Let’s all hope that the Supplemental Trademark Register is not on the death watch.

It appears though to be on life support, at times, and especially with the USPTO’s heightened focus on “merely informational” matter, including laudatory messages.

This is a common basis for registration refusal nowadays: “Merely informational matter fails to function as a mark to indicate source and thus is not registrable.”

Don’t all valid trademarks communicate information? Exactly. How does the USPTO know when at least one of the bits of that information is not about the source?

It cannot be fatal to validity that a mark communicates more information than simply source, see a suggestive mark or a descriptive one that has become distinctive.

Although not a laudatory example, the first precedential decision from the TTAB in 2019 denied Wal-Mart’s application on the Principal Register, for INVESTING IN AMERICAN JOBS, a slogan for retail store services, calling it “merely informational,incapable as a mark:


Wal-Mart recognized that its claimed mark communicated descriptive information, yet it argued that its evidence was sufficient to show acquired distinctiveness.

What’s striking about the Wal-Mart decision is that evidence of descriptiveness was used to support the fatal conclusion that the slogan can never function as a mark.

It relied on a series of prior cases holding certain phrases incapable of functioning as marks (THINK GREEN, GUARANTEED STARTING, DRIVE SAFELY, and others).

It used evidence typically supportive of a descriptiveness refusal to say that Wal-Mart’s slogan would not be perceived as a mark to indicate the source of services.

It also pointed to several examples like “ONCE A MARINE, ALWAYS A MARINE,” “PROUDLY MADE IN THE USA,” and “THE BEST BEER IN AMERICA,” as merely informational or laudatory slogans, incapable of serving a trademark purpose.

Laudatory terms long have been considered merely descriptive (not generic) for the provided goods or services, so they’re ideally suited for the Supplemental Register.

The Supplemental Register exists as a holding cell for merely descriptive phrases not yet distinctive, but capable of becoming distinctive, maybe at some future time.

Incapable matter — subject matter that cannot serve as a trademark — like generic terms and phrases are impossible and hopeless of ever functioning as a valid mark.

TMEP 1202.04(a) actually blends laudatory and informational: “Matter that only conveys general information about the applicant’s identified goods or services, including highly laudatory claims of superiority, fails to function as a mark.”

So, now we’re going to differentiate between garden variety laudatory claims that are descriptive, and “highly laudatory claims of superiority” — the latter being incapable, and the former holding out some hope of having at least a chance?

This unfortunate approach is reminiscent of the widely criticized approach of the “so highly descriptive” category as to be incapable of serving a trademark purpose.

All the way back in 1989, I went on the record, questioning the “so highly descriptive as to be incapable” line of cases in “Putting the Cart Before the Horse in Assessing Trademark Validity — Toward Redefining the Inherently Generic Term,” published in the University of Iowa College of Law’s Journal of Corporation Law.

The problem with the “so highly descriptive” category is it treats descriptive matter as incapable and generic without the rigors of an actual genericness determination.

The poster (or coaster) child for the eerily similar approach is the Federal Circuit’s 1999 decision rejecting Sam Adam’s THE BEST BEER IN AMERICA slogan as incapable, blurring the distinction between descriptive and generic designations:

In that decision, Sam Adams had “not met its burden to show” that the slogan THE BEST BEER IN AMERICA for beer, had acquired distinctiveness/secondary meaning.

Had the TTAB and Federal Circuit stopped there, fair enough, doing so would have allowed Sam Adams to seek a Supplemental Registration and try again later (with more evidence of acquired distinctiveness) for a coveted Principal Registration.

But instead, both the TTAB below and the Federal Circuit on review, went on to editorialize that no amount of evidence could ever turn THE BEST BEER IN AMERICA into a trademark, not because it’s generic, but because it’s incapable.

That’s what courts routinely said about single color marks, they’re impossible and incapable of serving a trademark purpose, until Owens Corning came along with the Pink Panther, to reverse decades of thinking against single color trademarks.

And, if “highly laudatory claims of superiority” are actually incapable of a trademark purpose and outside the possible definition of a trademark, then how can Principal Registration of AMERICA’S BEST BEER DRINKING CITY be explained, or these?

Let’s be honest, since the stated test is really to discern how the claimed mark would be perceived by the relevant public, too easily dismissing evidence going to that question, doesn’t help and starts to feel more like an impossible shell game.

