As I mentioned last week, Apple’s present iPhone Xs billboard advertising campaign is ubiquitous at the moment, especially this image, totally flooding the Minneapolis skyway system, and beyond:

Putting aside whether the unique lighting and reflective nature of the indoor billboards do justice to the art of the iPhone Xs ad, I’m also questioning whether the Xs repetition might be, excessive?

See what I mean? Above and especially below, with stretches of hundreds of feet — in the frozen tundra of our Minneapolis skyway,  nothing in sight, but the same, glaring and reflective Xs ad:

A few questions come to mind. Repetition in branding, yes it’s important, but are there no limits?

In other words, we know Apple can afford to dominate our skyway billboard space, but should it?

And, if so, with what? Apple’s user-generated content campaign was welcome, brilliant and unique.

But, what is the end goal of covering the Minneapolis skyway, with a train of identical Xs boxcars?

Isn’t the art of the ad lost when it is the only thing in front of you, or should I say Outfront of you?

A boring train of Xs boxcar ads builds no momentum to a destination, like Wall Drug ads on I-90.

Where is this train of repetitive ads supposed to take us, online to drive more holiday unit sales?

That seems doubtful, the ad doesn’t explain why one should replace an earlier version with the Xs.

Ironically, Apple’s current struggle is distancing itself from the stock market’s focus on unit sales.

Billboard advertising is said to be effective for brand awareness, but Apple hardly struggles there.

I’m not seeing the point of this ad, and repetition won’t solve the problem of a saturated market.

I’m just left feeling like I paid too much for my Xs, because Apple wasted too much on these ads.

Trademark owners should beware of a scam involving the Amazon Brand Registry. There have been several reports of rogue users exploiting the Amazon Brand Registry through the unauthorized modification of trademark registration records at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). These scammers are submitting fraudulent requests to change the email addresses for trademark registrants, and thereafter, updating the brand ownership records with the Amazon Brand Registry.

Continue Reading Watch Out: Unauthorized Changes in USPTO and Amazon Brand Records

An NFL team and an NBA team are duking it out over trademarks with the word “UPRISING” to be used with eSports.

What is eSports you may ask? It is professional competitive video gaming. Anyone with a teenager has probably heard of Fortnite. Fortnite is a world-wide phenomenon. Over three nights during TwitchCon (which is a Fortnite competition), Fortnite averaged around 65,000 viewers per day across Twitch, YouTube and Facebook. However, there are also numerous other video games such as Hearthstone, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, Star Craft II and Overwatch, among others. Indeed, Overwatch is related to the trademark dispute involving the owner of the New England Patriots.

The dispute involves the marks BOSTON UPRISING and NORTH UPRISING. Specifically, last month, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft’s company, Kraft Group, filed a Notice of Opposition against an application filed by the NBA’s Toronto Raptors for the mark NORTH UPRISING (stylized) in connection with clothing and other merchandise that is to be used with video games. The Kraft Group alleges that the stylized mark in the application is similar in stylization and font of its applied for stylized mark for BOSTON UPRISING.

Continue Reading The New England Patriots Are Ready To Battle Off The Field

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.

Amazon’s patent (U.S. Patent No. 9,280,157) for a “System and Method for Transporting Personnel Within an Active Workspace” has been in the news recently.

The invention is described as a device for keeping human workers safe in an automated (i.e., robotic) work environment.  In the Background, the patent discusses the rapid rise of automation in inventory-handling systems.  “Technological advancements have made an ever-increasing amount of automation possible in inventory-handling and other types of material-handling systems.”  ‘157 patent at col. 1, ll. 7-9.  “However, there may be circumstances where it is necessary for human operators to traverse, or otherwise go onto, an active workspace where the mobile drive units are carrying out their assigned inventory-related tasks.”  ‘157 patent at col. 1, ll. 14-18.  An automated work environment can be dangerous for human workers.  As a solution, the patent proposes a transport device to transport a human worker safely through an automated inventory-handling work area.  The premise, and the described need for the invention, sound reasonable enough.  However, it’s the drawings of this patent that are garnering some unwanted attention.

Amazon worker cages allow users to safely traverse automated work areas.
At least there’s a bench (414) to sit on?

