the motion. The Court granted her request. The hearing on the motion is scheduled for Monday, October 29, 2018.

I have not seen the “BAD MOMS” movie but it was popular enough to spawn a sequel. Many of my friends told me it is a fun movie to watch, even if it is predictable. I heard that the following movie scenes were hysterical:  (1) grocery store scene; (2) limping dog scene and (3) the meeting to discuss the school board.

We will have to wait to see who wins the lawsuit and if the trademark dispute spurs more interest in the movies and/or the Florida company’s events and products.

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…

It’s fall, and you know what that means: football season! For many, this means a return to the couch each weekend to spectate America’s most-watched sport. But the popularity of doing so appears to be in decline. This shift isn’t only affecting the NFL, but also college football as well, as ticket sales continue to plummet. Increasingly among my own family and friends, it seems as if everyone is more interested in playing their fantasy leagues than watching reality unfold before them. Which is why, one would think, that leagues and other football organizations would want to promote discussion about football, rather than hinder it.

Credit: Geek.com

But football organizations are cracking down on, rather than encouraging, use of familiar football names and phrases. Some have questioned, for example, the NFL’s bully-like tactics in aggressively protecting the “Superbowl” name. The annual “big game” is so well-known and such a major event that it’s almost impossible not to use its actual name. Yet, the NFL persists, enforcing more than just its famous name, drawing the ire of commentators each year.

Such tactics appear to have inspired a recent filing by the Heisman Trophy Trust against “HeismanWatch.com,” for trademark and copyright infringement. The Heisman Trophy Trust, the complaint says, is the owner of a slew of federal trademark and service mark registrations related to the Heisman Trophy, “one of the most distinguished, prestigious, and recognized awards in all of sports, and perhaps the most famous of all individual awards in football.” The award is given to the most outstanding collegiate football player, usually a quarterback or running back, each year. You might recognize the trophy by its distinctive “stiff-arm” maneuver captured in bronze:

Credit: The Ringer

Defendant HeismanWatch.com is a website that offers information, analysis, and podcasts about the Heisman trophy award. It is known for its “one-of-a-kind regression model that processes simulated Heisman votes,” to predict in advance who will win the Heisman each year. It reportedly correctly predicted the most recent winner, Baker Mayfield.

The Heisman Trophy Trust, apparently, does not appreciate HeismanWatch.com’s analysis and attention. It alleges that the website is deliberately attempting to free ride on the fame and notoriety of the Heisman Trophy marks, and it says that consumers are likely to believe there is a connection between the website and the actual trophy organization. Of course, the fact that HeismanWatch.com exists at all belies any such connection; the Trophy selection is secretive, but the website helps fans read the field and guess who will win next.

Time will tell whether the Heisman Trophy Trust can prevail against a news reporting and commentary organization like HeismanWatch.com, but it’s not unprecedented. The Academy Awards sued “OscarWatch.com” over a decade ago, prompting the website to change its name to “Awards Daily.” One cannot help but think that HeismanWatch.com has an incredibly strong nominative use defense, though. Under nominative use doctrine, another person can use the trademark of another if:

  1. the thing identified by the trademark (here, a trophy) cannot be readily identified any other way;
  2. the mark is used only as much as is necessary for that identification; and
  3. the use does not suggest sponsorship or endorsement.

The nominative use defense protects free speech and against the need to use “absurd turns of phrase” to avoid liability.

Credit: Wikipedia

It’s difficult to imagine a viable substitute to the name “Heisman,” given the trophy’s actual name–and namesake. What alternatives are there to HeismanWatch.com that do not include the surname? One commentator  offered an idea:

BestOffensivePlayerWithAGreatPRCampaignOnAVerySuccessfulTeamWatch.com.

Of course, this is absurd. And generic alternatives would fail to adequately describe what the website does (e.g., OutstandingCollegiateFootballPlayerWatch.com). One also doesn’t have to look much farther than a simple Google search to find that the media regularly uses “Heisman Watch” as a phrase to discuss anticipation about the next awardee. Even ESPN has a section called “Heisman Watch.” This kind of ubiquity shows the obvious necessity of using the surname. The common use of the phrase also suggests there is a very low likelihood that collegiate football fans are confusing the website–or any other reporting source–with the actual trophy organization. These are hallmarks of fair use.

