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?

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.

We’ve had a lot of nothing — meaning zero, and the trademark meaning, if any, of zero — on our mind lately, so imagine my surprise to see this soap “brand” for the first time last week in a hotel:

Not sure how to pronounce it, but as we know, there really is no “correct” way to pronounce a trademark, so it could be Zero, or perhaps a telescoped version of Zero Percent, who knows?

What we do know for sure is that neither Zero nor Zero Percent functions as an inherently distinctive trademark to identify, distinguish, and indicate a single source of this body collection:

Why Applicant’s Mark is Deemed Descriptive

“Applicant seeks to register the designation “ZERO%” for bath soaps in liquid solid and gel form; Body lotions; Hair shampoos and conditioners; Shower Gel.” Had applicant not applied under 1(a) and submitted specimens of use consisting of the bottles for shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel and hair 2 in 1, the mark would likely not have been seen as descriptive.

However the specimen bottles show graphically just what “ZERO%” describes about the applicant’s product. On each bottle is the following legend, explaining the mark:

 “ZERO sulfates

 ZERO parabens

 ZERO phthalates

 ZERO artificial colours

 ZERO animal testing”        

Thus it appears that “ZERO%” refers to the ingredients that are NOT present in applicant’s soaps and hair care and body lotion and shower gel products.  Sulfates and parabens have long been regarded as suspect with respect to human skin. Testing on animals is considered cruel. The ZERO% describes a certain purity in applicant’s products and a certain ethical sensibility about not making money from suffering animals.

In a parallel situation Diet Coke did very well when Coca Cola produced a ZERO caffeine soda, with, of course, zero calories.  Both caffeine and calories are enemies of healthful ingestion.

Applicant is applying the same logic to its toiletries and hair care products. This is to be applauded, however, the mark chosen, “ZERO%,” even without benefit of an explanation on every bottle, would have to have referred to SOMEthing about the goods. “ZERO%” of what? would be the logical question. And there is the answer, front and center, on the bottle.

Another way to look at this is: if using the name of an ingredient of the goods is descriptive use, then surely using a term that indicates the absence of unhealthy or unethical ingredients would also be descriptive.

Two major reasons for not protecting descriptive marks are (1) to prevent the owner of a descriptive mark from inhibiting competition in the marketplace and (2) to avoid the possibility of costly infringement suits brought by the trademark or service mark owner.  In re Abcor Dev. Corp., 588 F.2d 811, 813, 200 USPQ 215, 217 (C.C.P.A. 1978); TMEP §1209.  Businesses and competitors should be free to use descriptive language when describing their own goods and/or services to the public in advertising and marketing materials.  See In re Styleclick.com Inc., 58 USPQ2d 1523, 1527 (TTAB 2001).”

This descriptiveness refusal might be the most conversational and empathetic explanation I’ve seen over the course of my trademark career. Nicely done, USPTO Examining Attorney Jill C. Alt.

More than 6 years ago, Applicant Gilchrist & Soames, accepted the Examining Attorney’s invitation to amend to the Supplemental Register, for marks only “capable” of becoming distinctive.

In most cases, the attentive owner of a Supplemental Registration, in use for 5 consecutive years, already would have filed for Principal Registration, arguing in favor of acquired distinctiveness.

Gilchrist & Soames hasn’t (yet), and given what Zero has evolved to mean, will the noted parallel to Coca Cola’s Zero soda, cleanse zero to mean “incapable” of trademark status as a soap type?


In terms of zero sum games, in the trademark world, even if Zero and Zero Percent turn out to be generic, perhaps Gilchrist & Soames gained more in marketing than they would lose in trademark.

As we share another Labor Day together on DuetsBlog, we’re thankful for the emotional labor of those on this journey with us, and we hope you agree this effort is a win-win, no zero sum game.

Taking our discussion about Coke Zero a little further than Monday’s discussion, is it any wonder that “zero” stands for nothing, none, nada, when it comes to calories, given icons like this one:

In other words, it doesn’t and it can’t hold trademark significance for calorie-free, no-calorie, or zero-calorie food products and beverages, and spelling out “0” as ZERO can’t alter the equation:

So, in this context, it is pretty clear from the Nutritional Facts, that ZERO means, not only zero or no sugar, but also, zero or no calories, actually meaning zero and no trademark significance, right?