The patent illustrates and describes the transport device as, well, a cage for workers.  The Detailed Description describes the device as a “cage-like structure configured to substantially prevent the user from sticking an appendage through the enclosure.”  ‘157 Patent at col. 13, ll. 51-53.  Importantly, the claims of the patent (i.e. the scope of protection) are relatively broad and do not specifically require the cage-like structure.  Claim 1, for example, is directed to an inventory-handling system to transport a user within a workspace, the system including a first device to transport users within the workspace, a second device to transport users within the workspace, and a management module directing movement of the two devices.  Of course, this doesn’t render the imagery of work cages any less concerning.

A recent study conducted by two artificial intelligence researchers drew attention to the patent.  The authors referred to the patent as: “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.”  News of the patent quickly reached major outlets and social media.

Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Operations, Dave Clark, responded on Twitter:  “This was never used and we have no plans for usage.”

This patent, the resulting blowback, and Amazon’s response highlight a couple of important points about patent protection.

First, patents (and, typically, patent applications) are publicly accessible documents.  At the heart of the patent system is an exchange.  The inventor obtains the right to exclude anyone from making or using the invention, but in exchange, must disclose that invention to the world.  Thus a company seeking to obtain a patent, and particularly a high profile company like Amazon, should keep in mind that every word and drawing will be viewable by the public.

Second, Clark’s statement that the company has no plans to implement the cages is a reminder of the value a patent can have.  A patent grants the owner a right to exclude others from practicing the invention.  A patent owner need not actively practice the invention herself in order to enforce it against others.  Even when a company is not looking to implement a particular invention, an issued patent on the concept may provide a leg up on competitors.  The relatively broad claims of the Amazon patent, which do not rely on the cage design, allow Amazon to exclude its competitors from employing a system for transporting humans through an automated work space.

When can a brand owner lawfully use a competitor’s trademark on the brand owner’s product?

Over the years, we’ve lifted away a lot of dust on the hairy subjects of classic trademark fair use, nominative fair use, and comparative advertising, especially in the context of billboard ads.

It isn’t every day we see comparative billboard ads actually affixed to a product in question, so I can’t resist sharing this vacuum cleaner canister that captures all of these legal allergens at once:

For those unfamilar with the fierce competition between the Shark and Dyson vacuum brands, above is a cropped photo of a Shark Lift-Away canister vacuum, from my home closet.

As you can see, the label affixed to the canister portion of the vacuum actually refers to the competing Dyson brand twice. Just imagine what our friend James Mahoney might be thinking.

Why would the leading household vacuum cleaner brand — Shark — stoop to give its competitor Dyson free mentions (albeit negative) and publicity? Isn’t that kind of like punching down?

Actually, I’m not sure whether Shark had yet surpassed Dyson as market leader, when the canister left the store and entered our closet, so the above label might have been a punch up?

And, if comparative advertising induces sales, why does someone who already purchased the product need more reminders — with each use — that Dyson sucks, in more ways than one?

Turns out, the label shown above, as we now know, is fairly easily removed, so I suppose the joke is really on us, for leaving this comparative advertising on the product for more than a long while.

One of the dangers in affixing comparative advertising claims or content to the product itself may be, over time the claim might lose its original truth; perhaps that’s why the label is removable?

One of the most common defenses to patent infringement is that the asserted patent is invalid. The reasons for invalidity regularly range from lack of utility, to incorrect inventorship, and even to fraud (as I’ve recently written about). Often, the defendant asserts that the patent is invalid for lack of novelty or non-obviousness–pointing to some piece of evidence that the defendant says conclusively shows that the invention was already in the public domain before the plaintiff even applied for the patent. That evidence is called invalidating “prior art.”

Prior art can spell the unexpected demise of an otherwise valid patent, and it comes in many forms. For several decades, published prior art (not to be confused with prior art in the form of prior uses or sales) consisted of already-existing patents (and applications), trade journals, drawings, articles, websites, standards, whitepapers, etc. But Congress expanded the scope of published prior art dramatically in passing the America Invents Act in 2012. Whereas before prior art consisted merely of “printed publications,” post-AIA, prior art also encompasses things that are “otherwise available to the public.”

The larger–and more modern–universe of possible published prior art is easy to imagine. For example, prior art references are no longer limited to traditional publications and documentary evidence. Instead, additional forms of multimedia come into play–which is fitting in today’s multimedia-packed times. Videos, movies, broadcasts, and recordings all now qualify as prior art, so long as they are available to the public.

