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.

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.

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?

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.

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.”

As Steve blogged earlier this week, we’ve had a lot of “zero” on the mind lately—marks related to the word and numeral. It got me thinking about the letter ‘O,’ especially since it has been in recent trademark news.

If you missed it, The Ohio State University and Oklahoma State University are now dueling it out at the USPTO over Oklahoma’s trademark application related to the block ‘O.’ Specifically, Oklahoma is attempting to register a mark of “a drum major marching while leaning back with head tilted back”:

According to Oklahoma, it has been using the singular block ‘O’ since 2001, most notably on the jersey of its band’s drum major (but also on sports memorabelia):

But in an opposition to the mark, Ohio says it has been using the same letter since as early as 1898, and it’s current main athletics logo includes the block ‘O’ in the background:

According to Ohio, Oklahoma’s use of the leaning and tilted ‘O’ is likely to cause confusion. I wonder if any other O-state institutions will weigh in—looking at you, Oregon.

On the one hand, the block styling of the Oklahoma ‘O’ could cause consumers to accidentally purchase sports gear from the wrong institution. On the other hand, the letter ‘O’ is such a fundamental unit of the English language that it’s hard to argue just one institution should be entitled to its exclusive use—even if it’s only in the college sports context. And Oklahoma is only seeking registration of a mark which uses ‘O’ in a minor fashion. However, Oklahoma’s marching ‘O’ mark could run into issues related to the requirement that the mark be used in commerce. After all, it’s a mark representing the band major, who wears an ‘O.’ How does Oklahoma otherwise use the mark or plan to use it commerce?

It turns out that the letter ‘O’ is not widely used as a mark on its own. There are some recognizable uses, though. Perhaps the most distinctive use of the letter ‘O’ is the Oprah Magazine:

In 2001, a German magazine also named ‘O’ sued Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine, but the suit appears to have gone nowhere, and Oprah’s ‘O’ lives on.

The only other major ‘O’ competitor appears to be Cirque du Soleil:

Maybe there’s some potential for confusion between the Oklahoma drum major and the high-flying circus performers. Though, I’m guessing the audiences for both don’t substantially overlap.

I think the few recognizable instances of ‘O’ marks can be explained by the overall minor distinctiveness a single letter can generate when used in connection with a brand. This is the up-hill battle both Ohio and Oklahoma will face in arguing their sides of the trademark dispute. Stronger letter marks are paired with other words, such as O Magazine and O Cirque du Soleil. Another example comes to mind: Toys ‘R Us (also in the news lately).

Everyone knows if you really want to get zero calories from a beverage without any strings attached, you have to drink water. But what if you hate water? Try sparkling water! Look how exciting it is:

If sparkling water is the remedy to plain old boring water, why are some trademarks for sparkling water so … flat?

Back in May, Steve wrote about a new Pepsi sparkling water product branded as bubly™. That’s “bubbly” misspelled “bubly.” For sparkling water, it’s also descriptive, probably generic, and definitely not a conceptually strong trademark. Just look at this snip from the Wikipedia page for “carbonated water,” listing “bubbly water” as a generic alternative term:

Then earlier this month, it was announced that Pepsi has agreed to buy SodaStream, the popular manufacturer of at-home sparkling water makers, its most economical model branded Fizzi™.  That’s “fizzy” misspelled “Fizzi.”

De ja vu, anyone?  Take a look at the Wikipedia page again, if you have to:

So, here we have another descriptive, probably generic, definitely not conceptually strong trademark that lacks any suggestive, inherently distinct sparkle. And if there’s any doubt, check out the descriptive uses of the word “fizz” right on the product packaging:

And on the label attached to the machine:

And on the product website:

And in the consumer comments:

And in the FAQs:

Do marketers of sparkling water hate trademarks? (And why are they such bad spellers?)

Perhaps we’ll never know. Or perhaps the answer is simply that these marketing types just wanted to avoid this:

Video: link

Or this:

But what’s the fun in something so flat!

