v.     

Texas Toast is the generic name for a type of bread, you know, the big thick double-cut slices. Anyone can call their bread Texas Toast if that is what they are selling, and, by the way, it doesn’t have to be toasted for the name to fit.

But, what if you’re selling a product made from bread, say, croutons? Can Texas Toast be owned and registered as a trademark for croutons? What if they are big, thick croutons, with a "Texas Toast" cut? And, if you market your croutons as "New York " brand, "The Original Texas Toast" croutons, does that not imply, if not admit, that others are free to compete by selling their own brand of, perhaps, non-original "Texas Toast" croutons? What if you didn’t start using a TM designation until after you noticed your competition selling Texas Toast croutons? Interesting questions, no doubt.

Well, ten days ago, a federal district judge in Ohio denied cross-motions for summary judgment in a trademark infringement case over an Ohio company’s claimed common law unregistered rights in "Texas Toast" for croutons and a Grand Rapids, Michigan company’s claimed descriptive fair use of "Texas Toast" also in connection with croutons. As an aside, having spent two years in school there, when I think of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and bread, sorry, all that comes to mind for me, are the wonderfully and perfectly steamed hot dog buns at the world famous Yesterdog.

In any event, back to Texas Toast, here is a pdf of the decision in T. Marzetti Co. v. Roskam Baking Co. , indicating that it is too early to decide the Texas Toast trademark infringement case because there are several disputed issues of fact, including, among others, the meaning and the term’s placement on the all-important Spectrum of Distinctiveness, i.e., whether "Texas Toast" is generic, descriptive, or suggestive for croutons.

Now, since the case wasn’t cut short and decided on summary judgment with a limited record, we’ll have to wait and see how the evidence shapes up and whose claim ends up being, eh, toasted, but  I’ll have to say, at this point, "Texas Toast" sounds to me like a category of croutons — those cut from texas toast style bread; like Lite and Light is to beer, and Brick Oven is to pizza — each are generic terms that are not own-able for those goods, because they designate a category of goods, not the origin or source of the goods. By the way, it doesn’t matter if you’re the first to use a generic term, if found generic, it is available for use by all, even direct competitors.

So, this is probably one of those trademark cases where who wins will come down to the proper placement of the claimed mark on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness. If generic, case over, defendant wins. If suggestive, plaintiff acquired rights based on its first use, two years prior to defendant’s use, and will likely win, provided a likelihood of confusion can be shown. If descriptive, plaintiff will be in the difficult position of proving that it acquired distinctiveness in "Texas Toast" prior to defendant’s first use, so within a short two-year period of time. If so, good luck with that.

No doubt, when it comes time for trial (or perhaps another summary judgment motion prior to trial), the plaintiff will make the most of the fact that the Trademark Office did not issue a descriptiveness or a genericness refusal on TEXAS TOAST for croutons, see the USPTO details here. Seems like an oversight to me, at least with respect to descriptiveness, after all, the plaintiff has the number one selling brand of texas toast style garlic bread, and it now has expanded that use into the field of croutons.

Ironically, to put its TEXAS TOAST trademark application in condition for publication by the U.S. Trademark Office Marzetti had to argue, and did so successfully, that it wasn’t likely to be confused with the prior federally-registered TEXTOAST trademark for bakery products. In doing so, it narrowed its description of goods from "croutons" to "croutons sold in a salad toppings section of grocery stores and supermarkets." Given that Marzetti’s mark will now be published for opposition, it is probably safe to assume that Roskam Baking will now oppose registration of Marzetti’s claimed TEXAS TOAST mark for croutons, so it doesn’t become registered prior to trial, but we’ll see.

So, what do you think about the critical Spectrum of Distinctiveness questions?

  1. Is Texas Toast generic for a category of croutons made from texas toast style cuts of bread?
  2. Is Texas Toast merely descriptive of croutons because it immediately describes a feature, characteristic, or attribute of croutons? or
  3. Is Texas Toast suggestive of croutons, because, a consumer’s imagination is required to understand the connection between the mark and the goods, or as plaintiff argues, "everything is bigger in Texas."  

Is plaintiff Marzetti’s suggestiveness argument all hat and no cattle?

Now, vote again, after reading plaintiff’s own description of its croutons below the jump.


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Last week we blogged about the dreaded D-Word and how some marketers unwittingly undermine trademark rights in a brand name by explaining that the name "describes" or is "descriptive" of the goods or services sold under the brand.

We also have blogged about the danger of "taking a suggestive name, mark, or tag-line, and using it descriptively in

Frequently brand owners find themselves in the position of wanting or needing to explain the thinking behind their name, mark, and/or brand. Sometimes the explanations appear publicly on product packaging, websites, catalogs, brochures, advertising, and frequently in press releases, or perhaps in statements to reporters, especially when trademark litigation concerning the brand is involved. Such explanations about the brand’s

John Welch, over at the TTABlog, reported on a recent trademark specimen of use case (pdf here); one near and dear to my heart, since I represented the Applicant seeking to register the composite word-only mark DELI EXPRESS SAN LUIS for sweet rolls. At issue in the case was whether the product label specimen (appearing below) shows use of the DELI EXPRESS SAN LUIS word-only mark as set forth in the standard character drawing of the trademark application:

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), in what it admitted to be a "necessarily subjective" analysis, examined the product label specimen — and on that basis alone — concluded it does not show use of the claimed DELI EXPRESS SAN LUIS mark:

Here, we agree with the examining attorney that the specimen depicts the two literal portions DELI EXPRESS and SAN LUIS in such a manner that consumers would not perceive them as constituting a single composite mark. First, the DELI EXPRESS portion is not only in a different font but is contained within a yellow-background, and then a larger red background, separated from the remainder of the packaging design by a black bar outlining the top left corner of the package. The other literal portion, SAN LUIS, is outside of that border area and is further separated by a fanciful triangle design and placed upon a green background. The term CONCHA appears below these two elements in a lighter green box. Taken together, we find that the impression left by this specimen is that the two elements, DELI EXPRESS and SAN LUIS, are two separate trademarks rather than the single mark shown on the drawing page (emphasis added).