But despite this expansion, litigants have not yet fully taken advantage of the change. There have been a few recent uses of video as prior art, such as the iconic iPhone keynote speech made by the late Steve Jobs demonstrating a technology described in an Apple patent. Ironically, in commenting on the “bounce-back” effect that was the subject of the patent, Steve Jobs stated, “boy have we patented it.” But Apple failed to patent it fast enough after the speech.

https://youtu.be/-3gw1XddJuc?t=29m7s

Samsung used clips from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to argue that Apple’s design patent for the shape of a tablet was invalidating prior art.

Apple really seems to be taking the brunt of video prior art challenges.

Just one week ago, a Federal district judge in the Northern District of Florida addressed–apparently for the first time–whether a YouTube video could constitute prior art. The court, in HVLPO2, LLC v. Oxygen Frog, LLC, 4:16-CV-336 (MW/CAS) (Dkt. No. 133), held that a YouTube video can constitute prior art and that YouTube videos are “sufficiently accessible to the public interested in the art.” Not exactly a groundbreaking finding to someone of my generation, who grew up with YouTube and the internet. Indeed, the USPTO’s own training guides (slide 15) specifically state that YouTube videos are a perfectly acceptable form of prior art. The USPTO has stated that videos qualified prior to the AIA, but there is conflicting authority.

The plaintiff in HVLPO2 had argued that the particular YouTube video in question was uploaded on a random account, so no one interested in the art would have found it. The court pushed back in eccentric fashion, stating:

It appears that Plaintiff is unfamiliar with how YouTube works. A familiar user would know that you don’t need to search for a particular channel to watch the videos uploaded on it. For example, if you want to watch a video of a cat skateboarding, you can search “cat skateboarding”; you don’t need to know that it might have been “CatLady83” who uploaded the video you end up watching.

The court held that the YouTube video in question appeared within the first 20 videos when using appropriate search terms on the site. “Surely, the effort involved in composing a basic search query and scrolling down the page a few times does not exceed the ‘reasonable diligence’ that the law expects of a hypothetical prior art subject.” I couldn’t agree more, and I recommend this fun cat skateboarding video:

But even though most YouTube videos are generally accessible, not all are available to the public. For example, YouTube videos may be “private” or “unlisted,” potentially removing them from the “otherwise available to the public” category or at least undermining the argument for their accessibility. Thus, as even the court in HVLPO2 noted, the defendant still has to prove the existence of public access to the video prior to the applicable date. This can be accomplished by proffering screenshots of the video in the browser and evidence of that video’s publication date (which is disclosed on the YouTube website and many other video sharing platforms).

Besides the above, there are few other examples of videos (online or otherwise) being used as prior art. This is probably due in part to the current difficulty of searching the vast amount of video and audio–as opposed to text, for example–available on the internet. But as computer learning gets better and better, I expect audiovisual prior art will play a bigger role in both patent prosecution and litigation, so long as that prior art is “otherwise available to the public.”

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?

Nearly everyone in the IP community is talking about the hilarious viral Velcro music video released last week. Hat tip to Patently-O, Martha, and Brett. The “behind the scenes” video is here.

We’ve spoken before about nervous trademark types, behind the scenes doing their level best, and taking steps to try to avoid unwanted genericide of the trademarks they are charged to protect:

“Nervous, I say, because these types of advertisements frequently are designed to help prevent unwanted genericide of a trademark. The idea generally is, let’s show and create a record that we are educating the public about our trademark rights and hopefully deterring misuses that otherwise might find their way into the public eye and influence the relevant public’s understanding of a term or symbol as being generic and part of the public domain, free for anyone to use, even competitors.”

Velcro has been on our Genericide Watch list, and Wikipedia notes it is a trademark frequently used as a generic term. So, hats off to Velcro for letting their attorneys’ hairs down on this one.

And congrats to Penn Holderness and the rest of the WalkWest creative team, for helping give the impression in the Velcro video that at least some nervous lawyers can still have a sense of humor.

Julie Barry, Director of Global Brand, Velcro Companies, explained the Velcro video in this way:

“We’re here in North Carolina, shooting our ‘We are the World’ video which is an educational video explaining to folks details about the Velcro brand trademark and why it’s important that people refer to the mechanical fastener as ‘hook and loop.'”

