It’s fall, and you know what that means: football season! For many, this means a return to the couch each weekend to spectate America’s most-watched sport. But the popularity of doing so appears to be in decline. This shift isn’t only affecting the NFL, but also college football as well, as ticket sales continue to plummet. Increasingly among my own family and friends, it seems as if everyone is more interested in playing their fantasy leagues than watching reality unfold before them. Which is why, one would think, that leagues and other football organizations would want to promote discussion about football, rather than hinder it.

Credit: Geek.com

But football organizations are cracking down on, rather than encouraging, use of familiar football names and phrases. Some have questioned, for example, the NFL’s bully-like tactics in aggressively protecting the “Superbowl” name. The annual “big game” is so well-known and such a major event that it’s almost impossible not to use its actual name. Yet, the NFL persists, enforcing more than just its famous name, drawing the ire of commentators each year.

Such tactics appear to have inspired a recent filing by the Heisman Trophy Trust against “HeismanWatch.com,” for trademark and copyright infringement. The Heisman Trophy Trust, the complaint says, is the owner of a slew of federal trademark and service mark registrations related to the Heisman Trophy, “one of the most distinguished, prestigious, and recognized awards in all of sports, and perhaps the most famous of all individual awards in football.” The award is given to the most outstanding collegiate football player, usually a quarterback or running back, each year. You might recognize the trophy by its distinctive “stiff-arm” maneuver captured in bronze:

Credit: The Ringer

Defendant HeismanWatch.com is a website that offers information, analysis, and podcasts about the Heisman trophy award. It is known for its “one-of-a-kind regression model that processes simulated Heisman votes,” to predict in advance who will win the Heisman each year. It reportedly correctly predicted the most recent winner, Baker Mayfield.

The Heisman Trophy Trust, apparently, does not appreciate HeismanWatch.com’s analysis and attention. It alleges that the website is deliberately attempting to free ride on the fame and notoriety of the Heisman Trophy marks, and it says that consumers are likely to believe there is a connection between the website and the actual trophy organization. Of course, the fact that HeismanWatch.com exists at all belies any such connection; the Trophy selection is secretive, but the website helps fans read the field and guess who will win next.

Time will tell whether the Heisman Trophy Trust can prevail against a news reporting and commentary organization like HeismanWatch.com, but it’s not unprecedented. The Academy Awards sued “OscarWatch.com” over a decade ago, prompting the website to change its name to “Awards Daily.” One cannot help but think that HeismanWatch.com has an incredibly strong nominative use defense, though. Under nominative use doctrine, another person can use the trademark of another if:

  1. the thing identified by the trademark (here, a trophy) cannot be readily identified any other way;
  2. the mark is used only as much as is necessary for that identification; and
  3. the use does not suggest sponsorship or endorsement.

The nominative use defense protects free speech and against the need to use “absurd turns of phrase” to avoid liability.

Credit: Wikipedia

It’s difficult to imagine a viable substitute to the name “Heisman,” given the trophy’s actual name–and namesake. What alternatives are there to HeismanWatch.com that do not include the surname? One commentator  offered an idea:

BestOffensivePlayerWithAGreatPRCampaignOnAVerySuccessfulTeamWatch.com.

Of course, this is absurd. And generic alternatives would fail to adequately describe what the website does (e.g., OutstandingCollegiateFootballPlayerWatch.com). One also doesn’t have to look much farther than a simple Google search to find that the media regularly uses “Heisman Watch” as a phrase to discuss anticipation about the next awardee. Even ESPN has a section called “Heisman Watch.” This kind of ubiquity shows the obvious necessity of using the surname. The common use of the phrase also suggests there is a very low likelihood that collegiate football fans are confusing the website–or any other reporting source–with the actual trophy organization. These are hallmarks of fair use.

But setting aside the legal defenses, one has to wonder if organizations such as the Heisman Trophy Trust, NCAA, and NFL ought to relax a little, and encourage the kind of use presented by sites like HeismanWatch.com. These fan centers generate excitement about, and interest in, football. That’s something football desperately needs more of lately.

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?

Juut, an award-winning salon and spa founded in Minneapolis, has grown over the last 30 years, expanding into Arizona and California, with a focus not only on beauty, but health and wellness.

