You’re well aware of the fact that we have a burning desire for great brands and trademarks.

Outside Whole Foods last evening, with snow falling, I found a beautiful display of firewood:

A smile came to my face as I read the SnuggleWood brand name for this kiln-dried firewood.

We’ve written a lot about the many legal benefits of suggestive over descriptive trademarks.

I’m fortunate to have enjoyed many evenings snuggling with loved ones around a blazing fire.

Later, it also brought warm and toasty feelings to see a federal trademark registration exists:


Sadly though, the fire was doused after learning that an earlier, broader trademark registration for the single word SNUGGLEWOOD lapsed, extinguishing more than 15 years of nationwide priority.

Apparently ownership changed between the original 1998 filing and a decade later when renewal evidence was due, so the USPTO rejected the evidence, as no clear chain of title was provided.

It’s sad to see because trademark ownership and chain of title issues are preventable and fixable.

Let’s hope for the SnuggleWood brand that it is never burned by unregistered trademark rights that could have developed in remote geographic parts of the country before the new filing in 2014.

We’ve been down this road before, some themes intersect, and trademark value is filtered out:

The intersecting themes on tap for the day are: Zero, Branding, Trademarks, and Loss of Rights.

ZEROWATER is a perfectly suggestive, inherently distinctive, and federally-registered trademark with “incontestable” status as a source-identifier for “water filtering units for household use.”

Judging from the specimens in the file history at the USPTO, the brand owner appears to have done a nice job leaving consumers to imagine the connection between the mark and the goods.

Branding ZEROWATER with taglines like “For water that’s only water,” “Get more out of your water,”  “If it isn’t zero, zero, zero, it isn’t just water” “If it’s not 000, it’s not ZeroWater,” and “If it’s not all zeros, it’s not ZeroWater,” all help to block Zero from pure and mere descriptiveness:

On the other hand, as the top image of the retail endcap shows (click the image to enlarge), the current packaging and product description adds blunt force to the now obvious meaning of ZERO:

“LEAVES ZERO DISSOLVED SOLIDS BEHIND”

Had this purely descriptive use of ZERO been present at filing, then ZEROWATER easily could have been refused as merely descriptive — why add it now? Especially with this far better existing copy:

“REMOVES VIRTUALLY ALL DISSOLVED SOLIDS”

While ZEROWATER can no longer be challenged as merely descriptive for “water filtering units for household use,” what about future applications having slightly different descriptions of goods?

Given all that Coca-Cola has done to turn ZERO generic in the soft drink category (meaning ZERO Sugars and/or Calories), shouldn’t ZEROWATER remove virtually all opportunities for genericness?

When a brand owner migrates toward descriptiveness with its copy, leaving the consumer with zero need to exercise any imagination as to meaning, there just might be “nothing” left to protect.

As you know, I enjoy telling trademark stories about soaps encountered on my various trips:

Lather® (brand) soap recently caught my eye — and the lens of my iPhone — while in Palo Alto.

Interestingly, the USPTO has treated the word as inherently distinctive, in Lather’s registrations.

In other words, not merely descriptive, even though using the product surely produces some.

So, some imagination, thought, or perception is needed to understand the connection with soap?

If so, I’m thinking Lather® soap is certainly close to the line between descriptive and suggestive:

Brand managers, would you be in a lather if faced with these other “lather”-styled soap marks?

Trademark types, what gets you all lathered up when it comes to trademark enforcement?

As I’ve been known to do long before now, this past weekend I found myself gazing intently, this time, into the front label and back copy on this S. Pellegrino sparkling natural mineral water bottle:

Putting aside the question of the shiny red star logo, which we already have bloviated about, here, a few years back — my focus is centered on the surrounding Enhance Your Moments tagline.

No gold star for the brand’s failure to capture federally-registered protection for it, despite the obvious association with SanPellegrino, as shown in results of a simple Google search, here.

Another “no gold star” moment that needs a modicum of enhancement would be the back copy:

Why? As you can see, SanPellegrino has taken a perfectly fine, inherently distinctive, and suggestive trademark, and used it in a sentence (without brand emphasis) in a descriptive sense.

Make sense?

Toward the end of last week, a couple of friendly ironmongers (John Welch and Ron Coleman) had an interesting dialogue on Twitter, with some great insights about creativity and the law.

John noted that copyright’s requirement of “originality” is not the same as the requirement of “novelty” in patent law. Ron then weaved in some nice insights about creativity and trademark.

The heady discussion led me to rediscover a blog post of mine from more than nine years ago dubbed: The Paradox of Brand Protection: Knowing When to Hit the Consumer Over the Head.

If you can get past the congested text from this beginner’s first few weeks of blogging, it’s actually worth a complete read for the content, but for now, here’s an excerpt with some better spacing:

“I often remind branding professionals that trademark law rewards their creativity. Some seem to perk up with this subtle encouragement. After all, everyone likes to be rewarded, right? Well, one of the unobvious rewards for creativity comes in the prompt timing of when trademark ownership begins.

