A recent Mall of America and Nordstrom shopping trip (with visiting extended family), coupled with some initial moments of admitted boredom, led me to wandering through the shoe department:

Let’s just say, the stroll through the shoe department made it all worthwhile, to capture the above image, showing Louboutin’s latest fashion sense, leading to my mental stroll down memory lane:

Louboutin Red: Blending Into the Background

Louboutin Red-Sole & Surrounding Contrast: An Implied Trademark Limitation

Louboutin: Still Waiting on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals

Louboutin Wins Second Circuit Appeal, Sort Of . . . .

Louboutin & Lessons Learned

That seven month span of blogging was pretty special (February 12, 2012 through September 17, 2012), actually making the case for narrowing Louboutin’s red sole color trademark registration.

In the end, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the amendment of the red sole color registration to compel the limitation we said was implied: Contrast with the remainder of the shoe.

This, of course, opened the door to requiring that Louboutin tolerate monochrome red shoes, as any red soles on a monochrome red shoe would not possess the necessary constrast to be seen.

Since then, Louboutin has been seeking global protection for his contrasting red-color trademark applied to shoe soles, with a recent win in the EU, however, he’s currently been snagged in India.

Given the striking shoe above, other Louboutin spiked shoes below, and knowing Louboutin’s comfort with non-traditional trademarks, filings at the USPTO seemed plausible, but no, none yet:

Afterall, the spikes appear purely ornamental with the potential for acquired distinctiveness, and no functionality, well, unless this footwear is designed for, shall we say, painful kicks in the pants.

At this point, the Louboutin brand appears synonymous with the red-sole of a woman’s shoe, which probably explains the non-verbal trademark below being applied to other fashion items:

 

 

So, we’ll keep a lookout for new non-traditional trademark filings by Louboutin, while you keep a lookout for any look-for advertising that might set the stage for claimed rights in a spiked mark.

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?

Photo credit: G. Baird

Another Creative Brand Protection event is in the books, thanks to our incredible panel of experts:

  • Karen Brennan, Senior Director, Intellectual Property, Best Buy
  • Anne Hall, Technology Strategy Manager-Life Sciences, University of Minnesota
  • Aaron Keller, Co-Author: The Physics of Brand; Co-Founder Capsule Design
  • Tim Sitzmann, Trademark and Brand Protection Attorney, Winthrop & Weinstine

Their insights and perspective on launching new brands and refreshing mature ones were priceless.

Aaron Keller, Tim Sitzmann, Karen Brennan, Anne Hall (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Anne Hall’s storytelling gifts were on display for all to learn from and enjoy (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Photo credit: G. Baird
Photo credit: G. Baird

Despite tricky last minute weather with a rainy metro area, an engaged audience still joined us.

Photo credit: G. Baird
Photo credit: G. Baird
An engaged audience with excellent questions (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Matt Smyth reading the fine print with encouragement from Kyle Kroll (Photo credit: G. Baird)
Kyle Kroll working the room and sharing the DuetsBlog wealth (Photo credit: G. Baird)

In typical DuetsBlog-style, we avoided legalese, to bring trademark and branding types together.

Photo credit: G. Baird

If there are topics you’d like to have us cover next time, please let us know, we’d love your input!

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.”

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.

Erik Brunetti is not one step closer to being able to federally-register his vulgar and scandalous FUCT trademark for clothing; his portfolio of applications remain log jammed (here and here):

So, scandalous trademark applications are still on hold at the U.S. Trademark Office, since the government is now asking for the Supreme Court to reverse Brunetti. First prediction, check.

As you will recall, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Brunetti, struck down the scandalous and immoral bar on federal trademark registration, as a violation of Free Speech.

The government now contends that denying federal registration of scandalous or immoral matter does not constitute viewpoint discrimination, so Brunetti isn’t controlled by the Tam decision.

The scandalous and immoral registration bar has been applied since the 1905 Trademark Act, and “scandalous” is interpreted to mean, under current attitudesshocking to the sense of propriety.

Putting aside whether much of anything in our current culture can be considered shocking, if it’s possible, doesn’t shocking content express a certain viewpoint, namely one with shock value?

And, if Justice Alito was right in Tam that the disparagement bar is a “happy talk clause,” then isn’t the scandalous bar a “tranquility clause,” appropriately and fully cleansing of any shock value?

