Before we think predictions for 2019, let’s consider the vast ground we’ve covered in 2018:

Wow, I’m exhausted, and these highlights are only a small fraction of what we delivered in 2018.

You may recall, earlier this year, I predicted more informational and failure to function decisions.

As our friend John Welch reported, there were more than a few (here, here, here, here, and here).

Stay tuned, on March 13, in New York City, I’ll be diving deeply into the failure to function topic, among others, at Practicing Law Institute’s Advanced Trademark Law 2019: Current Issues.

In terms of my big trademark prediction for 2019, it will be revealed whether the scandalous bar to federal registration is invalidated, whether or not the Supreme Court agrees to hear Brunetti.

So, what is your big trademark prediction for 2019?

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.

Welcome to another edition of trademark stories that are inspired by billboard advertisements:

This one was captured for obvious reasons, if you’re familiar with our interest in brandverbing:

Putting aside whether early October is too early to be promoting holiday wine shopping without a hint of a Halloween theme (there’s Stellaween for that), thoughts about the Stellabrate verbing?

Does Stellabrate make you want to throw a party? Hamm it up? Tanqueray? Or, count bottles?

Stella Rosa (Star Rose) has poured itself an overflowing glass of Stella-trademarks (Stellabrate, StellabrationStellaweenStella Peach, Stella Berry, Stella RedStella Pink, Stella Gold, Stella PlatinumStella BiancoStella Babies, Stella Moscato, Stella Rosso, Stella Rose, It’s Stella Time, and Stella Gets Around), but it does not own the six-letter, one-word, star of the trademark show:

If the actual Stella trademark was in Stella Rosa’s constellation of trademark rights, it likely wouldn’t need to be coexisting or peacefully orbiting with the likes of these other wine “star” marks: StellaGrey, Stella Bella, Stella MaePoggio Stella, AquaStella, and Buona Stella.

While Stella Rosa can continue to brandverb with Stellabrate, and grow its constellation of Stella-trademarks, without Stella, becoming a really bright trademark star isn’t likely in this wine galaxy.

Much less in a beer garden:

Credit: Local Solutions

I write today regarding a squirrelly thought: are the benefits of registering a hashtag trademark almost always outweighed by the consequences? In light of a recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) ruling and the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure’s (“TMEP”) provisions, hashtag marks offer much less protection than traditional character-based marks, such that the latter are preferable in most situations.

We’ve all seen hashtag words and phrases (without spaces between the words) in social media, most commonly on Twitter–but also now on other sites, such as Facebook and Instagram. By affixing a hash symbol (#) to a word or phrase in a post, users can garner attention, join in a movement, and possibly “go viral.” Popular recent trending examples are #MeToo and #TakeAKnee. And of course, who could forget:

#selfie

Hashtags serve filtering, identifying, and promoting functions that have commercial advertising value. Thus, it is no surprise that hundreds of individuals and companies have applied for trademarks on “hashtag marks,” seeking to control the use of certain hash-preceded words and phrases. In fact, at the time of writing, there are over 1,900 such registrations. Hashtags are hip, and everyone wants one–or so they think.

In 2016, the USPTO added TMEP § 1202.18, which explains when “hashtag marks” may be registered:

A mark consisting of or containing the hash symbol (#) or the term HASHTAG is registrable as a trademark or service mark only if it functions as an identifier of the source of the applicant’s goods or services. . . . Generally, the hash symbol and the wording HASHTAG do not provide any source-indicating function because they merely facilitate categorization and searching within online social media . . . .Therefore, the addition of the term HASHTAG or the hash symbol (#) to an otherwise unregistrable mark typically will not render it registrable.

Recently, the TTAB applied this rule and other doctrines, holding that the addition of hashtags usually do nothing to make a mark distinctive. In the case, the TTAB rejected singer Will.I.Am’s application for a hashtag mark for #WILLPOWER because it was too similar to other registered marks containing”willpower,” and the hash symbol had no source-indicating distinctiveness, merely operating as a metadata tag for social media platforms.

The TTAB decision and TMEP provisions greatly narrow the registrability of hashtag marks, as well as their enforcement scope, such that it seems as if there is very little upside to applying for such a mark in most circumstances. An applicant does not need to register an otherwise-registrable mark as a hashtag mark in order to protect the mark if hashed. In such cases, a hashtag registration provides no more protection than a traditional character registration; the hash adds no additional layer of distinctiveness, just as it would not lend distinctiveness to an unregistrable word or phrase. Thus, an applicant should only apply for a hashtag mark in instances in which the non-hashed word or phrase lacks distinctiveness without the hash. If there is a case to be made for a traditional mark, the applicant should pursue that mark instead because traditional marks can be enforced more broadly.