Juut was founded by David Wagner (author of Life as a Daymaker — How to Change the World by Making Someone’s Day), naturally the Juut name means: “to uplift humanity and serve others.”

“We celebrate individuality, authenticity and real beauty. Our mission is to create dynamic and significant Daymaking experiences that positively impact people, society and the world at large. Our vision at Juut is to transform the world with beauty.”

What is Juut to do when a popular, nicotine-pushing brand, adopts this similar Juul visual identity:

It’s difficult to imagine “Juuling” (notice the brandverbing) being a welcome activity in a healthful Juut salon or spa, and it’s similarly hard to imagine nicotine-containing Juul pods being available for sale at a Juut salon or spa, but neither would be required to show likelihood of confusion.

Juul’s apparent mission is to: “Improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers.” The problem, as noted by the FDA, is the product is being used by minors, not only adult smokers.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the New York Times reported on the magnitude of the problem:

“The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday declared that teenage use of electronic cigarettes has reached ‘an epidemic proportion,’ and it put makers of the most popular devices on notice that they have just 60 days to prove they can keep their devices away from minors.”

Juul has been targeted in recent lawsuits for targeting minors, as alleged in this Vaporized ad:

Given Juut’s laudable mission, any risk of its identity being confused with the likes of Juul would seem unwelcome, yet Juut has never taken any enforcement steps, at least none at the TTAB.

On the other hand, Juul has been busy at the TTAB, enforcing its federally-registered trademark rights in JUUL against the likes of JUUC for electronic cigarette chargers, JUUS for electronic cigarette holders, FUUL for electronic cigarette chargers, and MUUL for electronic cigarette cases.

So, what about likelihood of confusion? Do the very different missions of Juut and Juul portend no likelihood of confusion, or do they speak to the significant damage resulting from any confusion?

Remember this North Memorial Health billboard ad — sporting a plain and literal Google reference — that we wrote about a few months ago, where nominative fair use was pretty clear to me?

Well, a new set of North Memorial billboard ads rolled into to the Minneapolis skyway system, just in time for Super Bowl LII, with essentially the same message, but without a Google mention.

Do you think Google was behind North Memorial’s move away from the Google reference, or was it part of the original plan to grab attention, then migrate to a more generic online search mention?

Does North Memorial showing it is able to communicate essentially the same idea without Google’s help impact the nominative fair use analysis? So, how do you come down on this one?

In case you’re wondering why I’m not writing about Super Bowl LII and the television commercials, as has been typical here on the day after, let’s say I’m still letting it sink in, so stay tuned.

Tis’ the season for football, not just on the gridiron, but also at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Shortly after the “Minneapolis Miracle,” as we reported this week, the Minnesota Vikings applied for registered marks on the phrase. And with the “big game” approaching, teams have titles on the mind–even those that aren’t in contention (ahem, Green Bay Packers).

Just one week ago, the Green Bay Packers initiated an opposition proceeding with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “TTAB”) against McClatchy U.S.A., a publishing company associated with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The dispute stems from the Star-Telegram‘s use of “Titletown, TX” as the title of a 20-short-video documentary series chronicling “the story of the 2016 Aledo [TX high school] Bearcats and their quest for a sixth state [football] title in eight years.”

Courtesy: PBS

The Packers have owned registered competing marks, such as “Titletown U.S.A.,” “Titletown,” and “Titletown Towel” since as early as 1993 (though, the Packers assert they have “made widespread and continuous use” of the marks since the 1960s). The Packers appear to have only begun policing the Titletown name at the TTAB since the start of this decade, however, filing five oppositions against related marks, such as “Title Town Talk Show” and “Titletown Brewing Co.”

The Titletown mark has acquired additional meaning and value to the Packers since the organization opened a development district by the same name outside Lambeau Field last year. The Packers invested almost $65M to complete the first phase of the district by this fall. The Titletown District includes a hotel, sports medicine clinic, ice skating rink, restaurant, and artificial tubing hill. And this summer, it got its own logo:

Courtesy: Twitter

The Packers allege that the “Titletown, TX” mark and use in the Texas video documentary series creates a likelihood of confusion and dilutes the “Titletown” and related marks. Why? Because the Star-Telegram uses the mark in connection with football. And that conflicts with the general public’s wide recognition of the mark “as being associated with a single source, and further recognizing the single source as [the Packers].” And the Packers allege that the Titletown name is distinctive with regard to entertainment, video, news, and commentary related to football such that it has acquired secondary meaning. Not only that, but the Packers consider the mark “famous and exclusively associated with [the Packers] in the mind of the consuming public.”

