Thumbnail for version as of 15:21, 6 September 2009A lot can be learned from the easily searched trademark registrations existing on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s online database. For example, Examining Attorneys at the USPTO will refuse registration based on prior confusingly similar registered marks, so responsible trademark owners will conduct the necessary searching and due diligence prior to adoption and first use. In addition, because searching the USPTO’s database can yield readily available evidence on a number of substantive issues important to trademark types and brand owners, third-party trademark registrations are a very tempting tool to use to try to prove a point.

As frustrating as it can be to trademark types and the brand owners they represent, third-party registrations cannot be used as legal precedent to try and compel a certain result. Such attempts easily are rebuffed at the USPTO since each application must be decided on its own merits and one Examining Attorney is not bound by the "mistakes" that may have been made by other Examining Attorneys at the USPTO. As a result, although consistency is a goal at the USPTO, it can be rather elusive at times. Having said that, third-party trademark registration evidence can have evidentiary value, if used properly, and the valid and acceptable use of third-party registration evidence has grown over time.

Third-party registrations have been considered relevant and probative in establishing a number of different and important trademark issues, including at least:

  1. The likely meaning of a mark to consumers. Tektronix, Inc. v. Daktronics, Inc., 534 F.2d 915 (CCPA 1976). 
  2. That goods or services are of a type that consumers may believe emanate from a single source. In re Albert Trostel & Sons Co., 29 USPQ2d 1783, 1785 (TTAB 1993).
  3. The likely meaning of a mark to consumers, i.e., whether it is merely descriptive or suggestive. Plus Products v. Star-Kist Foods, Inc., 220 USPQ 541 (TTAB 1983).
  4. That a mark is relatively weak and that consumers will rely on other matter to distinguish between marks. Palm Bay Imports, Inc. v. Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Maison Fondee En 1772, 396 F.3d 1369 (CAFC 2005).
  5. The existence of a relevant industry practice. Stuart Spector Designs, Ltd. et al. v. Fender Musical Instrument Corporation, 2009 WL 804142 (TTAB March 25, 2009) (finding the third-party registrations for guitar body designs supported the applicant’s position that the USPTO recognizes guitar body designs as capable of indicating source and the industry’s practice of registering guitar body designs); In re The Black & Decker Corp., 81 USPQ2d 1841 (TTAB 2006) (finding industry practice to use key head design as source indicator).

A couple of days ago I posted about a trademark specimen case, one where I was hoping the TTAB would expand the valid use of third-party registration evidence, but unfortunately, the TTAB did not acknowledge or address the third-party trademark registration evidence that was submitted (along with the specimens of use supporting those standard character word-only trademark registrations). Perhaps someone else can benefit from these thoughts in arguing for additional expanded use of third-party registrations in their trademark registration cases.


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Taglines and advertising slogans can be wonderful branding and marketing tools, but I’m thinking (not Arby’s, by the way) that McDonald’s is probably not thinkin’ that its (likely) famous I’m lovin’ it tagline accurately describes its taste for the federal trademark infringement lawsuit that Twin Cities-based Lion’s Tap recently slapped on McDonald’s for its whopper of an advertising campaign — promoting its new Angus Third Pounders — served up with the clever and simple play-on-words advertising slogan and question: Who’s Your Patty?

No doubt, McDonald’s likely will not make a run for the border, instead, it likely will instruct its team of lawyers to think outside the bun in designing a successful legal defense and response strategy, in the hope of not hearing the court say to Lion’s Tap in the end, have it your way.

For your reading pleasure, here is a pdf copy of the complaint filed last Friday in Minnesota federal district court. As you will see from the Minnesota State Who’s Your Patty? Certificate of Registration (attached to the filed complaint), Lion’s Tap waited to register its claimed mark in Minnesota until August 18, 2009, ten days before filing suit. As a result, Lion’s Tap clearly did not register the tagline “four years ago,” or back in 2005 (the year it claims to have commenced use), as incorrectly reported ad nauseam, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Well, at least a couple of the media outlets covering the story avoided the mistake, and got the registration date right.

So, why is the date of registration significant? If McDonald’s didn’t know about Lion’s Tap’s use before rolling out its own use of “Who’s Your Patty?” — an entirely plausible scenario, since the mark was not registered, even in Minnesota, until well after and apparently in response to McDonald’s already commenced use — it starts to look like a much different case for Lion’s Tap (more un-Hamburglar-like), for reasons I’ll explain later.


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