Will the Supreme Court decide to review the Brunetti decision? I’ve predicted it won’t, but it should, so I’m hoping to be wrong, it would be priceless to see the Court address Section 7:

“Why did the Tam Court not acknowledge that a Certificate of Registration is issued by the USPTO, under authority of the Department of Commerce, “in the name of the United States of America,” under Section 7 of the Lanham Act, and instead proceed to mock the governmental speech argument without addressing or attempting to explain away this difficult fact?”

That drum we have been beating hard, so kudos to the government in pressing Section 7:

“Congress’s directve that the USPTO refuse federal trademark registration to vulgar words and lewd sexual images is consistent with those First Amendment principles. Congress legitimately determined that a federal agency should not use government funds to issue certificates ‘in the name of the United States of America’ conferring statutory benefits for use of vulgar words and lewd sexual images. 15 U.S.C. 1057(a). Although [Erik Brunetti] has a First Amendment right to use a vulgar word as a mark for his clothing line, he has no comparable right to require the government to register vulgar terms, issue registration certificates for them in the name of the United States, inscribe them on the USPTO’s Principal Register, and bestow valuable benefits on the markholders’ use of the terms in commerce.”

Even if it ends again, with the Free Speech argument prevailing, for reasons beyond my beliefs (here, here, and here), nevertheless it would be helpful for predicting the fate of other portions of the Lanham Act that are content-based and that have been called into question. Wait and see:

In April, news broke that two iconic alcohol brands were joining forces to create a remarkable new beer: Jim Beam Budweiser Copper Lager. Fruit of the joint labor is now available for consumption:

The unique combination doesn’t appear destined to fall flat, as in the early days since launch, it seems to be attracting even self-professed “craft beer snobs,” which is probably the point for Bud.

When iconic brands come together in a co-branding arrangement, it’s interesting to note visual manifestations of the joint trademark use guidelines, a peek into who’s steering the Clydesdales.

Not surprisingly, the reigns of the Clydesdales appear most closely held by Budweiser, as the Copper Lager is beer, not whiskey, and BUDWEISER is the largest wording on the packaging.

That said, the Jim Beam brand name and logo does adorn the six pack carton’s front face with top line prominence, suggesting the brand power it brings to the party – liquid version of Intel Inside?

Figuratively though, not literally, as the Copper Lager isn’t a boilermaker beer cocktail, instead the Jim Beam name and logo indicates aging of the lager on genuine Jim Beam bourbon barrel staves.

One of the things the packaging does well, from a trademark perspective, is keeping the visual identities of the brands separate and distinct, as they appear together in this joint branding effort.

It’s really not a good idea, from a trademark perspective, to mix and blend the combined brands into a single new visual identity, as doing so raises questions of ownership and how to untangle.

So, the packaging does a nice job of keeping each sides trademark elements physically separable while communicating why Budweiser invited Jim Beam to team up for this Copper Lager party.

The trademark filings tell stories too. The only filings currently on the USPTO database that contain the terms Copper and Lager in a mark are owned by Budweiser parent, Anheuser-Busch.

So, Anheuser-Busch views the Copper Lager name to be part of the Budweiser Copper Lager and Budweiser Reserve Copper Lager trademarks, but it disclaims exclusive rights in Copper Lager.

What we don’t know (yet) from the disclaimers, is whether Copper Lager is descriptive (capable of being owned as a trademark element), or generic (you know, meaning zero trademark rights).

If Copper Lager is not a category of beer (i.e., generic and incapable of trademark status), and instead descriptive, since this isn’t Anheuser-Busch’s first such rodeo: acquired distinctiveness?

Either way, this joint effort does appear to be Jim Beam’s first rodeo when it comes to beer, as evidenced by the intent-to-use Jim Beam trademark application it filed in April 2018 for beer.

Thankfully these brand owners are sophisticated enough not to combine Jim Beam and Budweiser into a single trademark filing, sadly I’ve seen commingling before, and it isn’t much fun to unwind.

What do you think, is this joint effort a remarkable one? Is it likely to last, stand the test of time?

As Steve blogged earlier this week, we’ve had a lot of “zero” on the mind lately—marks related to the word and numeral. It got me thinking about the letter ‘O,’ especially since it has been in recent trademark news.