I respectfully submit that these kinds of determinations — especially since they are admittedly and "necessarily subjective" — are not binary, either-or propositions. For example, it is entirely possible for a single specimen to show two trademarks that function as separate individual trademarks and also function together in the same specimen as a unitary word-only composite mark (see third-party registration examples below the jump).

Here, it seems to me, that the specimen in question shows multiple word-only marks (among others too, when designs and stylization is considered), including DELI EXPRESS, SAN LUIS, and the composite of those words, DELI EXPRESS SAN LUIS. Indeed, if a consumer were shown the product label and asked what brand of concha or sweet roll this is, it would be entirely reasonable and appropriate to answer: DELI EXPRESS SAN LUIS. If so, how can it be that the specimen does not show use of the claimed mark?

Given that the drawing shows the mark sought to be registered by applicant (TMEP 807; 37 CFR 2.52), given that applicants enjoy some latitude in choosing the mark to register and include in the drawing (TMEP 807.12(d)), given that the main purpose of the drawing is to provide notice of the nature of the mark sought to be registered (TMEP 807), given that the mark shown in a standard character word-only drawing need not appear on the specimen in the same font, style, size, or color (TMEP 807.03(e)), given that the USPTO actually encourages applicants to use standard character drawings (TMEP 807.04(b)), given that a standard character drawing is a quick and efficient way of showing the essence of a verbal mark (TMEP 807.04(b)), and given the "necessarily subjective" nature of the determination, I submit that the appropriate test for determining whether the specimen shows use of the verbal, word-only mark claimed in the standard character drawing, is whether it would be reasonable for consumers to request applicant’s product by the claimed trademark, given what actually appears on the specimen.

In other words, how might consumers request applicant’s sweet roll product? Again, I submit it is entirely reasonable that consumers who have seen the product label would request the product by asking for a "DELI EXPRESS SAN LUIS concha or sweet roll." Now, while they might also request a "DELI EXPRESS" concha or sweet roll, or perhaps a SAN LUIS concha or sweet roll, the most complete, accurate, and precise way to request the product would be to ask for a "DELI EXPRESS SAN LUIS" brand concha or sweet roll, and also thereby treat the words as a unitary composite mark, because:

  1. The DELI EXPRESS house brand (and primary brand) and the SAN LUIS secondary or sub-brand are the only brands and word-marks on the entire label;
  2. They appear proximate to one another, side-by-side on the same horizontal plane, at the top of the label, for easy, conventional reading from left to right;
  3. They form the dominant portion of the label since the design elements can’t be spoken;
  4. The DELI EXPRESS phrase appears in solid black lettering on a yellow-background, and the SAN LUIS phrase has a black-outlined border and it stems from a triangle design element matching the same yellow-background carrying the DELI EXPRESS phrase;
  5. There is no requirement to include generic words as part of the claimed mark, i.e., concha or sweet roll;
  6. Consumers familiar with applicant’s products are accustomed to similar label formats where the DELI EXPRESS house brand is proximately positioned with other sub-brands like SUPER MEGA, SNACKERS, COFFEES OF THE WORLD, and SUB SELECTS, to form federally-registered word-only standard character trademarks: DELI EXPRESS SUPER MEGA, DELI EXPRESS SNACKERS, DELI EXPRESS COFFEES OF THE WORLD, and DELI EXPRESS SUB SELECTS; and
  7. Consumers of packaged food products have been conditioned to perceive house marks and secondary marks as not only having separate trademark significance from each other, but also significance together, in the same specimen, even when different colors, styles and fonts may be used for each or portions of each, and even when other matter or wording may appear between them(see third-party registration evidence below the jump).


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"What am I?"

Every invention begs this essential question of identity.

The answer is found in the product’s descriptor. A descriptor defines a thing, categorizing it, framing it, positioning it and signaling its intended future.

A product that doesn’t claim to break new ground adopts its category’s standard convention. For example, a new, run-of-the-mill digital camera would be marketed as a "digital camera".

A revolutionary product, on the other hand, deserves an innovative product descriptor. And, sometimes, a me-too product benefits from one, too.

The trouble is, innovation is easier done than said.

I wrote in this article about the "brander’s paradox": Human instincts make us wary of unfamiliar and different things, yet differentiation is essential to a product’s success.

By definition, an innovation is unfamiliar. How can its product descriptor differentiate without triggering people’s fear of the unknown?

The New York Times gives us an idea in this recent article about product descriptors,

"When people encounter something they don’t recognize, they make sense of it by associating it with something familiar."

The most effective new descriptors combine familiar terms in unfamiliar ways. They make product function or form clearly understood, even upon first exposure. Novel descriptors insufficiently informative should at the very least pique interest.

Descriptors that differ

The products shown below the jump illustrate different approaches:


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My last post explored the fine — but critically important — line, between suggestive and descriptive naming styles, here. As you will recall, marketers and naming gurus who select from the former category are rewarded with immediate rights; selecting from the latter category leaves one in limbo until acquired distinctiveness can be proven, if

Earlier this week, Guest Blogger Burt Alper from Catchword Branding, provided a marketer’s perspective on the pros and cons of naming styles, here.

With that introduction, now seems like a good time to revisit the critically important line — in terms of legal protection — between descriptive and suggestive names, and also provide a handy graphic to illustrate the Trademark Spectrum of Distinctiveness:


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