If an applicant applies, however, only for a hashtag mark, then non-distinctiveness absent the hashtag will work to preclude the registrant from enforcing the mark in non-hashed situations. Even if the hashtag mark could be a mark on its own without the hash, the fact that the hashtag mark is either the first or only mark could result in a presumption against non-hashed distinctiveness–after all, why apply for a hashtag mark at all in such circumstances? It may also be more difficult to prove that non-hashed phrases, which in their non-hashed form are separated by spaces, infringe the hashtag mark. Imagine, for example, two competing phrases (the first example of which is a registered hashtag mark):

#lifeofabusyexecutive

Life of a Busy Executive

If the hash provides the distinctiveness for the first example (and perhaps in tandem with the lowercase and squished text), then presumably the second phrase without the hash (and with spaces) would not tread on that distinctiveness, working against a showing of consumer confusion and infringement. Of course, the holder of the hashtag mark could prevent identical use by competitors in commerce, but not similar non-hashed uses.

Emerging trademark law teaches that hashtag marks are extremely narrow–intentionally so–and as we’ve discussed before, hashtag marks are also greatly susceptible to fair use defenses. There appear to be few upsides to seeking such marks, at least without first trying for a traditional mark. So although trademark commentary as of late has focused on the trendiness of obtaining a hashtag mark, the more important question is whether it is worth doing so. In most cases, the answer will probably be “no.”

As we move into Week 2 of the NFL, the big clash in North Country is Sunday’s Green Bay Packers – Minnesota Vikings game. All the buzz is whether the second-coming-of-Favre Aaron Rodgers will prevail over the vaunted Vikings defense. But here in my trademark bubble, I’m more interested in the Jacksonville Jaguars versus former Jaguar player Dan Skuta. This isn’t a contract negotiation battle, but instead a dispute over who owns the claimed trademark rights in the word SACKSONVILLE. The dispute is now the subject of a pending opposition at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

In the Notice of Opposition to the team’s application, Skuta claims to have been the first to coin the term “Sacksonville,” back in July of 2015, but his pending application was refused based on a possible likelihood of confusion with the team’s already filed application. He created a Twitter account and hired a graphic designer to create the logo below, which appears on Skuta’s website.

 

In the team’s application to register the claimed #SACKSONVILLE mark, the Jaguars claim a first use date of September 1, 2017.  However, the team has the ability to present evidence of use earlier than the date of first use listed in the application. One article notes that the team has used the phrase as a social media hash tag at least as early as 2013. But in most circumstances, merely using a word as a social media hashtag does not constitute use in commerce.

Unsurprisingly, one local Jacksonville news outlet is skeptical, siding with the team over a “forgettable linebacker . . . who may have been better at anticipating trademark uses than he was at reading offenses.”

It is possible that Skuta may have used the mark in commerce before the team. Skuta hasn’t made his case any easier by including in the logo what appears to be a jaguar skull and the same Jacksonville Jaguar teal color. On top of this, the play on words with “Jacksonville” potentially creates association with the team, too.

It’s a bit of a mess: are there even any trademark rights and, if so, who owns them? It seems the team likely should be the owner, but perhaps they fumbled the rights along the way. We may have to wait for the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to weight in to see who emerges from the scrum with the ball.

We’ve been writing about the COKE ZERO trademark for nearly a decade now, noting in 2014:

“[I]t will be worth watching to see whether the [TTAB] finds that ‘ZERO’ primarily means Coke or just a soft drink having ‘no calories, you know, a drink about nothing . . . .’”

Turns out, in May 2016, Coke obtained a favorable decision from the TTAB, ruling that ZERO is not generic for a soft drink category, instead it is descriptive and Coke has secondary meaning in it.

With that victory in hand, we then questioned Coke’s thinking in launching obvious generic use of ZERO, welcoming Coke Zero to the Genericide Watch, given this categorical and non-brand use:

Then, two months ago, the CAFC decided — on appeal — that the TTAB got it wrong, ruling it:

“[F]ailed to consider whether consumers would consider the term ZERO to be generic for a subcategory of the claimed genus of beverages – i.e., the subcategory of the claimed beverages encompassing the specialty beverage categories of drinks with few or no calories or few or no carbohydrates.”

We’re now back to the question we asked in 2014: “[I]s ZERO like LIGHT for beer, STONE OVEN for pizza — basically denoting the name of a product category instead of a source identifier?”

As to the next steps, the CAFC sent the case back to the TTAB, instructing it to “examine whether the term ZERO, when appended to a beverage mark, refers to a key aspect of the genus.”

TM types, is Professor McCarthy right that the CAFC ruling makes it too easy to find genericness?