Actors posing as lawyers, flanked by real Velcro lawyers, appear agitated at times, imploring listeners to not say Velcro, but instead “hook and loop,” or “our trademark will get killed,” “we’ll lose our circle ®,” and “our trademark goes away.” At the same time, Velcro is fully admitting the “First World” melodramatic nature of this worst case scenario and unfortunate situation.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never heard of a “hook and loop” fastener before now, so the video certainly accomplished that bit of education. I’d be surprised, however, if the video moves folks to embrace the stiff and clunky six syllable “hook and loop fastener” generic phrase, over Velcro.

Perhaps what follows is one small example of where I’ve captured “at least some of the sparks” spinning from my mind’s eye, so please bear with me, but as I watched and listened to the Velcro video more times than I’d like to admit (kind of an addictive musical hook), the rapid repetition of “hook and loop” triggered thoughts of “hook and ladder,” then “chutes and ladders,” and how ladders can lead up to rewards while chutes can take you for a ride straight to the bottom:

Given those stark alternatives, given how a brand that deteriorates to the point that its primary meaning is perceived to be more generic than it is perceived a brand (is not a brand at all, under the law), and given a trademark owner’s understandable desire to try and influence and build up the primary brand meaning among the relevant consuming public, it’s worth asking whether the humorous Velcro video helps to move that critical needle. In other words, does it act as a ladder?

We’ve cautioned before that a brand designed to launch an entirely new category must also spend valuable time and effort in creating and donating to the public, an acceptable generic term that the public easily can embrace, so when the applicable patents expire and exclusivity is lost, the trademark doesn’t travel straight down the chute to genericness:

Brand owners launching a new category of product or service do well to design a simple generic category name too.”

“Remember how it took Rollerblade an entire decade to come up with “in-line skates”?  Before that, the generic name it adopted at the USPTO was “boots equipped with longitudinally aligned rollers used for skating and skiing,” leading to a multitude of generic Rollerblading misuses.”

Is “hook and loop” going to get the job done? Will it help prevent a death by a thousand cuts?

“Hook and loop” is certainly more of a ladder, even a rescue “hook and ladder,” than the extreme generic identification of goods found in the first Velcro trademark application from 1957:

“NOTION-NAMELY, A SYNTHETIC MATERIAL SOLD IN RIBBON, SHEET, OR PIECE GOODS FORM, SAID MATERIAL HAVING COMPLEMENTAL PARTS WHICH ADHERE TO EACH OTHER WHEN PRESSED TOGETHER AND ADAPTED FOR USE AS A CLOSURE, FASTENER, OR BUTTON FOR CLOSING GARMENTS, CURTAINS, OR THE LIKE”

And, unlike Rollerblade who seriously delayed in donating a bite-size generic category term to the general public (“in-line skates”), Velcro seems to have been fully invested in “hook and loop” going all the way back to at least as early as 1975. Query whether the entry of the “hook and loop fastener” phrase closely tracks the lapsing of the patents (as the video mentions) “forty years ago.” If so, perhaps it still came twenty years too late?

Either way, I’m seriously wondering whether Velcro’s tongue-in-cheek reference to a “scratchy and hairy fastener” might be more easily and readily embraced by today’s general public as the generic alternative to genuine Velcro branded products.

I’m also left thinking that the video begs the question of who is the intended audience. In other words, who are the “folks” that Velcro would like to reach with this creative video?

I’ve always thought of Velcro as more of a B2B brand, but in researching this post, I see that I’ve missed some of their general consumer products, like general purpose straps, general purpose plastic bagschildren’s toy blocks, adhesive cementmedical splints, and hair rollers, for example.

Contractual efforts are probably the most effective way of controlling how the Velcro trademark is used by those who purchase authentic product from Velcro and incorporate Velcro fasteners into their own consumer products. And, when it comes to competitors who might be inclined to misuse the Velcro trademark, the cease and desist letter, and/or lawsuit is probably most effective.

So, perhaps the general public is the intended audience of this educational effort. If so, I’m not sure the effort anticipated how many in the general public don’t like to be told what to say and do.

Moreover, let’s face it, the video’s referenced “trademark laws being broken,” aren’t being broken by the general public speaking about the brand or a competitor’s alternatives to the brand. Nor are they being broken by the media who reports and writes about all kinds of things and happens to use “velcro” in lower case and in a generic sense.

