Who comes to mind when I list the following character traits: lives in a dystopian metropolis, has a deceased parent, fights criminals, rides a motorcycle, has seemingly-superhero strength, is fearless, has dark hair, and–oh, by the way–his name is “Wayne.” More than that, you learn all these facts about Wayne by watching a trailer for a series about Wayne on YouTube, which informs you throughout that Wayne is a character “from the guys who wrote Deadpool,” a fictional superhero. Take a look for yourself:

It should probably come as no surprise that many people watching the trailer–myself included–thought this Wayne might be “Bruce Wayne,” the well-known secret identity of Batman. The comments to the official trailer demonstrate as much. Consider, for example, the “top comment” for the trailer:

The Bruce Wayne most consumers know is the wealthy orphan owner of Wayne Enterprises by day, crime-fighting superhero by night. YouTube’s Wayne shares many of the same traits (except, perhaps, the wealth), and one could certainly believe that the Wayne series might be an origin story for one of the most popular superheros of all time. Of course, by the end of the trailer, you get the impression that the Wayne you’re watching probably isn’t (though there’s no disclaimer):

In total there are over 7,200 comments for the trailer at the time of writing this post. Since the official trailer, YouTube has released additional teaser trailers for the series, each making it clearer that Wayne probably isn’t Batman. Yet, viewers still aren’t quite sure:

What I find interesting about these comments is that they are a readily-available (though perhaps unreliable) data set for proving, or disproving, the existence of customer confusion. Assume that DC Comics, the owner of the Batman mark and Bruce Wayne character (which does not appear to have been registered, but to which DC Comics could have common law rights and copyright protection) could sue YouTube for infringement or dilution. Arguably, the comments on the Wayne trailers show that consumers are drawing a connection between DC Comics and the Wayne series given the name, mood of the series, and common character traits with Batman. In this, YouTube may be free riding on Batman’s popularity. Depending on just how many comments reference Batman, the comments themselves could serve as strong quantitative data of confusion–akin to the kind of survey data usually used to prove that element of a trademark claim.

On the other hand, many of the comments for the series do not reference Batman or Bruce Wayne. Do non-references indicate a lack of confusion, or perhaps a confusion that is dispelled quickly after watching the trailers? This relates to the doctrine of “initial interest confusion,” which is temporary confusion dispelled before a sale or some other commercial harm, but still may be actionable because the party creating the confusion free rides on another’s mark to gain attention. Since widespread access to the Internet, initial interest confusion cases have increased tenfold, but courts disagree about the vitality of the rule. Regardless, that confusion appears to persist in this situation–as demonstrated by the comments for each new trailer–shows that the confusion here may be of the continuing and uncured variety on which many trademark claims are based.

Wayne fully releases on YouTube in January 2019. There do not appear to be any lawsuits pending at the moment. And there does not appear to be a “Wayne” trademark registration for the series. But if YouTube (or the series’ creators) file for one, DC Comics could oppose the registration–and has done so for similar marks in the past. We’ll keep you updated with any new developments! In the meantime, let us know what you think in a comment below.

Earlier this year I posted about a trademark dispute regarding the use of the term “Square Donuts” for square-shaped donuts. The case involved proceedings both in federal court and at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), between the Square Donuts cafe in Indiana (which claimed decades of prior use and a trademark registration); and the Family Express convenience-store chain (which sold square-shaped donuts called “square donuts,” claiming the term is generic). As we discussed, the case raised the interesting question of whether the term Square Donuts is generic for cafe services that feature square-shaped donuts (which still look delicious by the way, see below).

Perhaps fortunately for the parties involved, but unfortunately for our curious readers, it appears there will never be a decision answering this question, as the case is headed to a settlement and dismissal. A docket entry on August 30, 2018 in the federal court proceeding states “Settlement Reached,” following a settlement conference between the parties.