Marketing-types, what would you do? Would you bottle the brand that is so flat it needs no imagination for its meaning to bubble up in the minds of consumers? Or would you go with the brand that nobody knows how to say but plenty of folks enjoy . . . and enjoy poking fun at?

I’ve been thinking about the nature of language lately, ever since I listened to a podcast about various philosophers who devoted their study to language. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, is famous for his work on the logic of language. A fundamental premise to his philosophy is that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” In other words, language, although purposed on painting a picture of reality, is fundamentally limited in its ability to describe and do so fully and accurately. For Wittgenstein, this primarily meant that language cannot help us answer pressing metaphysical questions, but the realization has practical importance in branding.

Consider Wittgenstein’s insight in tandem with the desire to promote recall and recognition in a name without causing customers to confuse the name with another source, and you are presented with the challenge underlying all word-based marks: to turn a generally-known and familiar word (or prefix or suffix or otherwise) into a distinctive identifier so that it means something different or more than its generic definition. No small task, especially given language’s inherent descriptive limitations, and this is evidenced by the finite universe of words and combinations to choose from. There is bound to be some overlap in naming. Hence, we regularly witness “trademark twins”–the same or similar words used as marks for different sources of goods and services.

One example of trademark twinning has garnered attention in the press recently, arising from a trademark infringement suit between the Billy Goat Tavern and the Billy Goat Chip Company. The Billy Goat Tavern is a fast-food restaurant in Chicago which gained notoriety when its founder brought his goat to a Cubs game, but was asked to leave (with his goat), casting the “Billy Goat’s Gruff” curse on the Chicago Cubs. Saturday Night Live also parodied the experience of eating there–accurately, I can attest.


Credit: Fox 32

The Billy Goat Chip Company, out of St. Louis, has no affiliation with the Tavern, but the Tavern took issue with the Chip Company’s similar name after the Chip Company’s crisps started showing up in Chicago. Recently, a federal judge rejected the Chip Company’s defense that the Tavern delayed too long in suing the Chip Company, after having notice of the similar name for several years. It is worth noting that although the companies’ names begin with the same two words, their logos set them apart:

But the similarity of the names in the context of food may be more likely to cause confusion than if the names were used in completely different industries. On a continuum of “identical” to “fraternal” (non-identical) twins, it’s hard to pinpoint where the marks fall–and, thus, whether trademark law would require a bit more distinguishing. There is a possibility that consumers would think of the chips, for example, as having some affiliation with the Billy Goat Tavern as a source. This is even more likely when one realizes that the Billy Goat Tavern has never sold fries, only chips with its signature “cheezborger.” Coincidence? I’ve written about stranger coincidences before. Even then, though, how many consumers are that knowledgeable about the Billy Goat Tavern to make the connection? I’m thinking these twins are fraternal.

Numerous other examples of trademark twins abound: Domino’s Pizza and Domino Sugar, Dove Soap and Dove Chocolate, Pom Wonderful and Wonderful Pistachios–just to name a few! Speaking of three, how about some trademark triplets: Apple (iPhone), Apple Records, and Apple Paints. Or quadruplets: Delta Airlines, Delta Dental, Delta Faucet, and Delta Power. These twins, triplets, and quadruplets all borrow similar common words as names, but use them in different industries–making it unlikely that consumers will confuse the companies as one source. Their use in dissimilar markets and in connection with unique logos mitigates the legal danger presented by the intersection of the limits of language, fleetingness of human memory, and protections afforded by trademark law. But industry and logo are just two ways in which their genes differ.

Can you think of additional trademark twins or otherwise? How are they fraternal or identical? What do you think is most important when balancing simplicity, familiarity, notoriety, and legality?

Since last week, the internet has blown-up about what United States Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh might decide regarding issues coming before the Supreme Court if he joined the highest Court of the land. As a judge on the D.C. Circuit, Judge Kavanaugh has been skeptical about the authority of administrative agencies. This could impact decisions rendered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”).