If you missed it, The Ohio State University and Oklahoma State University are now dueling it out at the USPTO over Oklahoma’s trademark application related to the block ‘O.’ Specifically, Oklahoma is attempting to register a mark of “a drum major marching while leaning back with head tilted back”:

According to Oklahoma, it has been using the singular block ‘O’ since 2001, most notably on the jersey of its band’s drum major (but also on sports memorabelia):

But in an opposition to the mark, Ohio says it has been using the same letter since as early as 1898, and it’s current main athletics logo includes the block ‘O’ in the background:

According to Ohio, Oklahoma’s use of the leaning and tilted ‘O’ is likely to cause confusion. I wonder if any other O-state institutions will weigh in—looking at you, Oregon.

On the one hand, the block styling of the Oklahoma ‘O’ could cause consumers to accidentally purchase sports gear from the wrong institution. On the other hand, the letter ‘O’ is such a fundamental unit of the English language that it’s hard to argue just one institution should be entitled to its exclusive use—even if it’s only in the college sports context. And Oklahoma is only seeking registration of a mark which uses ‘O’ in a minor fashion. However, Oklahoma’s marching ‘O’ mark could run into issues related to the requirement that the mark be used in commerce. After all, it’s a mark representing the band major, who wears an ‘O.’ How does Oklahoma otherwise use the mark or plan to use it commerce?

It turns out that the letter ‘O’ is not widely used as a mark on its own. There are some recognizable uses, though. Perhaps the most distinctive use of the letter ‘O’ is the Oprah Magazine:

In 2001, a German magazine also named ‘O’ sued Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine, but the suit appears to have gone nowhere, and Oprah’s ‘O’ lives on.

The only other major ‘O’ competitor appears to be Cirque du Soleil:

Maybe there’s some potential for confusion between the Oklahoma drum major and the high-flying circus performers. Though, I’m guessing the audiences for both don’t substantially overlap.

I think the few recognizable instances of ‘O’ marks can be explained by the overall minor distinctiveness a single letter can generate when used in connection with a brand. This is the up-hill battle both Ohio and Oklahoma will face in arguing their sides of the trademark dispute. Stronger letter marks are paired with other words, such as O Magazine and O Cirque du Soleil. Another example comes to mind: Toys ‘R Us (also in the news lately).

We’ve had a lot of nothing — meaning zero, and the trademark meaning, if any, of zero — on our mind lately, so imagine my surprise to see this soap “brand” for the first time last week in a hotel:

Not sure how to pronounce it, but as we know, there really is no “correct” way to pronounce a trademark, so it could be Zero, or perhaps a telescoped version of Zero Percent, who knows?

What we do know for sure is that neither Zero nor Zero Percent functions as an inherently distinctive trademark to identify, distinguish, and indicate a single source of this body collection:

Why Applicant’s Mark is Deemed Descriptive

“Applicant seeks to register the designation “ZERO%” for bath soaps in liquid solid and gel form; Body lotions; Hair shampoos and conditioners; Shower Gel.” Had applicant not applied under 1(a) and submitted specimens of use consisting of the bottles for shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel and hair 2 in 1, the mark would likely not have been seen as descriptive.

However the specimen bottles show graphically just what “ZERO%” describes about the applicant’s product. On each bottle is the following legend, explaining the mark:

 “ZERO sulfates

 ZERO parabens

 ZERO phthalates

 ZERO artificial colours

 ZERO animal testing”        

Thus it appears that “ZERO%” refers to the ingredients that are NOT present in applicant’s soaps and hair care and body lotion and shower gel products.  Sulfates and parabens have long been regarded as suspect with respect to human skin. Testing on animals is considered cruel. The ZERO% describes a certain purity in applicant’s products and a certain ethical sensibility about not making money from suffering animals.

In a parallel situation Diet Coke did very well when Coca Cola produced a ZERO caffeine soda, with, of course, zero calories.  Both caffeine and calories are enemies of healthful ingestion.

Applicant is applying the same logic to its toiletries and hair care products. This is to be applauded, however, the mark chosen, “ZERO%,” even without benefit of an explanation on every bottle, would have to have referred to SOMEthing about the goods. “ZERO%” of what? would be the logical question. And there is the answer, front and center, on the bottle.