We’ve been writing about the COKE ZERO trademark for nearly a decade now, noting in 2014:

“[I]t will be worth watching to see whether the [TTAB] finds that ‘ZERO’ primarily means Coke or just a soft drink having ‘no calories, you know, a drink about nothing . . . .’”

Turns out, in May 2016, Coke obtained a favorable decision from the TTAB, ruling that ZERO is not generic for a soft drink category, instead it is descriptive and Coke has secondary meaning in it.

With that victory in hand, we then questioned Coke’s thinking in launching obvious generic use of ZERO, welcoming Coke Zero to the Genericide Watch, given this categorical and non-brand use:

Then, two months ago, the CAFC decided — on appeal — that the TTAB got it wrong, ruling it:

“[F]ailed to consider whether consumers would consider the term ZERO to be generic for a subcategory of the claimed genus of beverages – i.e., the subcategory of the claimed beverages encompassing the specialty beverage categories of drinks with few or no calories or few or no carbohydrates.”

We’re now back to the question we asked in 2014: “[I]s ZERO like LIGHT for beer, STONE OVEN for pizza — basically denoting the name of a product category instead of a source identifier?”

As to the next steps, the CAFC sent the case back to the TTAB, instructing it to “examine whether the term ZERO, when appended to a beverage mark, refers to a key aspect of the genus.”

TM types, is Professor McCarthy right that the CAFC ruling makes it too easy to find genericness?

I’m left wondering, given the floodgates that have opened up to other beverage brands also using ZERO as a generic category term for “no calories” or “no sugar” — is fighting for ZERO worth it?

 

 


 

 


Will Coke continue to fight for ZERO as a trademark? Or, should it make better soda instead?

How can The Coca-Cola Company even keep the trademark pursuit of ZERO going, when it already appears to have made the choice of making a better soda through its independent unit, Honest?


 

The above advertising billboard is plastered all over the Twin Cities at the moment, and it got me thinking, so here I am, once again, writing about Coke Zero, remember this can?

Coke obtained a favorable decision from the TTAB early last year, ruling that ZERO is not generic for a soft drink category, instead it is descriptive and Coke has secondary meaning in it.

So, why on earth has Coke positioned SUGAR immediately next to the word ZERO beneath the Coca-Cola script in widespread billboard advertising and packaging?

Putting the key trademark issue aside, it doesn’t even look like there is a good business case for it?

Had the above billboard advertisement and depicted bottle been part of the TTAB case decided last year, instead of specimens like the above can, seems probable we’d have seen a different result.

Has Coke forgotten that like functionality for non-traditional trademarks, genericness can be raised as a validity challenge for word marks, at any time?

Coke Zero, welcome to the Genericide Watch.

As you may recall, last September we wrote about Coca-Cola’s Significant Interest in Zero Marks, discussing Coca-Cola’s defense of a trademark infringement suit brought by an individual named Mirza Baig, who claimed rights in “Naturally Zero” for Canadian natural spring water, and Coca-Cola’s contrasting attempts to own and federally-register various marks containing the term ZERO (interestingly those applications all being opposed by RC Cola):

“Coca-Cola has been careful to straddle the fine lines of trademark protectability, since it has found itself on both sides of trademark disputes. Taking the position that ZERO is descriptive permitted Coke to defend the above-referenced trademark infringement challenge, while at the same time maintain that Coca-Cola’s juggernaut of marketing, sales and promotion established that is has acquired distinctiveness in its ZERO marks.”

Yesterday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals spoke on the subject, affirming the Northern District of Illinois’ grant of summary judgment in favor of Coca-Cola in the trademark infringement suit brought by Baig, reasoning:

“[W]e conclude that Baig has not provided evidence from which a rational jury could determine ‘Naturally Zero’ had established secondary meaning. . . . [It] was a tiny and brief entrant with negligible sales in the bottled-water portion of the beverage industry; its trivial role made it ‘difficult, maybe impossible’ for it to develop secondary meaning in the beverage industry for its mark. Moreover Baig’s narrow advertising efforts — limited to trade publications, which are primarily read by industry insiders, and some pamphlets handed out at gas stations — are also insufficient to show that a substantial segment of consumers associated ‘Naturally Zero’ with a single source. And Baig’s relatively insignificant and intermittent sales from 1998 to 2004 are insufficient for a finding that a substantial number of consumers would consider ‘Naturally Zero’ to be uniquely associated with Baig’s brand.” (case citations omitted).