But setting aside the legal defenses, one has to wonder if organizations such as the Heisman Trophy Trust, NCAA, and NFL ought to relax a little, and encourage the kind of use presented by sites like HeismanWatch.com. These fan centers generate excitement about, and interest in, football. That’s something football desperately needs more of lately.

The popular UGG® branded sheepskin boots are at the heart of a dispute in the Northern District of Illinois. Deckers Outdoor Corp. (“Deckers”) owns 29 federal registrations for the trademark UGG in connection with numerous goods and services, including footwear, clothing, wallets, passport covers, plush toys and retail store services. The company also has four pending applications for UGG to add to this family of UGG trademarks.

Deckers sued Australian Leather Pty. Ltd. and its owner (“Australian Leather”) for trademark infringement and patent infringement for selling “ugg” boots.

UGG® branded boots have become very popular. Fashion forward celebrities, such as Blake Lively and Sarah Jessica Parker, are often pictured wearing the comfortable boots as they go about their daily lives. This provides the brand with free publicity and even more exposure.

Defendant Australian Leather alleged that the ugg mark was generic for sheepskin boots and that the doctrine of foreign-equivalents supported this conclusion. The parties brought cross motions for summary judgment on these issues and others.

Steve Baird has written about trademark genericide before on DuetsBlog. Generic trademarks are those where a brand name has become synonymous with a general class of product or service. Famous examples include: aspirin (Bayer lost this valuable mark), elevator and linoleum. Losing a trademark to genericide allows competitors to benefit from the originating company’s goodwill without being guilty of trademark infringement. Companies have undertaken advertising campaigns to prevent or combat their trademarks from becoming generic. For example, the Velcro Companies came up with the hilarious video, “Don’t Say Velcro,” explaining that the product is a “hook and loop” with the brand name VELCRO®. The company even came up with a sequel video called “Thank You For Your Feedback” that Steve Baird wrote about previously on DuetsBlog.

Luckily for Deckers, the Illinois Court found that its UGG® trademark was not generic. Deckers introduced a survey undertaken in 2017 in the United States of 600 women between the ages of 16 and 54 wherein 98% of the respondents viewed UGG® as a brand name. These results were even better than past surveys commissioned by Deckers in 2004 where 58% of the respondents viewed the mark as a brand, and in 2011 where 89% of respondents viewed UGG® as a brand name.

In turn, Australian Leather asserted that “ugg” was generic among American surfers in the 1970s. The Court found this group to be too narrow. Australian Leather also introduced evidence of “ugg” being generic for sheepskin boots in Australia. Not surprisingly, the Court did not find this evidence to win the day. The Court noted that genericness in another country could be at least relevant to consumer perceptions in the United States. However, it is important to remember that whether a trademark is generic in another country has little bearing on whether it is generic in the United States. Trademark rights are territorial. Having a registered trademark in the United States does not give a company rights in that mark in Australia or other countries.

The Court explained that the foreign-equivalents doctrine did not warrant another result. It explained that “the doctrine is not a perfect fit for English to English [terms, rather, the doctrine] is generally used to analyze non-English terms used in the American marketplace.” Steve Baird did a nice job of explaining the appropriate use of this doctrine in his post, here.

What genericide stories have you heard about?  It can be an ongoing and costly battle for brand owners to protect their valuable intellectual property rights.

Credit: Local Solutions

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:

#selfie

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):

#lifeofabusyexecutive

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.”

M. Shanken Communications, publisher of Wine Spectator — a popular magazine, website and mobile application that offers wine ratings on a 100-point scale — has filed a lawsuit against California-based Modern Wellness, Inc., based on that company’s use of “Weed Spectator” for ratings of cannabis. The federal complaint, filed in New York, alleges claims including trademark infringement, unfair competition, and dilution. The case is M. Shanken Communications, Inc. v. Modern Wellness, Inc. et al., Case No. 18-cv-08050 (S.D.N.Y.).

M. Shanken alleges that the website and social media pages offered by Modern Wellness use the terms “Weed Spectator” and “WS” for cannabis rating publications, which are confusingly similar to M. Shanken’s use of “Wine Spectator” and “WS” marks for its wine rating publications. For example, Modern Wellness also offers a similar 100-point rating scale for cannabis, and the parties’ marks allegedly contain similar font and style. Furthermore, M. Shanken cites to several Modern Wellness pages that associate cannabis with wine.