Being able to own and enjoy exclusive rights on “day one”—meaning, either the first day of use, or even before first use, upon the filing of a federal intent-to-use trademark application—is a big deal in the world of trademark and brand protection. In fact, timing can be everything.

Even a single day can be the difference between having the right to exclusivity and owning nothing at all (except perhaps, the losing end of a lawsuit and a pile of product and packaging ordered to be destroyed).

On the other hand, when rights are not available on day one, you may have an uncontrollable situation; one where competitors and others have an opening to copy or mimic before enforceable rights attach, and in some cases, these actions can make it difficult, if not impossible to obtain exclusive trademark rights at all.

So, the timing of when trademark rights are acquired is quite important, and those in the business of creating brands play an important role in when those rights may come to be.”

Those remarks aren’t ideally suited for the character limit in Twitter, but I’m thinking they reinforce Ron’s point that priority of trademark rights can be impacted by creativity/novelty.

As to my above remarks about federal intent-to-use trademark applications, I’m also mindful of this little dialogue shared with Ron a few years back, but nowhere near nine years ago.

So, the good news for the day is that the law, especially intellectual property law (copyright, patent, and trademark) does reward creativity, in a variety of ways, and each in their own way.

We’re looking forward to continuing this discussion, among many others, with those interested, at the upcoming Meet the Bloggers XIV unofficial INTA event near INTA in Seattle next month.

During the official portion of the INTA program, I’ll be reflecting on the impact of a creative legal theory that consumed lots and lots of lawyers’ hours (billable/non-billable) for a quarter century.

And, finally, let’s not forget about Duey’s little friend, right over here:

 

 

While many other places in the country are enjoying signs of spring, here in the Twin Cities, we’re hanging on to the white stuff, for a while longer; we shoveled 22 inches worth this past weekend!

There’s something about our long winter here that makes fresh fruit in the grocery store all the more appealing, interesting, and engaging, especially when it’s an ordeal to even get to the store:

So, it’s not exactly Buddha’s Hand, but the enormous SUMO Citrus displays have caught my attention and interest this winter. This time, the brand name is actually the largest wording:

SUMO as a brand of food, has the initial challenge of overcoming the frequent “you are what you eat” admonition, and any resulting fear of the mark describing the results of over-consumption.

And, the promotion as “the sweetest citrus you’ll ever eat,” perhaps reinforces the concern, but the silly rotund shape of the fruit itself and the informative tagline helps prove a different meaning.

The combination of those additional brand elements helped convince me of its overall cleverness and suggestiveness, especially after reading the SUMO Citrus story, and seeing the “top-knot”:

“It is the biggest mandarin you’ve ever seen. It has a distinctive shape with a prominent “top-knot.” The peel is bright orange, bumpy and loose so it peels effortlessly. The delicate sections separate easily. It’s seedless, juicy without being messy, and it is quite probably the sweetest citrus you’ll ever eat.”

SUMO kudos to the creative who saw the Japanese “knot-top” (a/k/a “man bun“) in the fruit.

Less kudos for the apparent decision to only seek registration of the composite SUMO CITRUS, and not the broader and stronger SUMO mark itself without the other generic wording or man bun.

One of my passions is to find common and favorable ground between legal and marketing types.

One of the readings during week three of Seth Godin’s intensive altMBA workshop reminded me of a great example to illustrate how a valid marketing goal can align with strong legal protection.

An excerpt from Seth’s All Marketers are Liars book was part of the reading material for a project on How Organizations Change, and this portion of that excerpt made me think of trademark types:

Great stories are subtle. Surprisingly, the less a marketer spells out, the more powerful the story becomes. Talented marketers understand that the prospect is ultimately telling himself the lie, so allowing him (and the rest of the target audience) to draw his own conclusions is far more effective than just announcing the punchline.”

Trademark types can learn a valuable lesson here about the protection of traditional trademarks: Subtlety can yield immediately protectable, inherently distinctive and inherently strong marks.

We’re talking about the difference between suggestive marks on the one hand, the favored hand, and descriptive marks or generic terms on the other hand, the less favored trademark hand.

Let’s keep in mind though, when we’re operating in the realm of non-traditional marks, subtlety may not be your friend, as the story told there needs to be far more blunt, direct and obvious to build and enjoy trademark rights.

In searching our vast content on DuetsBlog, I’m reminded of something similar I wrote more than seven years ago now, and I’m not sure I can say it any better now, so here it is, again:

“We have spoken and written about not “hitting the consumer over the head” in the context of naming and placement on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness, instead, encouraging the use of suggestive as opposed to descriptive names and marks, but, let us not forget, there is a trademark paradox that does appear to reward use of a blunt instrument, called look-for advertising, at least when it comes to developing trademark rights in certain non-traditional marks.”

So, some subtle stories told in a name can make powerful trademarks with a broad scope of immediate protection. And, some will still require the help of an obvious and blunt instrument.