Given the Court of Appeals’ agreement with Coca-Cola that no trial was necessary to address Baig’s claimed trademark infringement, and given the “tiny,” “brief,” “negligible,” “trivial,” “insignificant,” and “intermittent,” references characterizing Baig’s claimed use of “Naturally Zero,” one has to wonder whether attorney’s fees ought to be awarded Coca-Cola, at least on Baig’s pro se appeal of the case.

The beverage giant must be pleased with the win, but in the end, given all it has been forced to spend on defending this deep-pocket lawsuit, I’m guessing Coke may still be left with a bad aftertaste in its mouth on this one. Recall, the Seventh Circuit has shown a willingness to grant fees in trademark bullying fact patterns, and we know from 3M’s experience that Goliath can be bullied by David too, so relative size isn’t determinative.

In case you’re wondering about the status of the consolidated ZERO trademark oppositions brought by RC Cola (on genericness grounds) that Coca-Cola is currently defending at the TTAB, the parties are waiting for the Board to schedule a date for oral argument — this one might be worth attending, as I’ve written previously:

[I]t remains to be seen whether Coca-Cola will prevail in the consolidated opposition brought by Royal Crown Company, perhaps its most significant challenge to date regarding the ZERO series of marks. I’ll have to say, RC’s Trial Brief makes out a pretty strong case for finding ZERO generic for zero calorie beverages. In other words, is ZERO like LIGHT for beer, STONE OVEN for pizza — basically denoting the name of a product category instead of a source identifier?

In the end, given the Board’s recent genericness rulings regarding Subway’s claimed FOOTLONG mark, and Frito-Lay’s successful PRETZEL CRISPS challenge, it will be worth watching to see whether the Board finds that “ZERO” primarily means Coke or just a soft drink having “no calories, you know, a drink about nothing . . . .”

Stay tuned, hopefully we’ll know before the end of the year exactly where the meaning of ZERO stands.

Coca-Cola just announced it is introducing Coke Zero in India, which will make it the sub-brand’s 149th market in the world, a truly remarkable reach.

As the popular Coke Zero brand is approaching its tenth anniversary in the U.S., it seems like a good time to explore Coca-Cola’s trademark position in COKE ZERO and COCA-COLA ZERO here in the U.S., especially given the news last week that the beverage giant escaped a trademark infringement suit over the marks in the Northern District of Illinois.

After looking into that case, I was surprised to see, as long as Coke Zero has been on the market  — none of the ZERO marks sought by Coca Cola have registered, all seventeen remain pending in the U.S., including COKE ZERO, COCA-COLA ZERO, SPRITE ZERO, PIBB ZERO, VAULT ZERO, and POWERADE ZERO, among others.

In fact, the series of ZERO marks has been the subject of at least two very large and significant consolidated trademark oppositions at the TTAB of the USPTO, since 2007, and the one brought by Royal Crown Company (RC) remains active — in fact, the case was fully briefed this past summer and Coca-Cola requested just last month that the Board schedule final oral argument in the case. In the Royal Crown opposition, RC contends that Coca-Cola must disclaim any exclusive rights in the term ZERO, as that term is either generic for zero calorie beverages or merely descriptive without any secondary meaning or acquired distinctiveness.

The other consolidated opposition was brought by AMBEV, back in 2007, also asserting mere descriptiveness and lack of secondary meaning, but AMBEV’s consolidated opposition was dismissed just over two years ago by the TTAB, as the Board was convinced at that time, Coca-Cola had established acquired distinctiveness in its ZERO marks based on the factual record developed in that case.

So, if ZERO marks can be owned in connection with beverages, how did Coca-Cola escape liability in the trademark infringement suit in the Northern District of Illinois last week? The plaintiff in that case had asserted exclusive common law rights in NATURALLY ZERO for spring water, but it admitted to gross sales of $150,000 between 1998 and 2004, no production or sales after 2004, and no attempt to resume sales until 2010, well after Coca-Cola had launched its ZERO series of beverage products in the U.S.

Moreover, the plaintiff there had admitted NATURALLY ZERO communicated “no calories, you know, a drink about nothing . . . .” As a result, the court granted summary judgment to Coca-Cola, ruling as a matter of law that the plaintiff’s merely descriptive mark had not acquired distinctiveness, and even if it had, the claimed NATURALLY ZERO mark had been abandoned.