M. Shanken’s claims will require establishing a likelihood of confusion (except for the dilution claims) based on the Second Circuit’s eight Polaroid factors. Among those factors, two of the most significant are the similarity of the marks and the relatedness (or “competitive proximity”) of the parties’ services. Although there are some similarities of the marks, M. Shanken may have some difficulty establishing likelihood of confusion based on a lack of relatedness between cannabis rating and wine rating.

However, M. Shanken also brought a dilution claim, which does not require a showing that the services are related or competitively proximate. Therefore, M. Shanken may prevail on that claim, if it can prove the use of “Weed Spectator” is likely to cause dilution by blurring or tarnishment. M. Shanken alleged that its marks are tarnished by Weed Spectator because of the association with an illegal drug (under federal law and most states). Nevertheless, the federal dilution claim also requires a showing that M. Shanken’s marks are “famous,” which is a high bar to establish.

What do you think? Would you be confused as to the source of the Weed Spectator mark, or believe there was some affiliation or connection between the parties? Even if not, do you think that M. Shanken’s marks are tarnished or blurred by Weed Spectator? Stay tuned for updates.

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.

The battle for attorneys’ fees after an intense trademark dispute often leaves many prevailing parties empty handed. This is because the Lanham Act only provides for attorneys’ fees in “exceptional cases.” Congress’s (and courts’) reluctance to award attorneys’ fees stems from the “American Rule,” which provides that each party to a lawsuit is responsible for paying its own fees–unless a statute provides otherwise. But the Lanham Act erects a high bar to obtaining fees by requiring that the case be “exceptional.”

On the one hand, trademark owners should not have to fully shoulder the burden of what often turns into expensive litigation just to enforce their rights. Indeed, the estimated cost of protecting one’s rights can dramatically affect the calculus of whether to sue for infringement in the first place. But on the other hand, trademark violations are sometimes debatable and unclear. In such circumstances, the American Rule provides some protection to litigants who would otherwise be discouraged from seeking redress due to the risk that they might have to pay the defendant’s fees in the end if they lose. Thus, the Lanham Act strikes a balance, providing for reimbursement in cases of brazen and clear infringement–or brazen and clear abuse of the litigation process–while retaining the benefits the American Rule otherwise provides.

The Lanham Act’s fee provision has come up recently in two high-profile trademark cases: one involving Comic Con (reported on previously here and here), the other meme-famous Grumpy Cat (also reported on previously here). But the result was legally different in both cases, with Comic-con obtaining millions in fees under the Lanham Act, while Grumpy Cat obtained nothing under the Act, but recovered nevertheless pursuant to a contract between her and the infringer. What explains the different results?

Comic-con: The Comic Con (short for “comic book convention”) dispute began when the San Diego Comic Con sued the Salt Lake Comic Con for infringing on San Diego’s “Comic-Con” trademarks. The San Diego convention was one of the first comics-fan conventions.  And it is the largest convention of its kind, drawing more than 130,000 attendees each year. Salt Lake’s convention began in 2013, but it has quickly grown to over 120,000 attendees. Thus, it is probably no surprise that San Diego took exception to Salt Lake’s competing event and use of the same “Comic Con” name–though, as my colleague Jessica Alm pointed out, there are many other conventions across the United States using the same name.

San Diego Comic Con sued Salt Lake Comic Con for infringement. But despite the seemingly-debatable nature of the dispute (because the name could be generic, and it would be difficult to prove consume confusion), less than a year ago a jury determined that Salt Lake was liable for infringement in the amount of $20,000. Thereafter, San Diego moved for fees in the amount of $5 million–a little disproportionate, one would think (but perhaps not in view of San Diego’s requested $12 million in damages).

The district court judge granted $3.9 million. The reasons? Salt Lake repeatedly disregarded court rules, violated confidentiality rules, squandered judicial resources by relitigating issues, based arguments on irrelevant law, and attempted to bias the jury during the trial. The judge felt that the case stood out from others due to the “unreasonable manner it was litigated.” Expect an appeal on the $20,000:$3.9 million ratio.

