Over the last decade, we’ve covered Super Bowl topics, it’s that time of year again!

We’ve probed the NFL’s overzealous activities and asked hard fair use questions.

And, with Big Game LII in our backyard, we had a front row ambush marketing seat.

With digital marketing, that front row seat can be anywhere your iPhone takes you:

The top half of the email advertisement from Tuesday, landing in my inbox (shown above), seems to have a better argument for a nominative fair use defense than the the bottom half of the same ad (shown below), agree?

Assuming Birch’s is not an actual licensee, seems to me a rather difficult argument that use of the Super Bowl LIII logo is really fair and necessary for communicating truthfully, but, what say you?

UPDATE:

Hot off the email press and inbox from yesterday, here is another Super Bowl ambush, note their favoring of “Big Game” over “Super Bowl”:

So, they may have avoided the NFL’s wrath, but what about the Patriots and Rams logos on the helmets, fair use, or not, friends?

Here’s to looking at you again, James!

North Memorial Health must be spending significant advertising dollars at the moment, with a variety of ads appearing all over the Minneapolis skyway system, above is one current example.

In addition, there are a series of humorous and sarcastic TV ads that were designed to poke the bear of our broken health care system, congrats to Brandfire on their creative work here.

The current ad campaign follows the health system’s rebrand and slight truncation earlier this year, from North Memorial Health Care to North Memorial Health:

“The brand campaign consists of TV, out of home, digital and print advertisements. It pokes fun at the industry by showing experiences of customers and attitudes of healthcare that are universally frustrating.  The print and outdoor advertisements also demonstrate that North Memorial Health accepts its share of the blame, but commits to working harder to deliver an unmatched experience for the customer.”

So, I guess, if patients admit to having Googled their symptons prior to their appointment, they will no longer be scolded for doing so by doctors, nurses, and other health care providers, right?

But, what about the glaring Google reference in the above skyway ad, did North Memorial Health need permission from Google for the gratuitous reference?

You may recall, a few years back I wrote about Google surviving a genericness challenge (Tucker and Jessica have provided updates), drawing attention to possible meanings of the word Google:

“The word google has four possible meanings in this case: (1) a trademark designating the Google search engine; (2) a verb referring to the act of searching on the internet using the Google search engine; (3) a verb referring to the act of searching on the internet using any search engine; and (4) a common descriptive term for search engines in general.”

Seems to me, in the North Memorial Health ad shown above, Google could be understood as the verb meanings in both (2) and (3), as the capitalization doesn’t point uniquely to Google.

There is little doubt that no Google permission is required for the ad, because nominative fair use ought to apply, given the plausible, but not required meaning of the above definition in (2).

More interesting to me though, is the question of whether classic fair use could apply as well to the Google use, given the plausible, but not required meaning of Google in definition (3) above.

If so, I’m not sure I’ve encountered an example or case before where both classic and nominative fair use applied, perhaps this is a first, so what do you really think, without Googling it, of course?

Over the weekend, the Star Tribune continued the growing drum beat of understandable excitement for Super Bowl LII, as it steadily approaches U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The article also plays the typical NFL-enabling drum beat of caution against local businesses that might see fit to fairly and truthfully reference the Super Bowl in some commercial manner:

“From the NFL’s viewpoint, if businesses use the terms or other trademarks, it could appear like it is an official part of the Super Bowl or its related events, said Dolores DiBella, one of the lead intellectual property attorneys for the NFL.”

Perhaps the NFL would like to live in a world where no business can use the words “Super Bowl” without paying a fee; that isn’t the world we live in, especially given the growing judicial drum beat and emphasis on Free Speech and the First Amendment in the trademark/copyright worlds.

Nowhere in the article is there any acknowledgement that the NFL has long been accused of behaving as a trademark bully and overreaching with its valuable intellectual property rights.

The legal test for trademark infringement (likelihood of confusion) is not shown when a use “could appear like it is an official part of the Super Bowl or its related events,” the mere possibility is simply not enough, the likelihood of confusion must be probable.

Nowhere in the article is there any mention of trademark fair use; classic or nominative fair use. Nowhere is there any mention of Free Speech or the First Amendment. Even, this kind.

And, for those wondering whether the Super Bowl trademark might be famous and deserving of dilution protection, let’s not forget, the future of trademark dilution law is in question.

So, while it is true that not uttering the words “Super Bowl” will help a business play it safe and avoid all the fire and fury of the NFL, for those who are properly advised and have insurance coverage for advertising injury, that would be a very big game worth watching (or playing) too.

SteepTea

The grocery aisles are fertile grounds for my keyboard, as you know. And, while I’m generally far more interested in coffee grounds than tea leaves (unless we’re speaking of the iced variety or reading between the lines of court decisions), the above shown box of tea bags caught my eye.

What initially captured my interest is the large yet engaging lower case branding of the word “steep” followed by the diminutive signature line “by BIGELOW” in all caps.

Given the descriptive character of the visually-emphasized word “steep” in connection with tea, and the “by” signature line of the well-known BIGELOW tea brand, my instincts told me a USPTO search would reveal a crowded field of marks containing STEEP, likely fueling my assumption that “steep” couldn’t be owned as a trademark for tea standing alone.

Turns out, STEEP was federally-registered back in 2004, for tea (as a single word mark with no style limitations), pursuant to an apparent showing of acquired distinctiveness under Section 2(f) of the Lanham Act, but the registration expired in 2010 and was cancelled under Section 8 of the Lanham Act in 2010, making way for the crowded field I imagined.