However, the case has not yet been dismissed, as the parties have not yet finalized the settlement and dismissal documents. After the court recently granted a joint motion for extension of time, the deadline to file dismissal papers is by the end of this month. In the meantime, there do not appear to be any public updates or press releases yet, regarding the nature of the settlement, on the parties’ respective websites (here and here). However, I do note that the Family Express sub page, “Our Brands,” no longer features “Square Donuts” as one of their “our proprietary brands,” as it did at the time of my previous post in May.

Therefore, just a guess, but perhaps the parties have reached a licensing agreement, in which Square Donuts will maintain its registration and claim to trademark rights, and Family Express will have a license to continue using the Square Donuts name for its donuts. Alternatively, perhaps Family Express has agreed to entirely give up calling its donuts “Square Donuts.” Based on the deadline for dismissal at the end of this month, I’m sure there will be more significant news soon, regarding the nature of the settlement and any changes to the parties’ branding and websites. What do you think will happen — any predictions? Stay tuned for updates.

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.”

Recently, we have been covering updates from a trademark infringement, dilution, and unfair competition action between Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon, two rival Texas convenience stores with endless rows of gas pumps and checkout lanes (everything’s bigger in Texas, you know; even gas stations). About a month ago, a Texas jury found that the Choke Canyon alligator logo infringes on Buc-ee’s beaver logo:

But as I pointed out when covering the jury’s verdict, it wasn’t clear exactly why these two logos are confusingly similar and to what extent. Could it be the fact that both of the logos contain cartoon animals, who wear hats, who face right, who are smiling, who have red tongues, against a yellow-ish background? Some combination of these features? Additional features? The jury’s verdict doesn’t say; the jury only decided that the Choke Canyon logo infringed, but they weren’t asked to explain why.

However, the jury did send one note to the judge while deliberating, giving some clue as to infringement. In that note, the jury asked, “Does the logo to be considered by the jury in rendering an infringement judgment include a version without words?” To which the Judge responded, “Yes.” Not much insight, but at least we know the jury did not focus on Choke Canyon’s circular ribbon.

The reasons for the finding of infringement often have considerable implications. After such a finding, typically the prevailing trademark owner desires injunctive relief (in addition to damages) against the infringer–in the form of a court order prohibiting the infringer from using the too-similar mark. That form of equitable relief cannot be determined by a jury and has to come from the judge. Still, it seems like it might be useful for the judge, in crafting the injunction, to know why the jury felt the marks were so similar as to create customer confusion. This intuition has recently come to bear as the litigation between Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon has progressed past trial.

Earlier this week, Buc-ee’s moved for a permanent injunction against Choke Canyon (you can read the motion here). Buc-ee’s seeks a permanent injunction barring Choke Canyon’s use of a whole host of similar logos, which were part of a package of example uses submitted to the jury and sampled below:

Buc-ee’s says that Choke Canyon’s proposed injunction is not expansive enough because it does not include or cover any of the black and white logos, only the colorful ones. Buc-ee’s says it “fought tooth and nail”–great imagery, given that it is represented by a beaver mascot–to obtain the finding of infringement of all marks, regardless of whether they include color. But the color similarities (the red tongues and yellow backgrounds) seem pretty important in the context of an infringement battle that otherwise comes down to smiling beaver versus a thumbs-up alligator.

Even though the jury may have technically considered all of the examples provided by Buc-ee’s, an injunction is an equitable remedy, and the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. §1116) provides that courts shall issue injunctions “according to the principles of equity and upon such terms as the court may deem reasonable.” As part of this inquiry, courts consider (1) whether the trademark owner has suffered irreparable injury, (2) whether damages are adequate to compensate for the injury, (3) whether, considering the balance of hardships between the trademark owner and infringer, the requested relief is warranted, and (4) whether the public interest would be disserved by a permanent injunction. Courts frequently grant only limited or qualified injunctions and tailor them to the facts of the case, sometimes by restricting certain formats and locations and requiring disclaimers or corrective advertising.

