Trademark Infringement

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.

There’s been a major update in the trademark infringement lawsuit brought by the Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA”) against the cafe and art gallery, MoMaCha in New York City.

MoMA’s motion for a preliminary injunction was recently granted by Judge Louis Stanton of the Southern District of New York. As we discussed previously, the infringement allegations by MoMA were compelling, and it appears the court agrees that MoMA is likely to succeed on its claims, based primarily on the similarity of the marks and the relatedness of the parties’ goods/services in the same city (both parties display works of art along with offering cafe services). The court was particularly persuaded by the similarity of the vertical use of “MoMaCha,” as seen on the coffee cup above, with MoMA’s similar vertical use on the museum building signage above. (See Order at p. 18.)

The court’s preliminary injunction bars MoMaCha from continuing to use its name, logo, and the momacha.com domain name, at least while the legal proceedings are pending. As of today, the previous website, www.momacha.com is no longer accessible.

Instead, it appears that MoMaCha has already rebranded to a slightly different name, by changing one letter: MaMaCha, with a new website already available here: www.mamacha.nyc

Unfortunately, that probably won’t be sufficient to satisfy MoMA’s trademark infringement concerns. Indeed, the New York Times reported that MoMA has already sent a letter to “MaMaCha” regarding the new name and demanding that they cease use. The demand letter closes by stating:

Changing the ‘O’ in MOMACHA to an ‘A’ merely indicates your clients’ continued contempt for MoMA’s trademark rights. Your clients’ decision to change to a mark of such an infringing nature will be done at their peril.

As discussed in my last post, in the midst of trademark infringement allegations, extra caution is warranted. Just as one should be cautious with business expansion under an alleged infringing mark to mitigate damages, extra care is also warranted in selecting a new or modified mark (whether voluntarily or by court order) to avoid similar or further infringement claims, as there will be extra scrutiny and potentially over-aggressive enforcement by the opponent in the present dispute.

And as a practical matter, if one has to expend the effort and resources to re-brand, it may be more cost-effective to make a more significant, lower-risk change, rather than pushing boundaries with a minor change that may again be challenged, instigating further litigation expense, and requiring another re-brand. In many cases, simply changing one letter may not sufficient. Based on these developments thus far, I’m sure there will be interesting updates to come, so stay tuned.

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.

The popular UGG® branded sheepskin boots are at the heart of a dispute in the Northern District of Illinois. Deckers Outdoor Corp. (“Deckers”) owns 29 federal registrations for the trademark UGG in connection with numerous goods and services, including footwear, clothing, wallets, passport covers, plush toys and retail store services. The company also has four pending applications for UGG to add to this family of UGG trademarks.

Deckers sued Australian Leather Pty. Ltd. and its owner (“Australian Leather”) for trademark infringement and patent infringement for selling “ugg” boots.

UGG® branded boots have become very popular. Fashion forward celebrities, such as Blake Lively and Sarah Jessica Parker, are often pictured wearing the comfortable boots as they go about their daily lives. This provides the brand with free publicity and even more exposure.

Defendant Australian Leather alleged that the ugg mark was generic for sheepskin boots and that the doctrine of foreign-equivalents supported this conclusion. The parties brought cross motions for summary judgment on these issues and others.

Steve Baird has written about trademark genericide before on DuetsBlog. Generic trademarks are those where a brand name has become synonymous with a general class of product or service. Famous examples include: aspirin (Bayer lost this valuable mark), elevator and linoleum. Losing a trademark to genericide allows competitors to benefit from the originating company’s goodwill without being guilty of trademark infringement. Companies have undertaken advertising campaigns to prevent or combat their trademarks from becoming generic. For example, the Velcro Companies came up with the hilarious video, “Don’t Say Velcro,” explaining that the product is a “hook and loop” with the brand name VELCRO®. The company even came up with a sequel video called “Thank You For Your Feedback” that Steve Baird wrote about previously on DuetsBlog.

Luckily for Deckers, the Illinois Court found that its UGG® trademark was not generic. Deckers introduced a survey undertaken in 2017 in the United States of 600 women between the ages of 16 and 54 wherein 98% of the respondents viewed UGG® as a brand name. These results were even better than past surveys commissioned by Deckers in 2004 where 58% of the respondents viewed the mark as a brand, and in 2011 where 89% of respondents viewed UGG® as a brand name.

In turn, Australian Leather asserted that “ugg” was generic among American surfers in the 1970s. The Court found this group to be too narrow. Australian Leather also introduced evidence of “ugg” being generic for sheepskin boots in Australia. Not surprisingly, the Court did not find this evidence to win the day. The Court noted that genericness in another country could be at least relevant to consumer perceptions in the United States. However, it is important to remember that whether a trademark is generic in another country has little bearing on whether it is generic in the United States. Trademark rights are territorial. Having a registered trademark in the United States does not give a company rights in that mark in Australia or other countries.