Specifically, Judge Kavanaugh has been critical of the authority of the government agencies to promulgate regulations interpreting legislation. Judge Kavanaugh would likely find it inappropriate for an agency to fill in gaps left in a statute.  Judge Kavanaugh would likely chip away or do away with the Chevron doctrine. Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). This doctrine refers to a defense invoked by a government agency that allows a court to show deference to the agency’s interpretation of a law that it administers.

Several years ago, the United States Supreme Court held that issue preclusion should apply (so long as the other elements of issue preclusion are met) when the trademark usages adjudicated by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) are materially the same as those before the district court. B&B Hardware Inc. v. Hargis Indus., _ U.S. _, 135 S. Ct. 1293 (2015).  In other words, the decision of the TTAB can be binding on other courts. DuetsBlog has posted on this decision before:

Likelihood of Preclusion: Fallout From the Supreme Court Ruling on Likely Confusion and What Do Gripe Sites Have to Do with SCOTUS’s B&B Hardware Decision?

Justice Thomas and the late Justice Scalia disagreed with the majority in the B&B Hardware decision. In his dissent, Justice Thomas was troubled by the fact that the TTAB was not comprised of Article III judges. Instead, the judges serving on the TTAB lacked input from either the President of the United States or the Senate. The dissent believed that applying issue preclusion raised serious constitutional concerns.

Judge Kavanaugh appeared to have a similar view in connection with a decision related to an underlying decision rendered by the Copyright Royalty Board (“CRB”). He suggested that there was “a serious constitutional issue” with the way judges are appointed to the CRB. Judge Kavanaugh further wrote that “under the Appointments Clause, principal offices of the United States must be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.” Judge Kavanaugh wrote that the CRB had acted arbitrarily.

It will be interesting to see what impact a Justice Kavanaugh (or whoever becomes the ultimate replacement for Justice Kennedy) will have on the USPTO and intellectual property issues in general.

Hawaii seems to be on the mind here at DuetsBlog lately. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting three Hawaiian islands for the first time. While there, I quickly became acquainted with Hawaiian life and language. It’s a beautiful place; I recommend everyone visit.

When I first landed on Kauai, the “garden island,” I was quickly greeted with “Aloha,” in sound, sight, and mind. Although most understand “Aloha” to be a friendly greeting, the word has much greater meaning. It also means love, affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. In one word, it embodies Hawaii–and, indeed, the State of Hawaii has declared that Aloha is its official spirit. It is “more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation. . . . ‘Aloha’ means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. ‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. ‘Aloha’ means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.” Haw. Rev. Stat. § 5-7.5(a). All government employees are instructed to “contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the ‘Aloha Spirit.'” Haw. Rev. Stat. § 5-7.5(b). I guess they don’t call it the “Aloha State” for nothing!

With such importance to native Hawaiians, citizens of Hawaii, and the state themselves, it is no wonder that “Aloha” has also become a popular company, place, product, and service name on the islands. Throughout my journey there, I began to notice Aloha almost everywhere I went. See, for example, the following:

And the list goes on… In fact, a basic USPTO search revealed almost 500 live Aloha marks, and a search on the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs revealed over 10,000!

Seeing Aloha used so frequently caused me to ponder the potential risks of choosing a word like ‘Aloha’ for use in a brand. On the one hand, the word used in connection with most goods, services, and places is arbitrary or fanciful. What is, for example, “Aloha Tofu?” And the word may be suggestive or descriptive of Hawaiian roots. But on the other hand, the word “Aloha” is so ubiquitous that it can hardly be said to be inherently distinctive. Its common use, standing alone, does not immediately identify a single source and seemingly undermines the ability to develop secondary meaning in the minds of at least a Hawaiian public constantly bombarded with the word. Tying additional words to Aloha (e.g., “Aloha Fridays” or “Liquid Aloha”) might create more distinctiveness. But there seems to be an overarching risk that the mark’s initial generic non-distinctiveness will never be overcome. This risk is akin to genericide, but not due to expropriation–rather, widespread appropriation.

I enjoy the Aloha spirit and hope it spreads far and wide. But its ubiquitous adoption could turn a word which means quite a bit (see above), into a word which means very little when it comes to trademark law.