This is all to say that the scope of an injunction in this case and others depends on the circumstances and the court’s view of what is equitable and reasonable–a flexible standard. In trademark, courts focus on what relief is necessary to remedy and prevent consumer confusion, as well as the potential effects an injunction would have on lawful competition–an important factor that should not be overlooked in this case (perhaps not only as to the parties, but also as to the precedent the court might set generally). What do you think that might be? Leave a thought in the comments below.

About a week ago, we reported on an interesting case out of the Southern District of Texas involving two competing convenience stores with cartoon animal mascots: Buc-ee’s (a beaver) and Choke Canyon (an alligator).

As someone who has personally visited Buc-ee’s stores, I can tell you that they are quite the destination. Buc-ee’s tend to be absolutely massive, with checkout lanes (everything’s bigger in Texas). People even buy T-shirts with Buc-ee’s logos on the front, with various Texan sayings on the back. I personally own three of them. So it’s kind of an understatement to call Buc-ee’s a “convenience store,” by Minnesota standards. And one can hardly complete a description of Buc-ee’s without noting that it is considered to have the “best bathrooms in Texas.”

Credit: Houston Chronicle

Choke Canyon? Yeah, its locations are pretty big too, but the mascot is far less cuddly. Though, it has a nice saying above the exit that probably wouldn’t work at Buc-ee’s: “See ya later, alligator.”

Credit: Yelp

Buc-ee’s sued Choke Canyon for a variety of claims, including: trademark infringement, dilution, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment. We cover these topics frequently on DuetsBlog (check out the topics column).

I must admit that when I first read about the suit, I could hardly believe it. I agree with my colleague that “the best I see from this case is that Choke Canyon may make consumers think of Buc-ee’s stores and beaver, but consumers don’t seem likely to assume that that there is a connection between the two.” And I also think that ” if it weren’t May, I’d assume this was an April Fools Day joke.”

But it’s no joke, and after a four-day jury trial and six hours of deliberation, Buc-ee’s won on all fronts. Specifically, the jury answered six questions (downloadable here):

  1. On Buc-ee’s claims for trademark infringement of its Buc-ee’s Logo, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
    • Interestingly, the jury sent one note to the District Judge during deliberations, asking “Does the logo to be considered by the jury in rendering an infringement judgment include a version without words?” To which the Judge responded, “Yes.”
  2. Do you find that Buc-ee’s Logo was famous throughout Texas before Choke Canyon’s use of the Choke Canyon Logo?
    • Jury answer: Yes
  3. Because the jury answered “yes” to question 2, they skipped question 3 (which pertained to specific geographic areas in Texas).
  4. On Buc-ee’s claim for dilution by blurring of its Buc-ee’s Logo, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
  5. On Buc-ee’s claim for unfair competition, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
  6. On Buc-ee’s claim for unjust enrichment, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury Answer: Buc-ee’s

I am surprised by the generality of the questions presented to the jury, and it’s interesting that the jury was not asked about damages–perhaps the issue was bifurcated and will be tried to a different jury.

Question 1, and the jury note, suggests to me that the jury was allowed to focus purely on the similarities between the cartoon animals in the above logos, disregarding Choke Canyon logo’s ribbon stating “Choke Canyon Travel Centers.” But even then, the only obvious similarities are the orientation of the mascots, the yellow background, the wearing of a hat, and their smiles and red tongues. It is hard to believe those basic, nominal characteristics are enough to show consumer confusion and infringement. Maybe Choke Canyon has a good chance on appeal or at judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

And I cannot help but wonder, in view of Question 2, whether the fact that Buc-ee’s mark was famous throughout Texas prior to Choke Canyon’s use of its alligator mark played the most important role in the jury’s verdict. Perhaps the jury felt that Choke Canyon intended to ride on Buc-ee’s mark. Indeed, at closing argument, Buc-ee’s counsel reminded the jurors that a survey showed more than 80% of Texans recognize the Buc-ee’s logo. But I tend to agree with Choke Canyon’s closing argument that the lawsuit seems directed at stifling competition, rather than truly protecting consumers–pointing to Buc-ee’s own prior statement that it only noticed the potential for consumer confusion when Choke Canyon began buying property in towns where Buc-ee’s operates. I find it hard to believe that a reasonable consumer would seriously confuse the two mascots and think they were associated. But apparently two actual-consumer witnesses testified in Buc-ee’s favor on this point. Texas sure is a strange place sometimes.