Setting aside the high likelihood that several fanbases and regions across the United States would likely dispute the Packers’ allegations as to fame and widespread recognition and acceptance, the primary questions before the TTAB are whether the use of the “Titletown, TX” mark in the short-video series is likely to cause confusion, mistake, and/or deception as to the source or origin of goods and services. And, further, whether use of the mark is likely to dilute the distinct quality of the Packers’ marks.

Generally, the strength of a mark depends on whether it is arbitrary or fanciful, suggestive, or descriptive. Because the Packers argue distinctiveness and secondary meaning, the organization appears to contend that the mark is descriptive (the lowest strength outside of generic), implying that the Packers are title winners. And historically, this is true; the Packers have been league champions a record 13 times (9 more than the nearest rival team, the Chicago Bears). And the Packers have won three consecutive NFL titles twice. Interestingly, though, the Aledo Bearcats have also won three consecutive state titles twice. This could set up a descriptive fair use defense for Star-Telegram.

When it comes to likelihood of confusion, the primary factors include: 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 Packers might have a case, but not a very strong one. Star-Telegram‘s use may be related to how the Packers use the Titletown mark in some contexts. But the Packers use the Titletown mark in multiple ways, only one of which relates to reporting about football. Indeed, the Packers are beginning to use the mark more in connection with the new Titletown District. Star-Telegram‘s use is in a very different market: Texas vs. primarily Wisconsin. The use relates to different football leagues: high school vs. the NFL. And the marketing channels are different: online newspaper vs. broadcasts. Ultimately, it seems unlikely that a typical consumer would confuse the two uses: think cheeseheads vs. longhorns.

When it comes to dilution, the primary inquiry is whether the use of a mark is likely to impair the mark’s distinctiveness or harm the reputation of the famous mark. The Packers allege that “[a] recent survey concluded the term TITLETOWN is known to virtually the entire population of consumers surveyed and a substantial majority of those who are aware of the term TITLETOWN, associate it specifically with the Green Bay Packers.” This may demonstrate distinctiveness. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how a short-video series on successful high school football teams in Texas would harm the Titletown mark’s distinctiveness as to the Packers and professional football or harm the reputation of the mark.

McClatchy has until February 26, 2017 to answer the Packers’s opposition. By then, there will be a new reigning NFL titleholder, much to the envy of the allegedly-undisputed Titletown team. But even more to the Packers’s envy, the new titletown (or place of the title game) will technically be Minneapolis.

We follow closely and write a lot about what goes on with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO); these ironmongers do too, really well.

Serious trademark and brand owners care about TTAB decisions because many trademark disputes begin and end there, as the TTAB determines the important right to federally register trademarks.

What I mean by beginning there is, discreetly-used third party conflicting marks “flying under the radar,” rise to another level of trademark enforcement importance for a trademark and brand owner when the user also seeks federal registration, almost requiring the opening opposition salvo.

Federally-registered trademark owners know the importance of protecting the federal trademark register, because what, and how many similar third party marks, are allowed for registration, can negatively impact the owner’s trademark strength, scope of rights, and enforcement success.

Trademark rights are dynamic, they’ll shrink or grow over time, depending on the landscape at the time of enforcement, so not limiting registration at the USPTO can have more negative impact on strength and scope than an single, discreet, unauthorized use of a confusingly similar mark.

Looking the other way at trademark applications landing within a brand owner’s legitimate scope of protection, indirectly sends the perhaps unintended message to the trademark world, and those who monitor it, that the owner willingly accepts the shrinkage of its trademark rights.

So, serious trademark owners watch for conflicting filings at the USPTO, and stand in the way of registration, until agreement can be reached on how to coexist without a likelihood of confusion.

What I mean by many trademark disputes ending at the TTAB is, most oppositions do not go to final decision, the vast majority settle with a mutually-beneficial coexistence agreement in place.