The Court explained that the foreign-equivalents doctrine did not warrant another result. It explained that “the doctrine is not a perfect fit for English to English [terms, rather, the doctrine] is generally used to analyze non-English terms used in the American marketplace.” Steve Baird did a nice job of explaining the appropriate use of this doctrine in his post, here.

What genericide stories have you heard about?  It can be an ongoing and costly battle for brand owners to protect their valuable intellectual property rights.

M. Shanken Communications, publisher of Wine Spectator — a popular magazine, website and mobile application that offers wine ratings on a 100-point scale — has filed a lawsuit against California-based Modern Wellness, Inc., based on that company’s use of “Weed Spectator” for ratings of cannabis. The federal complaint, filed in New York, alleges claims including trademark infringement, unfair competition, and dilution. The case is M. Shanken Communications, Inc. v. Modern Wellness, Inc. et al., Case No. 18-cv-08050 (S.D.N.Y.).

M. Shanken alleges that the website and social media pages offered by Modern Wellness use the terms “Weed Spectator” and “WS” for cannabis rating publications, which are confusingly similar to M. Shanken’s use of “Wine Spectator” and “WS” marks for its wine rating publications. For example, Modern Wellness also offers a similar 100-point rating scale for cannabis, and the parties’ marks allegedly contain similar font and style. Furthermore, M. Shanken cites to several Modern Wellness pages that associate cannabis with wine.

M. Shanken’s claims will require establishing a likelihood of confusion (except for the dilution claims) based on the Second Circuit’s eight Polaroid factors. Among those factors, two of the most significant are the similarity of the marks and the relatedness (or “competitive proximity”) of the parties’ services. Although there are some similarities of the marks, M. Shanken may have some difficulty establishing likelihood of confusion based on a lack of relatedness between cannabis rating and wine rating.

However, M. Shanken also brought a dilution claim, which does not require a showing that the services are related or competitively proximate. Therefore, M. Shanken may prevail on that claim, if it can prove the use of “Weed Spectator” is likely to cause dilution by blurring or tarnishment. M. Shanken alleged that its marks are tarnished by Weed Spectator because of the association with an illegal drug (under federal law and most states). Nevertheless, the federal dilution claim also requires a showing that M. Shanken’s marks are “famous,” which is a high bar to establish.

What do you think? Would you be confused as to the source of the Weed Spectator mark, or believe there was some affiliation or connection between the parties? Even if not, do you think that M. Shanken’s marks are tarnished or blurred by Weed Spectator? Stay tuned for updates.

Earlier this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, known as “MoMA,” sued a cafe and art gallery, MoMaCha, also located in New York City, asserting claims of trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition. As discussed in my post a couple months ago, although MoMaCha has some well-founded arguments and defenses, 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. MoMA’s motion for a preliminary injunction, filed in the Southern District of New York, is still pending. The case is The Museum of Modern Art v. MoMaCha IP LLC et al., No. 18-cv-03364-LLS (S.D.N.Y.)

Despite the threat of MoMA’s claims and motion for preliminary injunction, MoMaCha has announced plans to expand to three additional locations in New York City. This type of significant expansion — growing from one to four locations — is a bold move in light of MoMA’s claims, even if MoMaCha is feeling confident in the merits of its arguments and defenses. In particular, damages for trademark infringement under 15 U.S.C. 1117(a) can consist of all the defendant’s profits from its sales of goods/services under the infringing mark, which can add up quickly. Adding three more locations could mean a quadrupling of such potential damages, depending on their profit streams. Furthermore, damages can be tripled under Section 1117(a) based on the circumstances of the case. Therefore, a pending infringement claim can warrant a conservative approach to a defendant’s business expansion — or even limiting the use of the claimed infringing mark — until the dispute is resolved, to mitigate the risk of damages.

Nevertheless, it is possible that MoMaCha might be following this conservative approach. Despite their announcement several months ago to expand to three locations, and coverage of that expansion in the media including articles linked above, after a quick Google search I’m not seeing that any new locations have actually opened, but any New Yorkers out there, let me know if you’ve seen more MoMaCha’s opening up. Stay tuned for updates.

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.

 

A dog toy display at a local pet store caught my attention recently.

I did a double take on seeing the familiar fonts, coloring, and packaging.  Not long after, I happened to find these at a different pet store.

Once again, the familiar labels, coloring, and bottle designs caught my attention.

While certainly reminiscent of the actual brands, these all appear to be clear examples of parody.  The Chewy Vuiton case is particularly instructive here.  In that case, Louis Vuitton sued dog toy manufacturer Haute Diggity Dog for trademark infringement and dilution over a Louis Vuitton-themed dog toy.