I’m left wondering, given the floodgates that have opened up to other beverage brands also using ZERO as a generic category term for “no calories” or “no sugar” — is fighting for ZERO worth it?

 

 


 

 


Will Coke continue to fight for ZERO as a trademark? Or, should it make better soda instead?

How can The Coca-Cola Company even keep the trademark pursuit of ZERO going, when it already appears to have made the choice of making a better soda through its independent unit, Honest?


When ideas from different realms converge in a single moment of time, a new blog post is born.

Catcalling” — albeit a rebranded, reimagined, or redefined version of it — recently has been front and center in a political Twitter storm and remains a lightning rod in the non-stop news cycle.

So, imagine my surprise also to see the sturdy Cat construction-oriented brand calling my fashion-forward daughter to select it for her brand new, back-to-school footwear look this coming Fall:

 

Photo credit: G. Baird

This isn’t our first rodeo with Cat footwear. We previously kicked heels with my son’s steel-toe boot choice, also covering the careful timing of Cat’s truncation from the four-syllable Caterpillar.

While the brand extension from construction and earth-moving equipment to boots makes perfect sense, especially the steel-toe variety, here is the explanation for women’s casual dress shoes:

Photo credit: G. Baird

Marketers, the extension seems unnatural and forced to me, but I’d love to hear from our readers who have a stronger vantage point on whether this brand extension will work long term for Cat.

What called me to create this story for you is the hidden trademark strategy to be unearthed.

“Footwear” is one of those broad descriptions of goods that the USPTO will accept as sufficiently precise. Selecting it facilitates and better positions your brand for line extensions yet to come.

In other words, narrowly selecting “slippers” or “steel-toe boots” over “footwear,” in trademark filings may leave you boxed in when seeking to expand or extend the lines of your present brand.

Not sure when Caterpillar first introduced women’s casual dress shoes under the Cat brand, but it has owned federally-registered rights in the word CAT for “footwear” for more than a decade.

Caterpillar likely began using CAT with steel-toe boots, but given its broader registered rights, I’m guessing it didn’t lose much sleep wondering if it could grow into those broader registered rights.

In fact, this Cat has become quite active enforcing its broader rights at the USPTO’s TTAB, here.

Even in July, with the heat of summer still blazing, you can’t get away from ice hockey in Minnesota. However, now that the Vegas Golden Knights have settled their dispute with the U.S. Army, it was starting to look like we were running out of hockey trademark news. Thankfully, the National Hockey League came through at the last second, filing a trademark infringement lawsuit on July 23. At issue is the NHL’s rights in the design of its championship trophy, the Stanley Cup, and the defendants’ sale of allegedly infringing beer mugs shaped like the Stanley Cup.

The defendants comprise companies, purportedly all owned or managed by the same individual, operating primarily under the name “The Hockey Cup LLC.” According to the complaint, the Hockey Cup has been selling unauthorized reproductions of the Stanley Cup as well as counterfeit jerseys. The company even applied to register trademarks for THE CUP HOCKEY. The NHL opposed the applications and, in response, the Hockey Cup counterclaimed to cancel the twelve registrations asserted by the NHL on the grounds of lack of ownership, abandonment, non-use, and fraud. With the gloves now off, the NHL chose to escalate the skirmish and sue the Hockey Cup in the Southern District of New York for trademark infringement, false association, dilution, copyright infringement, and unfair competition.

There is a good chance that the Hockey Cup will also assert its counterclaim for cancellation of the NHL’s registrations in the lawsuit. The counterclaim essentially argues that the NHL does not control the actual, physical Stanley Cup, and therefore the NHL cannot have trademark rights in the design of, or name of, the Stanley Cup. Strangely enough, this part of the argument has some truth to it. Since 1893, the Stanley Cup has been controlled by a pair of trustees. In 1926, the Trustees reached an agreement with the NHL, and the NHL has been the sole organization associated with the cup ever since, with continued permission from the Trustees. If that’s true, the Hockey Cup’s claims appear to be a bit of an underdog in this legal matchup.

But does the Hockey Cup’s sale of beer mugs in the shape of the Stanley Cup create a likelihood of confusion with the NHL? The NHL claims in its complaint that it has sold beer mugs in the shape of the trophy in the past, but none appear to be available at the moment. The NHL is selling Stanley Cup shaped ornaments, paperweights, inflatable trophies, miniature crystal replicas, and, for some reason, a popcorn maker. If we’re sticking with the booze, the NHL is selling a shot glass with a picture of the Stanley Cup. But yet, no beer mugs in the shape of the trophy.

To prevail though, the NHL does not need to show that it has lost sales due to the defendant’s conduct. Instead, there must only be a likelihood of confusion as to source, sponsorship, connection, or affiliation. One plausible argument in support of the NHL’s claim is that consumers will mistakenly assume that the mug has been licensed by the NHL.