I’d rather see the evidence of descriptiveness (which provides information) used to support a descriptiveness refusal, allow a Supplemental Registration, then the USPTO can wage the real evidentiary battle with claims of acquired distinctiveness.

Last week was an incredible opportunity to share some of these thoughts in NYC with those attending Practicing Law Institute’s Advanced Trademark Law 2019 seminar, thanks to PLI, Kenneth Min, and co-chairs Kieran Doyle and Dean Eyler!

In the end, let’s all hope that the USPTO reins in its hyper-focus on expanding the “merely informational” and outcome-determinative category of incapable subject matter, so we don’t have to kiss the Supplemental Register goodbye.

Additional hat tip to Sam Adam’s and its vintage painter’s cap:

 

 

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.

Loyal readers know that trademark rights are dynamic, use-it-or-lose-it intellectual property rights.

So, when signage announces a name change, it jumpstarts the question of trademark abdonment:

The above signage and reporting around the sale and rebrand of SuperAmerica convenience stores seem to suggest the SuperAmerica name will cease to be used, bringing Speedway coast-to-coast.

Time will tell though if there is a plan in place to avoid legal abandonment of the SuperAmerica trademark, so that it does not become part of the public domain, available for others to adopt.

We explored this important question a few years ago, when we discovered Chevron’s efforts to maintain exclusive rights in the Standard trademark:

“Of course, there is a delicate but critical balance in avoiding trademark abandonment following mergers and consolidations. Trademark types often will hear this question from brand managers after learning that three years of non-use constitutes presumptive abandonment: What is the minimum amount of use necessary to retain rights in the brand and trademark?

It is a dangerous question — especially when phrased this way — because ‘token use’ of a trademark was rejected as a ‘use in commerce’ in the U.S., back when our current intent-to-use trademark registration system was ushered into law during 1989. In outlawing ‘token use’ as a now failed way of developing trademark rights, the definition of ‘use in commerce’ was amended to add this critical language, requiring the use to be: ‘the bona fide use of a mark in the ordinary course of trade, and not made merely to reserve a right in a mark.’

So, asking how little a use is enough to retain rights, starts to sound a lot like a use made ‘merely to reserve a right in a mark.’ Congress did indicate that what constitutes use ‘in the ordinary course of trade’ will vary from one industry to another. It also noted that ‘use in commerce’ should be ‘interpreted flexibly’ so as to encompass various genuine, but less traditional, trademark uses. And, the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP) notes that these three factors are important to consider: (1) the amount of use; (2) the nature or quality of the transaction; and (3) what is typical use within a particular industry. TMEP 901.02.”

It appears most of the SuperAmerica trademark registrations recently have been renewed, so with ten year terms, it likely will be several more years before we begin to see what, if any, use is relied upon at the Trademark Office to maintain registered rights in the SuperAmerica mark.

In the meantime, what do you think, is there a plan in place to maintain rights in SuperAmerica?

As the drum beat grows for our interview of Seth Godin tomorrow, it is only fitting that we are reminded of the importance of embracing tension and the ruckus we’ve set out to make here.

Seth’s fabulous and penetrating new book called This is Marketing, will be released tomorrow, no doubt another best-seller, a must-read for any lawyer who cares to make change for the better.

Until then, thanks again to Fred McGrath for this second video, capturing how we embrace tension:

We’ve been stalking Kevin O’Leary’s nutty Mr. Wonderful trademark application, for a while now.

In April, we thought the USPTO would refuse registration of Mr. Wonderful for nuts, based on this:

In June, we were shocked to see the USPTO missed issuing the obvious refusal, and in August, we noted and reported that The Wonderful Company LLC had filed an Extension of Time to Oppose.

Just last month, O’Leary’s trademark counsel filed a Request for Express Abandonment of the Mr. Wonderful trademark application, and the USPTO promptly issued a Notice of Abandonment.

One of O’Leary’s most famous lines from Shark Tank seems to fit this very moment, as we mourn the loss of O’Leary’s Mr. Wonderful trademark application for roasted nuts, with a popular meme:

We’ve been down this road before, some themes intersect, and trademark value is filtered out:

The intersecting themes on tap for the day are: Zero, Branding, Trademarks, and Loss of Rights.

ZEROWATER is a perfectly suggestive, inherently distinctive, and federally-registered trademark with “incontestable” status as a source-identifier for “water filtering units for household use.”

Judging from the specimens in the file history at the USPTO, the brand owner appears to have done a nice job leaving consumers to imagine the connection between the mark and the goods.