In recent USPTO news, Trader Joe’s, the supermarket chain known for its eclectic and unique foodstuffs, recently filed an opposition to registration of the mark “Trader Schmo,” which is described as designating a wide variety of Kosher foods. Understandably, Trader Joe’s took issue with the mark, and particularly its use in the food category. The company instituted an opposition (which I cannot help but note is #999,999), arguing that “Trader Schmo” will confuse consumers because consumers will naturally switch “Joe’s” with “Schmo,” given the popular phrase “Joe Schmo.”

This is not the first time Trader Joe’s has taken legal action to protect its brand. Notably, just a couple years ago the company sued “Pirate Joe’s,” a counterfeiter with a backstory almost too unbelievable to be true. Pirate Joe’s was a “rebel Canadian grocery operation,” which bought Trader Joe’s products in the United States and “smuggle[d] them across the border to Vancouver” to sell them. Pirate Joe’s eventually ran aground under the immense pressure of its legal fees.

Pirate Joe’s Comes Crashing Down, Credit: Georgia Straight

This new dispute reminds me of the famous “Dumb Starbucks” experiment by comedy TV series Nathan For You. Over one weekend in 2014, the show opened a coffee shop that looked just like a real Starbucks, except that its name and every drink it sold was preceded by the word “dumb.” The comedian behind the prank (or “art“) claimed that “Dumb Starbucks” was permissible fair use because both the use of the Starbucks mark, as well as the store itself, was one big parody. One cannot help but notice some parallels to Trader Schmo; the latter word refers to a hypothetical “dumb” person.

Comedian Nathan Fielder, Credit: New Yorker

Dumb Starbucks and Trader Schmo raise difficult questions about permissible comedic use under trademark law. On the one hand, the marks free ride on the notoriety of other marks, bringing attention. On the other, it seems unlikely the marks would cause actual consumer confusion, making them harmless jokes. Whether Trader Schmo runs afoul of the Lanham Act will likely depend on two major inquiries: (1) whether it constitutes infringement or dilution, and (2) whether statutory fair use defenses apply.

InfringementPreviously on this blog, I explained that infringement usually centers on likelihood of confusion, which is evaluated using a variety of factors:

whether the use is related, the strength of the mark, proximity of the use, similarities of the marks, evidence of actual confusion, marketing channels employed, the degree of care likely to be exercised by consumers, the user’s intent in selecting the mark, and the likelihood of expansion of product/service lines.

The factors could support a finding of infringement here. The uses are related (food). The strength of the Trader Joe’s mark rides the line between arbitrary and fanciful to descriptive; who is Trader Joe in the abstract, and what does he sell? Surely the marks are similar…sounding. But on the other hand, would an average Joe really mistake Trader Schmo for Trader Joe’s? As a counter, though, it seems reasonable to infer that Trader Schmo was selected because it is similar to Trader Joe’s.

Dilution: So there might be infringement. How about dilution? This occurs when the similarity between the accused mark and a famous mark is likely to impair the distinctiveness or reputation of the famous mark. Dilution does not require any actual or likely consumer confusion. Depending on how good Trader Schmo’s Baba Ganoush, Gefilte fish, Matzo ball soup, and Borscht taste, Trader Joe’s could have an argument for dilution–especially if Trader Schmo’s grows large enough to undermine the distinctiveness of Trader Joe’s as a famous brand.

