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…
We had some great questions from the audience during the Mastering U.S. Trademark Registration Practice seminar in Minneapolis a few weeks ago. During the session on genericness, someone asked about MyPillow, expressing amazement that it could be federally-registered.
Having now seen the MyPillow television advertisement probably a dozen times since then, I’ve finally gotten…
Seeing these on the store shelf this weekend reminded me that we are still anxiously awaiting the USPTO’s decision from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) as to whether the words “pretzel crisps” will be found generic for “pretzel crackers” –basically, a public domain category or class of goods term, in the…
We’ve written a lot here about the all-important Spectrum of Distinctiveness, a key tool for those who name products and services, and for those who hope their selected names can be ownable as trademarks, upon their first use in commerce.…
In the wake of all the discussion and debate over “trademark bullying,” NFIB (National Federation of Independent Businesses), the self-proclaimed Voice of Small Business, recently offered its members and followers “5 Steps to Avoid Corporate Trademark Bullying“:
- Do Your Homework;
- Choose a Descriptive Business Name;
- Use Common Sense;
- Consider Buying
Texas Toast is the generic name for a type of bread, you know, the big thick double-cut slices. Anyone can call their bread Texas Toast if that is what they are selling, and, by the way, it doesn’t have to be toasted for the name to fit.
But, what if you’re selling a product made from bread, say, croutons? Can Texas Toast be owned and registered as a trademark for croutons? What if they are big, thick croutons, with a "Texas Toast" cut? And, if you market your croutons as "New York " brand, "The Original Texas Toast" croutons, does that not imply, if not admit, that others are free to compete by selling their own brand of, perhaps, non-original "Texas Toast" croutons? What if you didn’t start using a TM designation until after you noticed your competition selling Texas Toast croutons? Interesting questions, no doubt.
Well, ten days ago, a federal district judge in Ohio denied cross-motions for summary judgment in a trademark infringement case over an Ohio company’s claimed common law unregistered rights in "Texas Toast" for croutons and a Grand Rapids, Michigan company’s claimed descriptive fair use of "Texas Toast" also in connection with croutons. As an aside, having spent two years in school there, when I think of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and bread, sorry, all that comes to mind for me, are the wonderfully and perfectly steamed hot dog buns at the world famous Yesterdog.
In any event, back to Texas Toast, here is a pdf of the decision in T. Marzetti Co. v. Roskam Baking Co. , indicating that it is too early to decide the Texas Toast trademark infringement case because there are several disputed issues of fact, including, among others, the meaning and the term’s placement on the all-important Spectrum of Distinctiveness, i.e., whether "Texas Toast" is generic, descriptive, or suggestive for croutons.
Now, since the case wasn’t cut short and decided on summary judgment with a limited record, we’ll have to wait and see how the evidence shapes up and whose claim ends up being, eh, toasted, but I’ll have to say, at this point, "Texas Toast" sounds to me like a category of croutons — those cut from texas toast style bread; like Lite and Light is to beer, and Brick Oven is to pizza — each are generic terms that are not own-able for those goods, because they designate a category of goods, not the origin or source of the goods. By the way, it doesn’t matter if you’re the first to use a generic term, if found generic, it is available for use by all, even direct competitors.
So, this is probably one of those trademark cases where who wins will come down to the proper placement of the claimed mark on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness. If generic, case over, defendant wins. If suggestive, plaintiff acquired rights based on its first use, two years prior to defendant’s use, and will likely win, provided a likelihood of confusion can be shown. If descriptive, plaintiff will be in the difficult position of proving that it acquired distinctiveness in "Texas Toast" prior to defendant’s first use, so within a short two-year period of time. If so, good luck with that.
No doubt, when it comes time for trial (or perhaps another summary judgment motion prior to trial), the plaintiff will make the most of the fact that the Trademark Office did not issue a descriptiveness or a genericness refusal on TEXAS TOAST for croutons, see the USPTO details here. Seems like an oversight to me, at least with respect to descriptiveness, after all, the plaintiff has the number one selling brand of texas toast style garlic bread, and it now has expanded that use into the field of croutons.
Ironically, to put its TEXAS TOAST trademark application in condition for publication by the U.S. Trademark Office Marzetti had to argue, and did so successfully, that it wasn’t likely to be confused with the prior federally-registered TEXTOAST trademark for bakery products. In doing so, it narrowed its description of goods from "croutons" to "croutons sold in a salad toppings section of grocery stores and supermarkets." Given that Marzetti’s mark will now be published for opposition, it is probably safe to assume that Roskam Baking will now oppose registration of Marzetti’s claimed TEXAS TOAST mark for croutons, so it doesn’t become registered prior to trial, but we’ll see.
So, what do you think about the critical Spectrum of Distinctiveness questions?
- Is Texas Toast generic for a category of croutons made from texas toast style cuts of bread?
- Is Texas Toast merely descriptive of croutons because it immediately describes a feature, characteristic, or attribute of croutons? or
- Is Texas Toast suggestive of croutons, because, a consumer’s imagination is required to understand the connection between the mark and the goods, or as plaintiff argues, "everything is bigger in Texas."
Is plaintiff Marzetti’s suggestiveness argument all hat and no cattle?
Now, vote again, after reading plaintiff’s own description of its croutons below the jump.
John Reinan provided yesterday a marketer’s perspective that questioned the value of coined trademarks. In my experience, as a trademark type, one place on the spectrum of distinctiveness where both trademark and marketing types can have their cake and eat it too, is the delicious category of suggestive trademarks.
From the legal side of the coin…