The key is knowing the difference and when each approach is required. My fear is that the USPTO’s growing obsession with failure to function refusals (here, here, and here) and mere information refusals will begin to spill more prominently into traditional trademarks?

Does anyone else see this happening before their very eyes?

In other words, to please the USPTO, are we needing to move toward being more blunt about whether even a traditional word mark is actually designed to perform as a trademark?

Let’s hope not.

Oh, and by the way, I was speaking above with subtlety about being past the half-way point (the dip) in Seth’s altMBA workshop, so I’ll be blunt now, it is amazing, it is transformative, do it!

We’ve written quite a bit over the years about the Spectrum of Distinctiveness for trademarks, and the all-important difference between suggestive marks and merely descriptive ones, with only the former being allowed immediate rights based on first use.

Creativity is what separates the power of suggestion from the weakness and limbo of descriptiveness. Remember the floating feather example and all the silly guesses as to what it might suggest? And, those who persist in smashing an otherwise suggestive brand?

One of my favorite local examples of a great suggestive mark is Murray’s famous Silver Butter Knife trademark for steak. With all the long lines for salad places in the skyway system here in Minneapolis, Murray’s appears to have stepped up its advertising campaign.

But, I’m left wondering, is Silver Butter Knife only a trademark? Or, does it not also function as a service mark too? After all, the steak is prepared in the kitchen and then carved at table-side, Murray’s certainly touts the “experience,” which seems to point to the service.

What’s more, in terms of scope of rights, if Silver Butter Knife had also been registered for restaurant services, do you suppose the USPTO might have done some heavy lifting for Murray’s and refused registration of BUTTERKNIFE WINES for wine?

Oh well, either way, it looks like BUTTER brand wine is going to stand in the way of BUTTERKNIFE WINES instead of the USPTO, and perhaps do Murray’s bidding for them.

By the way, would anyone like a serrated knife to cut through all this trademark clutter?

InterstateBattery

An oil change and tire rotation over the holiday yielded a little free time for me in our local Goodyear dealer’s waiting room, and it left me wondering about the Outrageously Dependable tagline of Interstate Batteries, so I captured the above image to tell a little blogworthy — if not blimpworthy — trademark story.

My question was whether the Outrageously Dependable tagline is federally-registered on the Principal Register, and if so, whether acquired distinctiveness was required to achieve this status, since Outrageously Good Coffee was recently refused registration, as it “merely describes, in a laudatory manner, a feature of the coffee—how good the coffee is.”

Turns out Outrageously Dependable is registered on the Principal Register without a showing under Section 2(f) — no acquired distinctiveness needed, so it is apparently considered inherently distinctive and suggestive of a desirable quality of the goods, not merely descriptive.

For some reason, Outrageously Dependable, does not merely describe, in a laudatory manner a feature of the batteries– how good or dependable they are, instead it is creative enough to suggest this without connecting all the leads and wires for the consumer.

Ponder that through the end of the year, and let us know whether you agree.

Above the Law recently published a Techdirt story reporting that the USPTO denied Whole Foods‘ attempt to federally-register the laudatory trademark: “World’s Healthiest Grocery Store“.

The Techdirt story incorrectly seems to suggest that the global nature of the phrase is what caused the application to be refused, since Whole Foods has not yet achieved a truly global reach, according to a Washington Post article.

Truth be told, actually there is no connection between the extent of Whole Foods’ global reach and the USPTO’s decision to initially refuse registration, contrary to the Techdirt story.

In fact, the USPTO didn’t focus on whether the phrase is true, because it is laudatory and “merely describes a feature or characteristic of applicant’s services,” such that the consuming public would view it as mere puffery, not susceptible to actual proof of its truth.

Had the USPTO thought the phrase was capable of proof and it disbelieved the claim, it would have sought to refuse registration under the deceptiveness registration bar of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, but it didn’t.

In fact, the USPTO offered up to Whole Foods — once it puts in evidence of its use of the phrase as a trademark — an amendment from the Principal to the Supplemental Register, a more suitable address for non-deceptive marks capable of becoming distinctive in the future.

Of course, one of the principal benefits of a Supplemental Registration is that it prevents others from registering confusingly similar marks while the brand owner works to build and acquire the requisite distinctiveness needed for a Principal Registration.

In the end, it will be interesting to see how Whole Foods responds to the USPTO’s laudatory and descriptiveness registration refusal.

I’m thinking before it jumps at the USPTO’s Supplemental Register offer, it may try to argue against the descriptiveness refusal in the same way it successfully did for its federally-registered “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store” trademark application, when back in 2010 it overcame a similar laudatory and merely descriptive registration refusal of the highly similar mark.

So, while it’s clear that the truth of the phrases comprising the those “healthiest” marks had nothing to do with the initial laudatory/merely descriptive registration refusals, what’s not clear to me is why the USPTO didn’t refuse registration based on a prior Supplemental Registration for “The World’s Healthiest Foods” mark — owned by these folks.