The battle for attorneys’ fees after an intense trademark dispute often leaves many prevailing parties empty handed. This is because the Lanham Act only provides for attorneys’ fees in “exceptional cases.” Congress’s (and courts’) reluctance to award attorneys’ fees stems from the “American Rule,” which provides that each party to a lawsuit is responsible for paying its own fees–unless a statute provides otherwise. But the Lanham Act erects a high bar to obtaining fees by requiring that the case be “exceptional.”

On the one hand, trademark owners should not have to fully shoulder the burden of what often turns into expensive litigation just to enforce their rights. Indeed, the estimated cost of protecting one’s rights can dramatically affect the calculus of whether to sue for infringement in the first place. But on the other hand, trademark violations are sometimes debatable and unclear. In such circumstances, the American Rule provides some protection to litigants who would otherwise be discouraged from seeking redress due to the risk that they might have to pay the defendant’s fees in the end if they lose. Thus, the Lanham Act strikes a balance, providing for reimbursement in cases of brazen and clear infringement–or brazen and clear abuse of the litigation process–while retaining the benefits the American Rule otherwise provides.

The Lanham Act’s fee provision has come up recently in two high-profile trademark cases: one involving Comic Con (reported on previously here and here), the other meme-famous Grumpy Cat (also reported on previously here). But the result was legally different in both cases, with Comic-con obtaining millions in fees under the Lanham Act, while Grumpy Cat obtained nothing under the Act, but recovered nevertheless pursuant to a contract between her and the infringer. What explains the different results?

Comic-con: The Comic Con (short for “comic book convention”) dispute began when the San Diego Comic Con sued the Salt Lake Comic Con for infringing on San Diego’s “Comic-Con” trademarks. The San Diego convention was one of the first comics-fan conventions.  And it is the largest convention of its kind, drawing more than 130,000 attendees each year. Salt Lake’s convention began in 2013, but it has quickly grown to over 120,000 attendees. Thus, it is probably no surprise that San Diego took exception to Salt Lake’s competing event and use of the same “Comic Con” name–though, as my colleague Jessica Alm pointed out, there are many other conventions across the United States using the same name.

San Diego Comic Con sued Salt Lake Comic Con for infringement. But despite the seemingly-debatable nature of the dispute (because the name could be generic, and it would be difficult to prove consume confusion), less than a year ago a jury determined that Salt Lake was liable for infringement in the amount of $20,000. Thereafter, San Diego moved for fees in the amount of $5 million–a little disproportionate, one would think (but perhaps not in view of San Diego’s requested $12 million in damages).

The district court judge granted $3.9 million. The reasons? Salt Lake repeatedly disregarded court rules, violated confidentiality rules, squandered judicial resources by relitigating issues, based arguments on irrelevant law, and attempted to bias the jury during the trial. The judge felt that the case stood out from others due to the “unreasonable manner it was litigated.” Expect an appeal on the $20,000:$3.9 million ratio.

Grumpy Cat: The Grumpy Cat dispute began when Grenade Beverage LLC, which had licensed Grumpy Cat’s trademarks (names and likenesses) to be used in trade dress and advertising for a new line of iced coffee products called “Grumppuccinos,” also used the marks in connection with a new coffee bean product without Grumpy Cat’s permission. Like the Comic Con litigation, the parties also litigated this case for three years. In addition, a jury awarded Grumpy Cat over $700,000–much more than San Diego Comic Con. But only $1 of that was for breach of the licensing agreement.

But unlike the Comic Con litigation, a federal judge recently denied Grumpy Cat’s request for approximately $320,000 in fees under the Lanham and Copyright Acts. The judge did, however, granted Grumpy Cat fees under the licensing agreement with Grenade Beverage–though, the judge said that there needs to be additional briefing on how much in fees can be awarded under the contract. Central to the judge’s decision on the Lanham Act fees issue was the fact that Grenade Beverage had not acted frivolously or in bad faith when they adopted an interpretation of the licensing agreement that entitled them to use Grumpy Cat’s marks in a line of Grumpy-Cat- branded “coffee products,” rather than just iced coffee. This reasonable difference of opinion–and, presumably, reasonable litigation behavior throughout the case–did not make out “exceptional” circumstances justifying fees under the Lanham Act.

In general, the Comic Con and Grumpy Cat cases provide two high-level teachings when it comes to fees. First, it is important to choose professional counsel, make reasonable litigation decisions, and take good faith positions throughout the course of a case. Otherwise, that conduct in and of itself may make the case “exceptional,” putting you on the hook. Second, attorneys’ fees provisions in a licensing agreement can serve as a helpful back-up if the Lanham Act fees request fails. But in providing for such fees, one should consider whether it is truly advantageous in the circumstances to remove the American Rule’s protections. That requires some thought…I need a Grumppuccino.

P.S. In April, I wrote about the USPTO’s attempt to obtain attorneys’ fees when it prevails in district court patent litigation. The Federal Circuit rejected this attempt, stating “the American Rule prohibits courts from shifting attorneys’ fees from one party to another absent a ‘specific and explicit’ directive from Congress. The phrase ‘[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings’ [in 35 U.S.C. § 145] falls short of this stringent standard.”

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

For anyone unfamiliar with internet cat personalities, Grumpy Cat is a well-known feline whose dwarfism and underbite culminate in a perpetual—and adorable—sour expression.  Grumpy Cat’s real name is Tardar Sauce.  In 2012, when Tardar Sauce was only a few months old, she became an internet sensation after a photo of her endearing scowl was posted on Reddit.  Since that time, Tardar Sauce has made several public appearances, and was named to Forbes’ list of Top Pet Influencers.

Tardar Sauce’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, formed Grumpy Cat Limited to handle licensing and merchandising of the Grumpy Cat brand.  Grumpy Cat Limited holds eight federal trademark registrations, including five registrations for the standard character mark GRUMPY CAT, and three registrations for this design mark:

Grumpy Cat Limited also owns multiple copyright registrations, including these:

 

In 2013, Grumpy Cat Limited entered into a licensing agreement with Grenade Beverage LLC.  Under the agreement, Grumpy Cat Limited licensed the Grumpy Cat trademarks and copyrights to Grenade in connection with a line of iced coffee products (appropriately named Grumppuccinos).

Three flavors of Grumppuccino

The licensing agreement additionally permitted Grenade to develop other Grumpy Cat beverage products, but only with the permission of Grumpy Cat Limited for each new product.  Under this provision, Grenade sought approval from Grumpy Cat Limited for a new line of Grumpy Cat-branded coffee beans.  Grumpy Cat Limited withheld approval for the coffee beans.  Grenade nonetheless moved forward with the new product.  Grenade also began selling unauthorized Grumppuccino t-shirts.

The offending beans

In late 2015, Grumpy Cat Limited sued Grenade for breach of contract, copyright infringement, and trademark infringement.  Namely, Grumpy Cat Limited asserted that Grenade’s use of the Grumpy Cat name and likeness on the coffee bean products and unauthorized Grumppuccino t-shirts was outside the permissible scope of the licensing agreement.

After a week-long trial, during which Tardar Sauce herself made an appearance, a jury decided in favor of Grumpy Cat Limited.  The jury awarded $710,001 to Grumpy Cat Limited: $230,000 in statutory damages for copyright infringement, $480,000 in statutory damages for trademark infringement, and $1 for breach of contract.  Presumably, the statutory damages awarded to Grumpy Cat Limited equal more than any actual damages the company could have obtained–a reminder of the value of statutory damages in trademark and copyright infringement suits.