It also turns out, there is more to the story than I have time today to turn over every tea leaf of this one: The apparent principal behind the expired registration is back at the USPTO with a new STEEP application, claiming continuous use of STEEP for tea since 1994.

The irony is that the STEEP BY BIGELOW registration (first use in 2015) is now barring registration of the new STEEP application, here is the recent likelihood of confusion refusal.

So, I’ll leave you with a few questions that come to mind.

First, what’s the next move for the STEEP applicant?

And, looking back in time, did Bigelow add the signature line underneath the prominent use of “steep” to facilitate registration of STEEP BY BIGELOW and perhaps reduce the perceived risk of a trademark conflict with the prior registrant of STEEP for tea?

If so, will Bigelow regret not volunteering a disclaimer of the descriptive word “steep” since the USPTO oddly didn’t ask for one?

Assuming there are prior common law rights in STEEP and Bigelow wants to explain the lack of a disclaimer, might it point to the unitary mark theory?

Better yet, will the ineffective opposition (filed by the apparent principal of the prior registrant of STEEP) bar a future petition to cancel STEEP BY BIGELOW (to clear the path for re-registration of STEEP standing alone)?

If there are, in fact, prior common law rights in STEEP and the principal behind the STEEP application finds a way to federal court, has Bigelow relinquished a classic fair use defense in making “steep” part of its trademark use?

Finally, if risk avoidance is the goal (hoping for a steep slide into neutralizing a likelihood of confusion claim), might it be more effective to play with the meaning of the marks element of a likelihood of confusion claim, perhaps by adding graphic elements that invite other meanings of “steep” as compared to the more obvious one for tea?

Unable to resist a good trademark story, I snapped this photo in one of the countless gift shops along Hollywood Boulevard, as my family searched for various stars and did the "Walk of Fame," a week or so ago. What drew us into this particular shop was a striking wall full of shelves displaying what appeared to be rows upon rows of mini-Oscar gift statuettes.

Unlikely, however, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences "has carefully limited reproductions of the Oscar statuette . . . ." In fact, the Academy has a pretty controlled press-kit full of legal regulations, and the only trinkets that the Oscar trademark is federally registered for appears to be clothing, books and pamphlets; and the non-verbal two-dimensional depiction of the Oscar statuette is federally registered as a trademark for only clothing, pre-recorded videotapes, and books and pamphlets, no trophies or other gift items, it appears.

Indeed, upon closer inspection, the shop’s sign appropriately reads: "Small Trophy $8.99." It struck me that this is literally the sign of an effective trademark enforcement program. Left to their own devices, it wouldn’t be surprising to see shopkeeper’s signage reading "take home your very own Oscar style trophy," or "Oscar style trophies for sale," but the well-trained sign makes no such mentions and it does not utter the words "Oscar" or "Academy Awards," presumably because the Academy’s Oscar trademark police frequently patrol these parts. Or, perhaps when you’re positioned on Hollywood Boulevard, tourists get the picture, so to speak, without the use of another’s probably famous trademark.

What about when your gift or trophy shop is not on Hollywood Boulevard, but instead, somewhere along the Information Superhighway or beyond?

Continue Reading The Sign of a Successful Trademark Enforcement Program

  

The Easter Bunny eats lettuce, right? OK, not a very substantive tie-in for today’s Easter Day post . . . .

Anyway, about five weeks ago the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois rendered a trademark decision in Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises,Inc. v. Leila Sophia AR, LLC, d/b/a Lettuce Mix, granting plaintiff Lettuce Entertain You a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against defendant’s use of Lettuce Mix in connection with restaurant services, offering, among other items, lettuce salads.

The likelihood of confusion analysis was let us say, garden variety, so I thought I’d nibble instead, at least a bit, on the classic a/k/a descriptive fair use defense, asserted in the defendant’s prayer for relief, which was correctly denied.

Defendants argue that their use of “Lettuce mix” is fair. To prevail on their fair use defense, defendants must show that (1) they are not using Lettuce mix as a service mark; (2) they are using the mark in good faith merely to describe their services, and (3) the mark is in fact descriptive of their services.

                                                              *  *  * 

[D]efendants in this case are not using “lettuce” solely in the ordinary sense. Rather, defendants are using it as a pun to indicate that it is a restaurant that mixes salads to-order for its patrons, not that it sells their main ingredient, lettuce. Because defendants cannot meet the first element of its fair use defense, their fair use defense must fail.

Let us say, this decision serves as a good reminder that one cannot succeed on a classic or descriptive fair use defense when the words at issue are being used by the accused infringer in a service mark manner. Use on signage above the entrance to a restaurant typically will fall into this category of no fair use. The fact that defendant also made a commercial use of the words Lettuce Mix in a pun sense, not solely in their ordinary sense, caused this use to be considered an attention-getting service mark use, outside the reach of a successful fair use defense. Accordingly, the defendant’s prayer for relief was correctly denied.

Bloggers are, of course, free to make liberal use of puns in their posts, without those puns being labeled service mark uses, even if they heppen to attract some attention.

This unsolicited e-mail communication from the Caribbean Island of Nevis got trapped in our spam filter, but I thought I’d remove the link and bring it out under a short leash for some legal training and discussion:

Google Works

Trademark fair use, you ask?

Continue Reading Fair Use of the Google Name, Logo, and Distinctive Color Combination?