Fair Use: Generally speaking, the fair use provisions for infringement and dilution both require: (1) that the accused mark be used in a descriptive sense and not as a mark, and (2) that use of the accused mark be fair and in good faith. However, fair use does not provide a defense to infringement if there is likelihood of confusion–but we’ll gloss over that for now.

First, Trader Schmo could arguably be descriptive, delineating traded products. And the word ‘schmo’ has Jewish roots, which could describe the Kosher foods the mark designates. On the other hand, Trader Schmo isn’t inherently descriptive in that it actually describes a product or a characteristic or quality (e.g., Vision Center, a store for glasses). And it’s being used as a mark. So fair use might not even apply.

Assuming descriptiveness, the second element (the ‘fair’ aspect of the doctrine of fair use) often implicates the kinds of First Amendment interests that protect parody, satire, and criticism. But there’s no indication that Trader Schmo is intended to comment on Trader Joe’s. Moreover, courts have rejected the idea that a use is “fair” or in good faith if its similarity to a protected mark is deliberately concocted to garner attention. Trader Joe’s could have a good case for that here–just as Starbucks likely had against Dumb Starbucks.

A high-level analysis of the Trader Schmo mark suggests it could constitute infringement or dilution and is not fair use. This conclusion underscores trademark law’s general distaste for humor when it comes to commerce, as opposed to actual social commentary and comparison.

The City of Portland is known as a hub for craft beer, and its local government couldn’t be prouder. The Travel Portland website proudly proclaims that Portland is “home to more breweries than any other city on earth.” Yet the city’s relationship with the local craft beer scene is not so bubbly at the moment, as trademark dispute between the city and local Old Town Brewing has gone public.

The dispute revolves around Old Town Brewing’s logo and a large lighted sign owned by the city, both shown below.

 

This isn’t the first time the city hasn’t gotten into a dispute with a brewery over the sign. The city previously objected to Pabst’s use of a logo derived from the sign back in 2015.  Our 2015 article contains a good back story as to the city’s purchase of the sign as well as the city’s claimed trademark rights in the sign (and for our regular readers, the investigation into Portland’s unicorn burial ground is ongoing). However, for our purposes, a TLDR history will suffice. The sign is known as the “White Stag” sign and was built in 1940. The text has changed numerous times along with the ownership. The City of Portland purchased the sign in 2010 and has since begun licensing reproductions of the sign to third-parties.

Most recently, Portland sought to license production of the sign to AB InBev, the parent company to Budweiser and a whole host of other big and small names in the alcohol business. Jeff Alworth at the Beervana Blog has a great write up regarding the dispute that is worth a read. As you might expect, the small, local craft brewery is not pleased with Portland’s attempt to permit a direct competitor to use a similar logo. The fact that the competitor is Budweiser certainly can’t help.

Luckily for Old Town, they recognized the benefits of obtaining a registration for their design logo at the U.S. Trademark Office. Even better, the registration is now more than 5 years old and can no longer be challenged on a number of grounds, like confusion with a senior user’s mark.

The City of Portland also recognized the importance of registrations and applied to register the image of the sign for a wide variety of goods and services, including alcoholic products. The Trademark Office has refused registration based on a likelihood of confusion with Old Town’s prior registration.

The situation is a twist on the more common David versus Goliath of Big Beer versus Craft Beer, and not simply because the City of Portland is involved. In fact, the city is claiming that David, aka, Old Town Brewing, is the bad guy. The City is arguing that “it is Old Town Brewing that is trying to prevent the City from using its own logo.”

The city isn’t entirely off base. It’s true that the City isn’t telling Old Town to stop using the logo. But the City’s argument makes a lot of assumptions that may not hold water (or other beverages, for that matter).

The city seems to assume that because the City bought the sign, they own the right to use the component images of that sign for any and all purposes. That’s wrong. For a lot of reasons. Owning a sign doesn’t create trademark rights, use does. And if Old Town began using a portion of that sign as a trademark before any other third-party, then Old Town is the senior user. Also, even if the City owns some trademark rights, the law is clear that a trademark does not provide a right in gross. Trademark rights are defined by the goods or services sold under the mark, with protection against goods and services that are sufficiently related to owner’s goods or services.