And, when they don’t, trademark and brand owners — who follow us here — also know that the importance of final TTAB decisions has been raised, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently opened the door to having certain TTAB decisions — through the application of issue preclusion — control the outcome of later federal district court infringement and dilution law suits.

Congratulations to the TTAB on reaching sixty years of dedicated service to trademark and brand owners, as we look forward to the interesting issues likely to be decided in 2018 and beyond.

As I reflect on the more than twenty-five years of my experience before the TTAB, at this point in time — spanning nearly half of the TTAB’s existence — I’ll have to say, the TTAB seems to be carefully and thoughtfully emulating the characteristics of a fine wine as it matures.

What are your predictions of the 2018 decisions that will stand out? Fraud? Functionality? Fame?

Will the TTAB revisit its previous perceived inability to address Constitutional issues, like say, dilution tarnishmentreligious text marks, or application of the Section 2(c) bar to prevent federal registration of political trademark speech, and, if not this coming year, when?

I’m thinking this will be the year of informational and failure to function decisions, how about you?

We continue to have Super Bowl LII on our minds here in the Twin Cities. It’s hard to avoid thinking about the upcoming “Big Game” with ads like these blanketing our skyway maze:

Turns out, everyone wants to have a little piece of the action in this upcoming event, even without the formality and cost associated with sponsorship, some call it ambush marketing:

Ambush marketing is not necessarily unlawful. It’s tricky, but I’m guessing the above ad may have cleared a legal review. No obvious conflicts with federally-registered rights, it appears.

Having said that, does this little guy change your view on things? Look familiar? It appears to be the same Wilson NFL Pee Wee Touchdown football without the name brands shown:

I’m thinking the JB Hudson ad employed a little airbrush strategy, or at least some strategic and highly precise palm expansion and placement in hiding the Wilson and NFL logos.

Actually, if so, it’s a good move, but will it be enough — especially given this website link — to avoid the aggressive NFL Super Bowl sponsorship police?

Who owns rights in TOUCHDOWN for footballs, if anyone? Anyone?

Neither Wilson nor the NFL appear to own federally-registered rights in TOUCHDOWN for footballs, but do common law rights exist?

If so, who owns them, the NFL or the maker of the NFL’s official game footballs, Wilson?

Moreover, did legal review consider non-verbal marks? What about the stitching design bordering the football laces? Non-traditional trademark? Functional? If not functional, fair use?

So much to think about as we anxiously await the Big Game in our own chilly backyard . . . .

-Wes Anderson, Attorney

Whether or not you agree Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, he is certainly well-known. And after an over four-year battle, China’s trademark courts have agreed.

Michael Jordan and his JORDAN brand have been a staple of Nike’s shoe and apparel business for over thirty years. Nike so values the “Jumpman” logo that it transcends basketball – the Michigan Wolverines, for example, wear the logo on jerseys for all sports, including football.

But in China, where trademark rights belong to the first party to file a trademark, rather than the first to use, the JORDAN wording has effectively belonged to another company. A sportswear company called Qiaodan Sports owned the rights to the JORDAN mark in Chinese characters – Qiaodan, pronounced “chee-ow-dan,” is a transliteration of JORDAN used in China and elsewhere for over thirty years. Qiaodan operates some 6,000 stores in China, and its associated logos also bear a striking resemblance to the Jumpman logo:

Screen Shot 2016-12-16 at 6.30.15 AM

Qiaodan is, essentially, recognized as a knockoff brand in China. So, Jordan brought a lawsuit against Qiaodan in 2012, to seek cancellation of Qiaodan’s Chinese-character trademarks and, separately, a suit to enjoin use of those marks in China. What followed were a series of losses in court. China’s trademark laws do not favor the first to use, so for unregistered mark owners, Chinese trademark enforcement can be near impossible, unless the mark owner can show its mark is “well-recognized” in China.

Qiaodan had registered the Chinese character mark some 10 years before Jordan first objected, although Jordan’s legal team claimed use of the JORDAN name in China dating back to the 1984 Olympics (which were broadcast in China).

Lower courts held that the Chinese character mark would not be squarely associated with Michael Jordan, and that Qiaodan’s “human body in a shadowy design” logo was not recognizable as Jordan.