The court held that the dog toy was indeed a successful parody, and Haute Diggity’s use of CHEWY VUITON did not constitute infringement or dilute the Louis Vuitton trademark rights.  In analyzing Haute Diggity’s parody defense, the court defined a parody as a work that (1) references the original/famous brand, (2) but makes clear that the work is not the original/famous brand, and (3) communicates some articulable element of satire, ridicule, joking, or amusement.  While recognizing the similarities between the dog toy and Louis Vuitton’s designer bags, the court also articulated several differences.  For example, the court highlighted that the dog toy is smaller, plush, and inexpensive—clear distinctions over LV purses.  The court characterized the dog toys as “simplified and crude,” rather than the “detailed and distinguished” purses.

While Jose Perro, Dr. Pooper, HeinieSniff’n and the others I recently stumbled on are probably parodies as well, they beg the question of where the parody line falls.  The Chewy Vuiton court made clear that there must be some readily identifiable differences between the original mark and the parodied work.  But how many differences are enough?

Consider the Snif peanut butter jar, for example.  While the words and the items themselves are different, there seems to be some room for suggested association between peanut butter and dog toys.  Peanut butter is frequently used as a dog treat by many owners.  Surely a dog owner might believe Jif peanut butter had entered the dog toy market.

What do you think?  Are all of these clear cases of parody like the Chewy Vuiton toys?

Although perhaps the most important question is: why are there so many dog toy parodies?

For anyone unfamiliar with internet cat personalities, Grumpy Cat is a well-known feline whose dwarfism and underbite culminate in a perpetual—and adorable—sour expression.  Grumpy Cat’s real name is Tardar Sauce.  In 2012, when Tardar Sauce was only a few months old, she became an internet sensation after a photo of her endearing scowl was posted on Reddit.  Since that time, Tardar Sauce has made several public appearances, and was named to Forbes’ list of Top Pet Influencers.

Tardar Sauce’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, formed Grumpy Cat Limited to handle licensing and merchandising of the Grumpy Cat brand.  Grumpy Cat Limited holds eight federal trademark registrations, including five registrations for the standard character mark GRUMPY CAT, and three registrations for this design mark:

Grumpy Cat Limited also owns multiple copyright registrations, including these:

 

In 2013, Grumpy Cat Limited entered into a licensing agreement with Grenade Beverage LLC.  Under the agreement, Grumpy Cat Limited licensed the Grumpy Cat trademarks and copyrights to Grenade in connection with a line of iced coffee products (appropriately named Grumppuccinos).

Three flavors of Grumppuccino

The licensing agreement additionally permitted Grenade to develop other Grumpy Cat beverage products, but only with the permission of Grumpy Cat Limited for each new product.  Under this provision, Grenade sought approval from Grumpy Cat Limited for a new line of Grumpy Cat-branded coffee beans.  Grumpy Cat Limited withheld approval for the coffee beans.  Grenade nonetheless moved forward with the new product.  Grenade also began selling unauthorized Grumppuccino t-shirts.

The offending beans

In late 2015, Grumpy Cat Limited sued Grenade for breach of contract, copyright infringement, and trademark infringement.  Namely, Grumpy Cat Limited asserted that Grenade’s use of the Grumpy Cat name and likeness on the coffee bean products and unauthorized Grumppuccino t-shirts was outside the permissible scope of the licensing agreement.

After a week-long trial, during which Tardar Sauce herself made an appearance, a jury decided in favor of Grumpy Cat Limited.  The jury awarded $710,001 to Grumpy Cat Limited: $230,000 in statutory damages for copyright infringement, $480,000 in statutory damages for trademark infringement, and $1 for breach of contract.  Presumably, the statutory damages awarded to Grumpy Cat Limited equal more than any actual damages the company could have obtained–a reminder of the value of statutory damages in trademark and copyright infringement suits.

Twitter, the social media giant, is being sued by its internet cousin, TWiT.  TWiT, which initially stood for This Week in Tech, is a netcast network providing audio and video tech-related content.  TWiT owns the registered service mark TWIT for visual and audio entertainment performances.

According to the Complaint, TWiT founder Leo Laporte and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams had some discussions about the similar brand names in the mid-2000s.  The Complaint is available on Scribd, courtesy of TechCrunch.  In 2007, Laporte invited Williams on TWiT’s net@night show to promote Wiliams’s new company, Twitter.  Laporte alleges that although the two founders recognized their companies’ similar sounding names, at the time, they provided entirely different platforms—Twitter was text-based microblogging, and TWiT was video and audio streaming and downloading. The two founders apparently agreed informally that their companies would continue to coexist on their respective platforms.

Now, after ten years and still no formal agreement, Twitter is planning to launch original video streaming content.

Last year, TWiT sent a letter demanding that Twitter abandon its planned expansion into video content.  The parties’ subsequent attempts to resolve the dispute without legal action apparently have not been successful.

TWiT alleges twelve causes of action in total, including infringement of the TWIT mark.

Perhaps the moral of this story is: put it in writing (preferably more than 140 characters).  Presumably in Twitter’s early days, no one could have foreseen the future success of the social media platform and an eventual expansion into video content.  But maybe TWiT should have sought something more than a handshake coexistence agreement.  What do you think?