Grumpy Cat: The Grumpy Cat dispute began when Grenade Beverage LLC, which had licensed Grumpy Cat’s trademarks (names and likenesses) to be used in trade dress and advertising for a new line of iced coffee products called “Grumppuccinos,” also used the marks in connection with a new coffee bean product without Grumpy Cat’s permission. Like the Comic Con litigation, the parties also litigated this case for three years. In addition, a jury awarded Grumpy Cat over $700,000–much more than San Diego Comic Con. But only $1 of that was for breach of the licensing agreement.

But unlike the Comic Con litigation, a federal judge recently denied Grumpy Cat’s request for approximately $320,000 in fees under the Lanham and Copyright Acts. The judge did, however, granted Grumpy Cat fees under the licensing agreement with Grenade Beverage–though, the judge said that there needs to be additional briefing on how much in fees can be awarded under the contract. Central to the judge’s decision on the Lanham Act fees issue was the fact that Grenade Beverage had not acted frivolously or in bad faith when they adopted an interpretation of the licensing agreement that entitled them to use Grumpy Cat’s marks in a line of Grumpy-Cat- branded “coffee products,” rather than just iced coffee. This reasonable difference of opinion–and, presumably, reasonable litigation behavior throughout the case–did not make out “exceptional” circumstances justifying fees under the Lanham Act.

In general, the Comic Con and Grumpy Cat cases provide two high-level teachings when it comes to fees. First, it is important to choose professional counsel, make reasonable litigation decisions, and take good faith positions throughout the course of a case. Otherwise, that conduct in and of itself may make the case “exceptional,” putting you on the hook. Second, attorneys’ fees provisions in a licensing agreement can serve as a helpful back-up if the Lanham Act fees request fails. But in providing for such fees, one should consider whether it is truly advantageous in the circumstances to remove the American Rule’s protections. That requires some thought…I need a Grumppuccino.

P.S. In April, I wrote about the USPTO’s attempt to obtain attorneys’ fees when it prevails in district court patent litigation. The Federal Circuit rejected this attempt, stating “the American Rule prohibits courts from shifting attorneys’ fees from one party to another absent a ‘specific and explicit’ directive from Congress. The phrase ‘[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings’ [in 35 U.S.C. § 145] falls short of this stringent standard.”

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!

Trademark enforcement, particularly in an age of social media and internet shaming, is tricky business.  Some brands (I’m looking at you, Louis Vuitton) seem to have enough market share to ignore the social backlash from their heavy-handed demand letters.  But companies that lack that kind of brand power could benefit from a bit more finesse in their enforcement efforts.

Aloha Poke Co. is a Chicago-based poke restaurant.  Poke—a traditional Hawaiian dish of raw fish—has spread through the mainland in the form of fast-casual rice bowls topped with colorful veggies and sauces.  Aloha Poke opened its first store in 2016.  The company now boasts 15 locations across the U.S., including one right here in Minneapolis.  Aloha Poke holds two trademark registrations, one of which is a word mark for ALOHA POKE.  Despite the questionable trademark use of a word as ubiquitous as “Aloha,” the Trademark Office registered the mark without a single Office Action.  The Trademark Office only required Aloha Poke to disclaim rights to the word “poke.”

Recently, Aloha Poke sent cease and desist letters to various poke shops across the country having “Aloha” in their names.  “Aloha Poke would prefer to settle this matter amicably and without court intervention,” the letter read.  “We therefore request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke.’”  That doesn’t sound particularly amicable.

At least some of the restaurants receiving the letter were native Hawaiian-owned.  Tasha Kahele is a native Hawaiian and the owner of what was formerly the Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage, Alaska.  After receiving Aloha’s letter, she changed her shop’s name to Lei’s Poke Stop.  Aloha Poke’s demands that native Hawaiian people stop using two Hawaiian terms is not sitting well with many.  Many have called Aloha Poke’s efforts a clear case of cultural appropriation.  An online petition demanding that Aloha Poke stop using “Aloha” and “poke” has garnered over 150,000 signatures.  Last week, hundreds of people gathered in protest outside the company’s Chicago headquarters.

In a statement on its Facebook page, Aloha Poke explained its reasons for sending the letters, indicated its respect for the Hawaiian culture, and apologized for “the confusion that this has caused.”

A company is wise to monitor and enforce its trademark rights.  And indeed, Aloha Poke’s potential claims against poke restaurants with similar names do not appear legally frivolous on their face.  But in terms of public image and even cultural awareness, Aloha Poke could have gone about its enforcement in a different way.