The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, commonly known as “MoMA,” has sued a cafe and art gallery, MoMaCha, also located in New York City. A couple months ago, MoMA filed a complaint in federal court against MoMaCha, asserting claims of trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition. A few days after filing the complaint, MoMA also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. The case is The Museum of Modern Art v. MoMaCha IP LLC et al., No. 18-cv-03364-LLS (S.D.N.Y.)

MoMaCha’s cafe and art gallery offers matcha green tea along with displays of modern and contemporary art. Similarly, MoMA is a museum that displays works of art, and also offers cafe services, in the same area of New York City. The complaint asserts that the parties’ marks are “extremely similar” because they both share the “MOMA” letters, they are both displayed in black-and-white text, and have similar capitalization, in that the “o” is lowercase and the second “M” is uppercase. Shown below are the parties’ stylized/design marks.In response to MoMA’s motion for preliminary injunction, MoMaCha argued that its name is not similar in look or meaning to MoMA’s name; rather, it is a combination of the words “mo” and “matcha” tea, creatively suggesting “more tea.” Furthermore, after the filing of the lawsuit, MoMaCha asserted that it would reduce any possibility of confusion by changing the style of its name to be all capital letters, “MOMACHA,” and by adding a disclaimer to its doors, menus, and website stating, “We have no affiliation with the Museum of Modern Art or any Museum.” (Their current website already shows these changes.) Additionally, MoMaCha argues that MoMA’s mark is weak and therefore entitled to only narrow protection, because it is simply “four letters written in black and white” which are nearly identical to “the commonly used Franklin Gothic font.”

MoMaCha’s arguments, and its voluntary re-design and disclaimer, are creative. But courts have held that disclaimers are not necessarily sufficient to avoid a likelihood of confusion–and sometimes disclaimers can even add to confusion. MoMA might have a difficult time winning a preliminary injunction, based on the high standards that are applicable. Nevertheless, the allegations of the complaint are compelling, based on the similarity of the marks and the relatedness of the parties’ goods/services that are offered in the same city.

How do you think this one will turn out? The briefing on MoMA’s preliminary injunction motion was completed last week. The court denied MoMA’s request for an oral argument, so a decision could be issued at any time, perhaps within the next month or two. Stay tuned for updates.

 

SteepTea

The grocery aisles are fertile grounds for my keyboard, as you know. And, while I’m generally far more interested in coffee grounds than tea leaves (unless we’re speaking of the iced variety or reading between the lines of court decisions), the above shown box of tea bags caught my eye.

What initially captured my interest is the large yet engaging lower case branding of the word “steep” followed by the diminutive signature line “by BIGELOW” in all caps.

Given the descriptive character of the visually-emphasized word “steep” in connection with tea, and the “by” signature line of the well-known BIGELOW tea brand, my instincts told me a USPTO search would reveal a crowded field of marks containing STEEP, likely fueling my assumption that “steep” couldn’t be owned as a trademark for tea standing alone.

Turns out, STEEP was federally-registered back in 2004, for tea (as a single word mark with no style limitations), pursuant to an apparent showing of acquired distinctiveness under Section 2(f) of the Lanham Act, but the registration expired in 2010 and was cancelled under Section 8 of the Lanham Act in 2010, making way for the crowded field I imagined.

It also turns out, there is more to the story than I have time today to turn over every tea leaf of this one: The apparent principal behind the expired registration is back at the USPTO with a new STEEP application, claiming continuous use of STEEP for tea since 1994.

The irony is that the STEEP BY BIGELOW registration (first use in 2015) is now barring registration of the new STEEP application, here is the recent likelihood of confusion refusal.

So, I’ll leave you with a few questions that come to mind.

First, what’s the next move for the STEEP applicant?

And, looking back in time, did Bigelow add the signature line underneath the prominent use of “steep” to facilitate registration of STEEP BY BIGELOW and perhaps reduce the perceived risk of a trademark conflict with the prior registrant of STEEP for tea?

If so, will Bigelow regret not volunteering a disclaimer of the descriptive word “steep” since the USPTO oddly didn’t ask for one?

Assuming there are prior common law rights in STEEP and Bigelow wants to explain the lack of a disclaimer, might it point to the unitary mark theory?

Better yet, will the ineffective opposition (filed by the apparent principal of the prior registrant of STEEP) bar a future petition to cancel STEEP BY BIGELOW (to clear the path for re-registration of STEEP standing alone)?

If there are, in fact, prior common law rights in STEEP and the principal behind the STEEP application finds a way to federal court, has Bigelow relinquished a classic fair use defense in making “steep” part of its trademark use?

Finally, if risk avoidance is the goal (hoping for a steep slide into neutralizing a likelihood of confusion claim), might it be more effective to play with the meaning of the marks element of a likelihood of confusion claim, perhaps by adding graphic elements that invite other meanings of “steep” as compared to the more obvious one for tea?