I do seriously hope the video will strike the right chord with these important audiences, as they will have a significant impact on whether the brand is able to climb the ladder of distinctiveness and fame or slides down the chute to genericness.

For those still with me and wondering, while I’ve questioned the seriousness of the risk for genericide when intentional and controlled brand-verbing is involved (and the 9th Circuit’s recent decision affirming the survival of the Google trademark appears to validate the difficulty of bringing a trademark all the way to the ground zero), the Velcro mark seems different, as the generic uses don’t involve verbing, they go straight to nouning and naming what the product is, by the way, a far more efficient name for a “hook and loop” or “scratchy and hairy” fastener.

Which of the present options are most likely to roll off the tongues of those who matter?

There is an entire gaming sub-culture developed around watching others play video games.  I’m not talking about gathering around the Game Cube in your friend’s basement and passing the only controller.  “Let’s Play” videos are game play videos made by players and posted or streamed online.  The videos usually include the players’ own running commentary, which typically offers sarcasm, loud noises, bad jokes, profanity, and occasionally helpful tips.

The concept of Let’s Play videos has been around, in various forms, as long as recording devices and screen captures have allowed gameplay documentation.  Today, some players make a sizeable living from Let’s Play video ad revenues.  Felix Kjellberg, whose YouTube name is PewDiePie, is easily the most well-known Let’s Play vlogger.  With over 50 million YouTube subscribers, PewDiePie was named the highest-earning YouTuber in both 2015 and 2016.

A screenshot from PewDiePie’s Let’s Play video for the game Dark Souls

Despite their popularity, however, the legality of Let’s Play videos is on shaky ground.  Each video features a reproduction of copyright-protected images from a video game.  The videos also typically feature the player’s voiceover and a small window showing the player’s reactions (see above example).  If not a pure reproduction of copyright-protected material, the videos are at least a derivative work.

Some have argued that Let’s Play videos are protected fair use.  Statutory examples of fair use include criticism, comment, news reporting, and a few others.  Arguably, the gaming videos may be a form of commentary, as at least some of the videos do include commentary on the copyright-protected images themselves.  However, these statutory categories are only examples, and fair use is decided on a case-by-case consideration of six factors.  The transformative nature of the videos may weigh in favor of fair use.  That is, rather than a video game, Let’s Play videos provide video playback of one user’s gameplay with added commentary.  At this point, it is largely unclear whether these videos constitute fair use, and will likely remain so until a court has the opportunity to give guidance.

Whether Let’s Play videos are rampant infringement or protected fair use, video game developers have largely chosen a hands-off response. PewDiePie’s videos provide free advertising for the game developers to 50 million subscribers.  The videos give potential players an opportunity to preview gameplay and graphics before purchasing.  Because the draw of a video game is in active play, this likely does not take away from the game developers’ bottom lines.

This week, however, one video game developer reminded PewDiePie of the unstable footing on which his vlogging fame rests. A recent PewDiePie video included some racist commentary.  Unfortunately, it isn’t PewDiePie’s first misstep of this type.  Though this particular incident ruffled the wrong game developer’s feathers.  In a series of tweets, a co-founder of Campo Santo—developer of the game Firewatch—condemned PewDiePie’s statements and vowed to file DMCA takedown notices for PewDiePie’s Firewatch videos.

The Firewatch creator stated “I am sick of this child getting more and more chances to make money off of what we make.”  In apparent reference to the legalities, he said “[t]here is a bit of leeway you have to have with the internet when [you] wake up every day and make video games. There’s also a breaking point.”

This game developer’s response illustrates developers’ power with respect to the success of Let’s Play videos, and more generally highlights the power afforded copyright holders by the DMCA. The Firewatch creator’s takedown threat was an apparent result of his personal disgust at PewDiePie’s racist remarks, and did not relate to any new discovery of infringement.  Like other game developers, Campo Santo was well aware of Let’s Play videos.  Instead of using takedown notices to eliminate infringing content, the developer here is using the DMCA to dictate how PewDiePie infringes its content.  With the help of DMCA takedown notices, developers like Campo Santo can stand back in acquiescence, striking only when the infringement becomes inconvenient.  I wonder if the DMCA drafters anticipated this type of selective enforcement by copyright holders.  In a litigation setting, this practice may even raise the possibility of equitable defenses to infringement.