Also, the City’s white hat isn’t so white. I’m not even sure it’s a hat. Old Town isn’t the bad guy here. The brewery isn’t telling the City not to use the logo derived from the sign design.  I’m not a politician or a mayor, but I can’t think of any reason why a city needs to be able to use its logo to sell beer. If Minneapolis were doing this, I’d kindly ask that they fix the potholes or finish construction on the bridges over 35W first.

At the moment, it seems that public opinion seems to be in Old Town’s favor, at least based on the limited (and biased) sampling of Old Town’s Facebook Page.  From the legal standpoint, it seems that Old Town has an upper hand, but from all public statements it seems that Portland is committed to moving forward with its own applications and a license. But is a deal with Budweiser important enough to risk the bad press and the alienation of the craft beer industry? The City has until March 15 to appeal the Trademark Office’s last Office Action. By then, we’ll at least know whether Portland wants to continue the fight. In the meantime, I’ll be looking to see how far Old Town distributes its products. Their SHANGHAI’D IPA sounds delicious, not to mention, it has an excellent name.

 

Regardless of whether you’re a fan of “classic rock,” there are some songs that everybody knows. The song Hotel California by the Eagles is one of those songs.  Not everyone likes the Eagles (looking at you, Dude), but most people at least like Hotel California. So it’s no surprise that the Eagles want to prevent others from trying to make money off the name. Most recently, the band filed an opposition with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to oppose an application to register the mark HOTEL CALIFORNIA (the pleading is available here).

Eagles Album Cover

 

The application is owned by Hotel California Baja LLC (HCB), who apparently operates a hotel south of the border in the town of Todos Santos in Baja California, Mexico. Notably, HCB’s application does not seek registration in connection with “hotel services.” Instead, HCB appears to be seeking registration of its name to sell a wide variety of merchandise in the U.S., including cosmetics, body care products, eyewear, phone accessories, jewelry, and other products. Although the Eagles do not allege that they own any trademark registrations for the HOTEL CALIFORNIA mark, the band claims common law rights in connection with licensed goods such as clothing, guitar picks, posters, and others back to 1977. Along with the Notice of Opposition, the band filed an application to register the mark on Jan. 18, 2017.

But do the Eagles have trademark rights in the song name? We’ve broached the subject briefly before (here). Generally speaking, use of a word or phrase as a song, album, or movie title does not create trademark rights in that name because consumers aren’t likely to view such use as designating the source of the goods. Instead, consumers are likely to view the use simply as a title of a creative work, or some other expressive content. The issue is similar to merely ornamental refusals, where a name or phrase is used on a shirt, coffee mug, etc. as a design element or as informational phrase (like my BEST BLOGGER EVER mug, or a FEAR THE BROW t-shirt). However, it is possible through licensing the name and/or using the name on other products or services that the mark can come to signify a secondary source. Based on the pleadings, it appears that the Eagles may have a reasonable claim that the HOTEL CALIFORNIA mark, when used on licensed products, serves as a source identifier.

Even then, it’s possible the Eagles could claim that the mark falsely suggests an association with the band. HCB’s website includes the following information as part of its “history”:

During the 1960s and 1970s, the precise details of the hotel’s history are a bit “hazy” – not uncommon for the culture of that particular era in general… There are numerous stories. Whether fact or myth, nobody knows for sure. However, one rumor, fabricated in the 1990’s by someone with no connection to any owners of the hotel, states that the Eagles once owned it. This is unequivocally false. Many of the other legends are less black and white and continue to fascinate the public. Although the present owners of the hotel do not have any affiliation with the Eagles, nor do they promote any association, many visitors are mesmerized by the “coincidences” between the lyrics of the hit song and the physicality of the hotel and its surroundings.

