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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Wow, what a start to 2019!  We already have a Supreme Court case to look forward to, some great guest posts here and here, and plenty to build on from 2018.  Our first trade show of the year is also in the books – this time in Louisville, Kentucky for the Archery Trade Association’s annual trade show.  In addition to supporting clients in the industry, we had the privilege of working with the ATA in 2018 to develop an IP Guide for its members and help launch a new brand for the ATA, seen in the photographs below, along with a few other shots from the week:

Craig Krummen, Steve Baird, and Draeke Weseman at the ATA Trade Show (L to R, Dipak Shah not pictured)

 

Archery Trade Association – New Logo
Archery Trade Association – Express Pass Signage
Creative Brand Protection Video – Steve Baird
ATA Member Interview Video – Steve Baird
IP Guide Prepared for ATA Members by Winthrop & Weinstine

Along with predictions, also part of every new year is setting resolutions and goals. Aside from the usual, I’ve set a goal for DuetsBlog of joining Steve with posting something interesting once a week (unless the calendar is already full), which is easier typed than done.  So stay tuned, more to come from me and all of us at DuetsBlog in 2019!

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

I try to focus my commentary on good creative work. Otherwise, I’d be posting multiple times a day because there’s so much mediocre or outright poor work.

But today, I can’t resist

Moen’s running full-page ads for its new Flo product. On a field of irregularly scattered, different-size circles filled with ones and zeroes—”digital” water, get it?—the headline reads We Hacked Water (So It Can’t Hack You).

Huh?

The body copy is equally puzzling:

“…While [water is] seen as a vital resource that powers life, it’s also a network in your home that can be programmed. Introducing Flo by Moen, a revolutionary device that takes smart home technology to water with the first-of-its-kind whole home water supply control system. Intuitive design gives you the power to control, conserve and secure your water to protect the things you love.”

Okayyyy… So nefarious characters may hack into my water pipes and open the floodgates of my faucets? Or add some unhealthy stuff to my water so it “hacks” me, like security consultants say could happen to municipal water-treatment plants?

Since that doesn’t make any sense at all, I knew I had to DuetsBlog about it, and so headed to the Moen website.

Turns out that Flo is a control valve that detects whether there’s a leak somewhere in your home’s water system. Via smartphone (of course) it notifies you if it detects one. Moen notes some pretty good reasons why this might be a good idea.

In fact, the website offers a lot of good nuggets that you could use to build a compelling argument. So why on earth would Moen and the creative team go with such an opaque and confusing storyline, especially when introducing a unique and useful new product line?

I suspect a couple of factors diverted them.

Elsewhere on its website, Moen’s trying to chart new marketing waters with a lofty corporate story about being a company that has “given over to the power and beauty of water…[and] that also happens to make faucets.” (Commenting further on this is a subject for another day.)

Since they apparently want to be seen as the spiritual lovechild of water and more than just a fixture manufacturer, leading with the practical value of Flo isn’t hip enough. Rather, Flo advertising needs to signal that Moen’s in step with the brave new “smart” world.

And that leads to seductive creative ideas that make sense only when you know how they got there. I’m certain that everyone involved thinks this ad nails it because they know what they intend to communicate. Meanwhile, many of us scratch our heads to try to figure out what they heck they’re talking about.

Contrast that with this on the website: “Runs daily tests to ensure your home plumbing network is running efficiently. Continuously checks for leaks and potential vulnerabilities in your pipes. Automatically shuts off water to your home in the event of catastrophic failure.”

Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes, the best campaign is one that just says it plain.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Mastercard has become the latest company to shift to a “no name” approach to branding.

Of course, they aren’t the first to do this (see Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Target, etc.). We are living in an image-driven world (e.g., Instagram) so this trend is not surprising.

A Mastercard spokesperson said: “As the consumer and commerce landscape continues to evolve, the Mastercard Symbol represents Mastercard better than one word ever could, and the flexible modern design will allow it to work seamlessly across the digital landscape.”

One thing that many people forget is the millions (billions?) of dollars invested in the Mastercard name itself. And yes, that Venn diagram logo design is on every single credit card that Mastercard offers. It is no surprise that “…over 80% of people recognized the brand without the name.”

Does this trend mean that professional logo designers are more in demand or professional name developers are doomed? Nope. Mastercard could not have started with a snappy logo and assumed that everyone would get it. They spent years investing in their brand name and now they can reap the benefits. But you can’t just skip to the “image only” logo design. You have to create the meaning first, and that requires a great brand name (and logo!).

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

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

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

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

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

To piggyback on what I wrote back in October:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your predictions dear readers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is your big trademark prediction for 2019?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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