In Cosmetic Warriors v. Pinkette Clothing, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit filed an opinion a couple weeks ago, reconfirming that the equitable defense of laches (unreasonable and prejudicial delay in bringing a lawsuit) applies in trademark cancellation actions, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has recently curtailed that defense in copyright and patent cases, and even if such an action is brought within the five-year window for bringing certain types of cancellation claims under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1064.

In this case, Cosmetic Warriors, makers of LUSH brand cosmetics, filed a lawsuit against a fashion company, Pinkette Clothing, that markets LUSH-branded clothing, claiming trademark infringement and seeking cancellation of its trademark registration. But the Ninth Circuit affirmed that Cosmetic Warriors waited too long (nearly five years) to bring its case after it “should have known about its claims.” According to well-established precedent, because the Lanham Act contains no statute of limitations, courts apply a presumption in favor of laches if the plaintiff’s delay is longer than the most analogous state statute of limitations. The Ninth Circuit concluded that California’s analogous four-year statute of limitations for trademark infringement actions applied. Therefore, because Cosmetic Warriors’ delay was beyond four years, the court held a “strong presumption in favor of laches” applied.

Cosmetic Warriors argued that laches could not bar its claims for cancellation, based on a five-year period for cancellation actions specified in 15 U.S.C. § 1064, and based on recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent limiting the defense of laches in copyright and patent infringement actions, Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014) (Copyright Act), and SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, 137 S. Ct. 954 (2017) (Patent Act).

The Ninth Circuit rejected Cosmetic Warriors’ arguments based on the Supreme Court precedent from copyright and patent cases, stating, “the principle at work in those cases—a concern over laches overriding a statute of limitations—does not apply here, where the Lanham Act has no statute of limitations and expressly makes laches a defense to cancellation,” see 15 U.S.C. § 1069. Regarding the five-year deadline of 15 U.S.C. § 1064, the court held “[t]here is no question that [15 U.S.C. § 1064] is not a statute of limitations in the usual sense of barring an action entirely once a defined period expires”; rather, that statute “merely limits the grounds on which cancellation may be sought. A petition brought within five years of registration may assert any ground …. By contrast, a petition brought five years after registration (against an incontestable mark) may only assert one of several enumerated grounds.”

This opinion by the Ninth Circuit accords with similar precedent from other federal courts and follows the position of the leading trademark treatise, McCarthy on Trademarks §§ 20:74, 76. It is another reminder to trademark owners and practitioners of the importance of monitoring for infringing uses, and acting quickly to initiate enforcement actions. As in this case, and according to the maxim often quoted by courts, “[t]hose who sleep on their rights, lose them.”

The term Comic Con has become synonymous with a certain culture.  In recent years, comic book conventions (and comic book culture), have become increasingly popular.  Annual comic book conventions are held in major cities across the U.S. and the world.  Many of these conventions are titled—officially or unofficially—“[City] Comic Con.”  One recent jury decision, however, may cause some (official) rebranding.

In 2014, the San Diego Comic Convention (San Diego CC) sued organizers of the Salt Lake Comic Convention (Salt Lake CC) for trademark infringement.  San Diego alleged that Salt Lake willfully infringed its registered COMIC-CON and COMIC CON INTERNATIONAL marks.

Salt Lake CC defended primarily on the ground that “comic con” is a generic term for comic book conventions.  The convention organizers cited to the names of various cities’ comic conventions to show the term is used generically—Motor City Comic Con, New York Comic Con, Denver Comic Con, and Emerald City Comic Con, among others.  Salt Lake CC also pointed to the usage of “comic con” in media to generically refer to a type of convention.

A sampling of the various Comic Cons pointed to by Salt Lake CC as evidence of generic use.

Throughout the case, Salt Lake CC worked to rally fans behind the view that “comic con” belongs to the public.  Eventually, Salt Lake CC’s tweets, Facebook posts, and press releases about the case prompted the federal judge to issue a gag order.  The order temporarily prevented Salt Lake CC from commenting on the case, and restricted their ability to republish public court documents.  The order was appealed to the Ninth Circuit and ultimately vacated on First Amendment grounds.

At trial, San Diego CC presented its Comic Con to the jury as a brand.  Through surveys and other evidence, San Diego CC convinced the jury that Comic Con is not a generic term for a type of event.  Instead, San Diego argued, it operates as a source designator for the San Diego convention.

The Jury found that Salt Lake CC’s use of “Comic Con” infringes on San Diego’s registered marks.  The infringement, however, was not willful according to the jury.  Thus, despite San Diego’s request of $12 million in damages, they were awarded only $20,000 for corrective advertising.  Post-trial motions will likely be filed, and the case may be appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  But at least for the time being, it seems Comic Con is (officially) off limits to event organizers without a license.  However, I suspect (unofficial) uses of the term will continue.

Many of us have been eagerly waiting to see whether the Supreme Court would consider Google’s potential genericness.

As Martha explained, the case began in 2012, after petitioners Chris Gillespie and David Elliot attempted to register hundreds of web domains that included the word “Google” together with a variety of different people, products, and brands (i.e., googlestarbucks.com).  Google objected to the registrations, and Elliot filed a complaint (joined by Gillespie) in federal district court.  Elliot and Gillespie argued that “google” had become a generic term due to its common use as a verb.  The district court ruled against Elliot and Gillespie on summary judgment.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s opinion.  As Tucker discussed recently, the Ninth Circuit held that “verb use does not automatically constitute generic use.”  The court clarified that the mere act of using the term as a verb does not render the mark generic unless it is used to refer to a type of good or service (i.e. an internet search generally).

Without comment, the Supreme Court denied Elliot’s and Gillespie’s petition for review.  (Notably, of the 7,000-8,000 petitions filed each year, the Supreme Court grants and hears argument in only about 80 of them.)

While Google is surely celebrating the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, Band-Aid, Xerox, and Rollerblade are cheering right along with them, while cellophane, aspirin, and thermos look on with envy.