Coca-Cola has been careful to straddle the fine lines of trademark protectability, since it has found itself on both sides of trademark disputes. Taking the position that ZERO is descriptive permitted Coke to defend the above-referenced trademark infringement challenge, while at the same time maintain that Coca-Cola’s juggernaut of marketing, sales and promotion established that is has acquired distinctiveness in its ZERO marks.

Yet, it remains to be seen whether Coca-Cola will prevail in the consolidated opposition brought by Royal Crown Company, perhaps its most significant challenge to date regarding the ZERO series of marks. I’ll have to say, RC’s Trial Brief makes out a pretty strong case for finding ZERO generic for zero calorie beverages. In other words, is ZERO like LIGHT for beer, STONE OVEN for pizza — basically denoting the name of a product category instead of a source identifier?

In the end, given the Board’s recent genericness rulings regarding Subway’s claimed FOOTLONG mark, and Frito-Lay’s successful PRETZEL CRISPS challenge, it will be worth watching to see whether the Board finds that “ZERO” primarily means Coke or just a soft drink having “no calories, you know, a drink about nothing . . . .”

Repetition can be a beautiful thing, especially when it’s about The Real Thing:

This electronic billboard advertisement is another good example of Coca-Cola advertising that leaves certain aspects of the brand icons to the imagination, this one discloses only the middle portion of the famous contour bottle shape trademark.

And, speaking of repetition, remember these Coca-Cola gems from the DuetsBlog archives?

To the extent repetition frustrates you, keep in mind, Coca-Cola’s slogan from 1906 apparently was: “The great national temperance beverage.”

   

We’ve spent some time here discussing the world-famous Coca-Cola brand. Most recently, David Mitchell wrote about the incredible consistency of the Coca-Cola brand over the past 125 years. A while back Dave Taylor wrote a nice Ode to the Brand of Brands, the King of Cola: Coke.

And, let’s not forget my humble suggestion that a roadside sign promoting Coca-Cola at a drive-in restaurant that actually sells Pepsi instead of Coke, might be a good example of an appropriate application of the initial interest confusion test.

But, what about Coca-Cola’s frequent reference to "taste infringement" — some cleverly novel and suggestive legalese apparently coined by the Coca-Cola brand a few years back with its launch of Coke Zero?

Putting aside Brent’s fair question of whether the ads are a good idea, some of my favorite ads have been the Coke Zero viral ads, where a variety of lawyers are punk’d on hidden cameras, led to believe they are being interviewed by Coca-Cola representatives to take legal action for "taste infringement" — against the Coca-Cola team down the hall, the rival team of co-workers behind the Coke Zero launch. This one is my favorite, with lines such as these:

"Are you aware that Coke Zero tastes a lot like Coca-Cola?"

"There might be some taste infringement issues."

"I think it’s basic taste infringement, I’d like to stick with that phrase."

"Basically, a patent/copyright, a little too closely."

The ads are silly and I suspect most viewers appreciate the ridiculousness of Coca-Cola suing itself, but I’m not so sure people understand "taste infringement" to be a ridiculous or faux-legal claim — especially in this environment of increased focus and attention on the expansiveness of intellectual property rights. So, perhaps you heard it here first, there is no such legal claim.

In The Great Chocolate War, as reported by Jason Voiovich, the legal claim that Hershey’s — owner of the coveted Reese’s brand — brought against Dove’s competing peanut butter and chocolate candy, was based on trade dress. Notably, there was no asserted claim of "taste infringement". No one owns the combined taste of peanut butter and chocolate, thank goodness.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t intellectual property rights impacting the human sense of taste. For example, with respect to trademarks, we’ve written before about the possibility of taste being the subject of a non-traditional trademark, but to the best of my knowledge, none has been acknowledged or even identified to date. If you have information to the contrary, please share your insights here.

Of course, there is a reason for the lack of or scarcity of taste trademarks. Any product intended for human consumption is unlikely a candidate for taste trademark protection given the functionality doctrine. So, Coca-Cola can’t stop another from selling a beverage that has the same taste as Coca-Cola, just because it tastes the same, unless of course, the maker of the competitive beverage hired away key Coke employees who unlawfully revealed the closely guarded secret formula. That is how trade secret litigation happens, not "taste infringement" litigation.

Continue Reading Taste Infringement?