Branding ZEROWATER with taglines like “For water that’s only water,” “Get more out of your water,”  “If it isn’t zero, zero, zero, it isn’t just water” “If it’s not 000, it’s not ZeroWater,” and “If it’s not all zeros, it’s not ZeroWater,” all help to block Zero from pure and mere descriptiveness:

On the other hand, as the top image of the retail endcap shows (click the image to enlarge), the current packaging and product description adds blunt force to the now obvious meaning of ZERO:

“LEAVES ZERO DISSOLVED SOLIDS BEHIND”

Had this purely descriptive use of ZERO been present at filing, then ZEROWATER easily could have been refused as merely descriptive — why add it now? Especially with this far better existing copy:

“REMOVES VIRTUALLY ALL DISSOLVED SOLIDS”

While ZEROWATER can no longer be challenged as merely descriptive for “water filtering units for household use,” what about future applications having slightly different descriptions of goods?

Given all that Coca-Cola has done to turn ZERO generic in the soft drink category (meaning ZERO Sugars and/or Calories), shouldn’t ZEROWATER remove virtually all opportunities for genericness?

When a brand owner migrates toward descriptiveness with its copy, leaving the consumer with zero need to exercise any imagination as to meaning, there just might be “nothing” left to protect.

Happy Halloween from DuetsBlog! I write today regarding a scary subject: unregistered intellectual property. The horror! Ask any IP professional about registration, and you’re likely to hear that registration is one of the most important steps in protecting IP. Whether it is a patent, trademark, or copyright, registering IP often provides the IP owner greater rights than if the IP was unregistered. There is sometimes an exception for trade secrets, but that’s for another time…

A scary place for some; credit: Gen. Progress

Registering IP, specifically copyrights, may become even more crucial in the future. One of the most important upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases this term–which begins in October (coincidental?)–is Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC. The appeal addresses the question of whether the creator of an unregistered work may sue for copyright infringement so long as the creator has applied for a copyright on the work, rather than requiring the creator to wait for the Copyright Office to register the work. The dispute comes down to 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), which provides that:

no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.

Currently, the Fifth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal have held that creators may sue for infringement as soon as they file the appropriate paperwork and fees for registration. Importantly, the Ninth Circuit encompasses Hollywood, providing greater protection to many of the nation’s creators. I ran into this issue myself on a case in these venues, and thankfully the law in these jurisdictions supported bringing a claim for copyright infringement without awaiting registration.

The Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have held that filing for registration is insufficient; a creator must have obtained preregistration or actual registration to sue for infringement. It’s the stuff of nightmares for procrastinating creators in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida!

But creators around the country, especially in Hollywood, let out a collective shriek when the federal Government filed a brief in support of the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, arguing that “a copyright-infringement suit may not be filed until the Register of Copyrights has either approved or refused registration of the work.” Beyond the statutory arguments in support of this position, the Government argued that  “although…the registration requirement may temporarily prevent copyright owners from enforcing their rights, that is the intended result of a congressional design to encourage prompt registration for the public benefit.”

Maybe the Government is right; requiring registration will certainly encourage registration. But on the other hand, many small creators either do not have the time or resources to seek registration for every work. However, even in cases in which there is copying, a creator can file an expedited application for registration, which sometimes results in a decision in less than a week.  So perhaps the rule from the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits isn’t that scary after all. A non-expedited application can take months, though. Thus, the rule from the Fifth and Ninth Circuits provides greater protections to creators who may face copying immediately after creating a work and who do not have the ability to file an expedited application. We’ll see what’s in the Supreme Court’s candy bowl this term. To be continued…

As you know, I enjoy telling trademark stories about soaps encountered on my various trips:

Lather® (brand) soap recently caught my eye — and the lens of my iPhone — while in Palo Alto.

Interestingly, the USPTO has treated the word as inherently distinctive, in Lather’s registrations.

In other words, not merely descriptive, even though using the product surely produces some.

So, some imagination, thought, or perception is needed to understand the connection with soap?

If so, I’m thinking Lather® soap is certainly close to the line between descriptive and suggestive:

Brand managers, would you be in a lather if faced with these other “lather”-styled soap marks?

Trademark types, what gets you all lathered up when it comes to trademark enforcement?

Photo credit: G. Baird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: G. Baird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours truly, will moderate a panel discussion joined by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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