But finally, earlier this month, Jordan prevailed before the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest court. It found the Chinese character mark for JORDAN should be returned to China’s trademark office (after which, presumably, Jordan can obtain a registration of his own). And the fight is not yet over – a separate lawsuit in Shanghai is pending over Qiaodan’s use of the JORDAN name.

qiaodan2

That Jordan had to spend such immense time and resources to obtain this decision would surely scare away most “mere mortal” brands, even well-known ones. But there is a valuable lesson here for brands with an international presence.

First, it’s advisable to apply for marks in China as soon as practicable. Unlike other jurisdictions (such as the United States), China does not require proof of use for a trademark to obtain registration. Therefore, the concept of a “defensive registration” exists in China, but not the U.S.

And in most cases, a trademark may not be challenged on grounds of non-use for three years after registration. So long as some genuine good faith use is made in China during that three-year period, the registration will generally avoid a non-use cancellation.

Second, this should apply equally to the concept of “transliterated” marks in Chinese characters (the subject of the JORDAN decision above). A Chinese trademark specialist can propose a variety of potential Chinese character marks that are the phonetic equivalent of an English language mark. It’s also possible that consumers in China may already associate a certain combination with your brand as a “de facto” transliteration.

Finally, it’s also a good idea to obtain a China or global watch service for important trademarks. A watch service will monitor the application and publication databases in various countries and inform of any close matches for which others have applied.

Ultimately, the cost of a timely trademark application in China can save untold costs and prevent various headaches associated with enforcement. A lesson Michael Jordan now no doubt knows better than anyone.

WatchingCreation

This past weekend, with what appears to be our first lasting snowfall, I enjoyed following my daughter around the chilly alleys of downtown Minneapolis while she created for her photography class. As you can see from the moment I captured, she inspired me to create a bit too.

Thankfully I’m not being graded for my efforts.

Yet, as I reflected on capturing my daughter’s creativity in action, it occurred to me that the results of the creative efforts of our friends in the branding world are frequently watched too, but not always by those with as good of intentions as mine toward my daughter’s activities.

I’m not talking about jealous peers or green-eyed monsters or even the talented and skilled judges who review and evaluate creative submissions for industry awards. The watchers I’m thinking about have a different perspective as the IP counsel for brand owners who evaluate potential enforcement targets as new creative works endlessly flow into the marketplace.

One type or method of this kind of watching is automated and quite routine in the IP world. Many professional trademark search firms provide services allowing brand owners and/or their counsel the ability to be alerted when another files an application seeking registration of a mark, when the new creation has the potential to cause likely confusion.

Receiving a cease and desist letter after an application is filed is a pretty reliable sign that the brand owner behind the letter is watching — either the applicant directly or the penumbra surrounding the brand owner’s trademark rights, to maintain or grow a vibrant scope of rights.

Sophisticated brand owners also are well-versed in using, where appropriate, a more stealth approach of watching with the letter of protest strategy. The letter of protest option can avoid the need for direct interaction with the trademark applicant because it positions the USPTO to do the brand owner’s bidding by erecting road blocks to registration.

Of course, if the concern stems from more than registration and includes a concern of use too, then the brand owner eventually will need to unmask and reveal its concerns directly to the applicant. Having said that, having the USPTO on your side as a brand owner watching the filings of concerning marks can be a powerful tool when one decides to finally unmask and speak up.

With these IP realities in mind, are you watching or being watched or both?

Best to do the former and assume the latter.

PATRÓN (meaning “boss” or “landlord” in Spanish) is a pretty famous brand name of tequila (federally-registered since 1993), and don’t forget this gem from the archives:

SilverPatron In my experience, PATRÓN is often requested by name when ordering margaritas, so when visiting this cozy spot, I instantly wondered about the need for permission or a license:

ElPatronICTable

Especially since EL merely means THE, and since PATRÓN tequila bottles adorn the place:

PatronBottles

Turns out, there are other restaurant brand names sharing the PATRÓN term, already coexisting on the Principal Register (here, here, and here)

What does this say about the scope of rights associated with the PATRÓN tequila brand when it comes to third parties providing restaurant and bar services, especially those that serve tequila?

Seems like PATRÓN hasn’t been too “bossy” when it comes to trademark enforcement in the restaurant arena, what do you think?