  1. Hotel California is accessed by driving down a long desert highway from either Los Cabos to the south or La Paz to the east
  2. The Mission Church of Pilar is located directly adjacent to the hotel and mission bells are heard daily. Since the Church is so close it sounds like they are almost inside the hotel at times
  3. Countless stories and firsthand witnesses relating to spirits and ghosts in the courtyard of the hotel.
  4. During the ‘Hippie Era” of the 1960s and 1970s, people were know to easily grow their own marijuana in the extremely fertile land of the Todos Santos area and then roll them into “Colitas” which is a Mexican slang term for ‘Joint” or Marijuana cigarette
  5. The simple fact that the Hotel California in Todos Santos was built in 1947 which was of course far before the “Hippie” or “Classic Rock” eras

It certainly seems like the hotel is trying to suggest an association with the band and the song. Accordingly to the Eagles (via Wikipedia), there is no “Hotel California,” as the hotel was more symbolic of Hollywood and L.A. generally. If the Board were to find that the use of the HOTEL CALIFORNIA does create a false association with the band, then the disclaimer is not likely to help. Even if HCB claims that the rumor was started by “someone with no connection to any owners of the hotel.”

HCB’s website does not clarify whether guests are allowed to “check out” or, more importantly, “leave.” Luckily for the applicant though, the Trademark Office does allow them to voluntarily abandon the application.

Aaron Keller, Managing Principal, Capsule

Design as a way of thinking is popular enough to have made it into the hallowed halls of McKinsey Consulting. We couldn’t be more pleased to see a discipline we’ve been practicing for one and a half decades featured, it puts our methods and thinking in great demand.

But, and this is a big cigarette butt, smoldering on the sidewalk. We have always wanted to distinguish between the practice of design and the thinking methods of design. Being a practitioner of design means you have gone deep on one specific design discipline (architecture, product, fashion, digital, etc.). Being a design thinker means you’ve spent enough time in each of the disciplines or have had specific training on the methods of thinking woven through all these disciplines.

Then, we see this report coming from The Business of Fashion and for some reason it seems to relate to McKinsey’s broad overview of a design driven culture. One of the designers, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, is conducting some “intellectual property shaming” in social media against Mansur Gavriel, a design team they claim to have copied their Mule Sandal.

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You may wonder why this matters. Why would a designer threaten another designer over something that most of us would say is not unique enough to own? And, yes, we agree it is a defensive move and doesn’t contribute to the value of design.

Yet, here is the larger story to consider. A designer as a copier of other styles is certainly not respectful. And, for us, it brings up the word “inventor” versus “designer.” We have found over the years we have evolved from being designers of things to being inventors of solutions. The distinction is about being distinct. Sometimes design can be defined as a thoughtful refinement of an existing idea. Invention is more correlated to making a distinct solution.

This is where you’re thinking, are you just splitting hairy words? Perhaps, but this is where design thinking makes a contribution far beyond the individual practice of designing. We, as thinkers, believe the solution should be invented and not seek to achieve distinctiveness, but rather be distinct. The more ownable the better for any design and we often start projects with patent, trademark or copyright metrics mingled into our big hairy objectives. Again, this might be splitting the phrases “inspired by” versus “copied from” but we see this as an important part of properly respecting the discipline of design thinking.

Now, this is where you come into the conversation. If you’re reading this blog on intellectual property, you’re self aware enough to know when something feels too close to an “inspired by” design the team looked at research. There are three things you can do. Raise your hand and send out an email and make sure people get it, identifying the IP proximity issue. Create a digital trail to document your objections. Last, push your team to invent new versus design from something already in the world.

Plus, who wants to get into a social media, passive-aggressive slam fest with the nearest design? Frame up the effort as an invention of something new versus a refinement of something already. Spend more time to be more unique. Here’s how it starts, “we need to reinvent the Mule shoe for our design portfolio.” This is in contrast with, “we need a Mule shoe for our line, go design.”