In fact, one recent case from the Eleventh Circuit is quite relevant to the dispute. In that case, the Savannah College of Art and Design, Inc. sued an unauthorized online manufacturer and seller of apparel that was selling clothing with the school’s name. Savannah Coll. of Art and Design, Inc. v. Sportswear, Inc., 872 F.3d 1256 (11th Cir. 2017). The school sued, but the school could not establish that it began selling apparel with the school’s name before the defendant. Based on this, the district court concluded that the school’s rights in the mark with respect to education services did not provide it with trademark rights in the name for clothing. The district court granted summary judgement to the defendant.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, relying on precedent involving – you guessed it – hockey:

One of our older trademark cases, Boston Prof’l Hockey Ass’n, Inc. v. Dallas Cap & Emblem Mfg., Inc., 510 F.2d 1004 (5th Cir. 1975), controls, as it extends protection for federally-registered service marks to goods. Although Boston Hockey does not explain how or why this is so, it constitutes binding precedent that we are bound to follow.

As the quote suggests, the Eleventh Circuit is not certain that the precedent was rightly decided. In that decision, the NHL and the Boston team sued a manufacturer to prevent the sale of patches featuring team names and logos. The NHL had registered the marks for hockey game entertainment services, but not for any goods. The court noted the decision has been criticized but never overturned. As a result, the Eleventh Circuit remanded to the district court for further proceedings consistent with the Boston Hockey ruling. The NHL—and any other school, sport team, or other organization with an appreciable amount of merchandising—will want to pay attention to the resolution of the case, and consider filing applications to register their marks for valuable, merchandised products.

In the meantime, we’ll watch the ownership dispute play out between the NHL and the Hockey Cup. While it appears to be a longshot, perhaps ownership of the cup will return to the people of Canada, as some prefer (mostly Canadians). Until then, we’ll leave you with the words of Lord Stanley himself, announcing the creation of the Stanley Cup in 1892:

 

Another update on my long-running series of posts following the NHL’s newest hockey team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, and their embattled trademark applications for VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS that were filed nearly two years ago.

Most recently I posted about a challenge to the trademark applications by the U.S. Army, who opposed registration of the VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS marks in connection with professional ice hockey exhibitions. The Army alleged likelihood of confusion, among other claims, based primarily on the Army’s prior use of a GOLDEN KNIGHTS mark in connection with the Army’s parachute demonstration team.

The hockey team announced last week that they had settled the dispute by executing a co-existence agreement, in which the Army agreed to withdraw the opposition proceeding and allow the hockey team to register the VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS marks, while the hockey team agreed the Army would continue using the Golden Knights name for its parachute team.

This type of settlement involving a co-existence agreement is quite common in opposition proceedings. It is also not surprising for a couple other reasons. As discussed in my last post, the Army would have had a difficult time establishing the necessary “relatedness” factor for its likelihood-of-confusion claim. Although both parties technically are offering types of “entertainment” services, it would have been difficult to show that professional ice hockey exhibitions and parachute demonstrations are sufficiently related to cause likely confusion.

Furthermore, the financial support for the Army by Bill Foley (the owner of the hockey team) may have been a factor that encouraged an amicable settlement. Foley is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and is the biggest donor to its athletic program. Due to his $15 million donation, Foley’s name is on West Point’s athletic center.

Now that the Army has withdrawn its opposition, the VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS marks will likely register in the next couple months. This was a difficult road to registration in light of the various Office Actions and other challenges discussed in previous posts. But it was well worth the effort, in light of the high value of the team’s brand, especially due to the team’s quick competitive success and business growth. The Golden Knights made it to the Stanley Cup in their first season, and the team sold more merchandise last year than any other other NHL team.

Starbucks is moving away from green straws, actually any plastic straws, to live a little more green. So, we’re unlikely to see any straw trademark filings, despite decent look-for advertising.

While Starbucks appears to have drawn the short straw at the USPTO on its efforts to federally-register a pair of green dot marks, appeals to the TTAB are currently pending, here and here:

Let’s stay tuned to see whether Starbucks gets cooking at the USPTO by filing any service mark applications for its distinctive green colored aprons, can you say look-for advertising?

What do you think, does this GREENER APRON word-only mark filing move Starbucks closer?

Starbucks certainly seems to have a lot of brand equity wrapped up in the color green, so I’m left wondering why this coffee shop in San Francisco Int’l Airport chose its name and green letters?

Is it ironic that I’m writing and publishing this Starbucks post remotely on my lap top from here?

Starbucks, thanks for the great coffee, tasty blueberry muffin, and most importantly, the free wifi!