Another way to look at this is: if using the name of an ingredient of the goods is descriptive use, then surely using a term that indicates the absence of unhealthy or unethical ingredients would also be descriptive.

Two major reasons for not protecting descriptive marks are (1) to prevent the owner of a descriptive mark from inhibiting competition in the marketplace and (2) to avoid the possibility of costly infringement suits brought by the trademark or service mark owner.  In re Abcor Dev. Corp., 588 F.2d 811, 813, 200 USPQ 215, 217 (C.C.P.A. 1978); TMEP §1209.  Businesses and competitors should be free to use descriptive language when describing their own goods and/or services to the public in advertising and marketing materials.  See In re Styleclick.com Inc., 58 USPQ2d 1523, 1527 (TTAB 2001).”

This descriptiveness refusal might be the most conversational and empathetic explanation I’ve seen over the course of my trademark career. Nicely done, USPTO Examining Attorney Jill C. Alt.

More than 6 years ago, Applicant Gilchrist & Soames, accepted the Examining Attorney’s invitation to amend to the Supplemental Register, for marks only “capable” of becoming distinctive.

In most cases, the attentive owner of a Supplemental Registration, in use for 5 consecutive years, already would have filed for Principal Registration, arguing in favor of acquired distinctiveness.

Gilchrist & Soames hasn’t (yet), and given what Zero has evolved to mean, will the noted parallel to Coca Cola’s Zero soda, cleanse zero to mean “incapable” of trademark status as a soap type?


In terms of zero sum games, in the trademark world, even if Zero and Zero Percent turn out to be generic, perhaps Gilchrist & Soames gained more in marketing than they would lose in trademark.

As we share another Labor Day together on DuetsBlog, we’re thankful for the emotional labor of those on this journey with us, and we hope you agree this effort is a win-win, no zero sum game.

Since launching almost ten years ago, we’ve focused on helping and guiding marketing/branding professionals, as we seek to facilitate their graceful collaborations with trademark professionals.

Our approach has strived to deliver valuable information, without the typical jargon and legalese.

It seriously borders the obvious to say that folks who connect with us here know the importance and value of brands and trademarks, and probably know far less about patents and patentese.

Could novelty be shown, sharing this with patent folks wanting more comfort with trademarks?

In a month, on September 28, at 10:15 AM, I’ll be sharing some of this knowledge at the Midwest IP Institute, in Minneapolis, with a brand new session specifically designed for in-house patent and intellectual property counsel, especially those who may believe that patents are more important than trademarks, called: Trademark Survival Guidance for In-House Patent and IP Counsel.

I’m not saying that one is more important than the other. Nor are there any equivalents here.

What I am saying is that over the last quarter century intellectual property expertise has become far more subspecialized. I’ve witnessed this development first hand over the course of my career. Yet, not all companies have dedicated in-house trademark counsel, so in-house patent counsel often is expected to have at least a working knowledge of the ever-changing trademark landscape.

I’ll be leading a discussion with a very talented group of patent and intellectual property counsel:

  • Paul Sherburne, Associate General Counsel and Intellectual Property Attorney, Graco Inc.
  • Greg Smock, Patent Counsel, Teleflex Incorporated
  • Kirsten Stone, Assistant General Counsel – Chief Intellectual Property Counsel, H.B. Fuller Co.

If you have a strong patent background and want more trademark footing, this session is for you.

If you know patents inside-out, but search for more comfort in trademark matters, this is for you.

If your knowledge of the patent landscape is vast, but you seek to be much better than simply dangerous, when it comes to navigating thorny trademark issues, you won’t want to miss this.

Why? Because we will help you improve your handling and supervision of trademark matters.

In fact, you will learn and apply valuable trademark knowledge to your day-to-day work, and take away the top six trademark tips that will improve and strengthen your trademark advice to business leaders and marketing professionals. Are we speaking your language yet?

If you’re wanting to learn how to translate patentese into valuable trademark skills, here you go.

By the way, I’ll be expanding my patent knowledge and learning more patentese later today (and more than I knew yesterday) at the USPTO China Intellectual Property Road Show at the University of Iowa College of Law, hosted by Dean Kevin Washburn and Professor Jason Rantanen.