Court agrees to hear parody goods case

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear Jack Daniel’s v. VIP Products, the “dog toy” trademark case. Cokato Copyright Attorney Thomas James explains.

In my last blog post (“MSCHF Testing the Limits of Free Speech“) I wrote about the Wavy Baby Shoes case in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, in a different case raising similar issues, the United States Supreme Court will have an opportunity to resolve a circuit split on the parody goods question. On Monday, the Court granted certiorari in Jack Daniel’s Properties v. VIP Products.

The “Bad Spaniels” Dog Toy

Illustration accompanying blog post by Thomas James, Cokato Copyright Attorney

Jack Daniel’s Products claims trademark rights, including trade dress, in the distinctive shape and label of its whiskey product. VIP Products has made a dog toy called “Bad Spaniels.” It has a very similar shape and label. Jack Daniel’s sued VIP, asserting trademark infringement and dilution claims.

The district court ruled in favor of Jack Daniel’s, finding that the dog toy was likely to confuse consumers about the source of the product and tarnish the Jack Daniel’s brand. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals however, reversed. The dog toys, the Court ruled, are parody goods protected as expression by the First Amendment.

The Second, Seventh and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals have taken different approaches regarding the scope of First Amendment protection for parody goods. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the split in the circuits.

The Trademark Dilution Revision Act

The Trademark Dilution Revision Act expressly excludes parody from dilution liability. It applies, however, only when the challenged use is “other than as a designation of source for the person’s own goods or services.” 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(3)(A)(ii). Thus, the Act covers parody advertisements or other parodic references to a product in a magazine, movie or other traditional form of artistic or literary expression, but it does not reach situations where a parody mark is used as a designation of source.

Rogers v. Grimaldi

As discussed in a previous blog post, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989), that the use of a trademark in the title of a film or other artistic work is not actionable unless “the title has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic relevance, unless the title explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.” Id. at 999.

In the Jack Daniel’s case, the district court held that the rule articulated in Rogers is limited to the use of a trademark in the title of a film or other artistic work. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree that the rule is so limited.

The case squarely raises the question whether and to what extent the First Amendment insulates makers and sellers of parody goods from trademark liability.

Conclusion

A decision in this case will be coming in a few months. It is difficult to predict what it will be. Many legal scholars, I am sure, will frame the issue as whether the Court will choose to extend Grimaldi to parody goods, on one hand, or to limit the case to its facts, on the other. Another possibility, however, is that the Court might choose to disapprove Grimaldi altogether. As usual, we will just have to wait and see.

MSCHF Testing the Limits of Free Speech

Wavy Baby Shoes test the limits of the First Amendment and trademark rights. Cokato Minnesota attorney Tom James explains what Vans v. MSCHF is about.

The owner of a trademark has the exclusive right to use it in commerce. The scope of the right is geographically limited, but if it is registered with the USPTO, then the owner’s exclusive right extends throughout the entire United States. The United States Constitution, however, also protects rights of speech and press freedom. What happens when these rights collide?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is now considering a case squarely raising that question, Vans v. MSCHF Prod. Studios, No. 22-cv-2156 (WFK)(RML), 20223 WL 1446681 (E.D.N.Y. April 29, 2022), argued, No. 22-1006 (2nd Cir. Sept. 28, 2022).

MSCHF is a New York art collective that creates and sells irreverent art products such as “Jesus shoes” and “Satan shoes.” It also allegedly created and sold about 4,000 pairs of what it calls “Wavy Baby” shoes, described as a parody of Van’s “Old Skool” skate shoes and the “digital shoes” that Van’s sells in computer games. MSCHF designed the shoe by applying a “liquify” filter to an image of an Old Skool shoe. The shoes are distributed with a warning that the consumer assumes the risk that the wavy sole may cause injury or death.

Vans sued MSCHF for trademark infringement. (Trade dress, including product design, can function as a trademark.) MSCHF asserted a First Amendment defense, arguing that Wavy Baby Shoes are protected parodic or artistic expression. The district court rejected the defense. An appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals followed.

Nominative Fair Use

It is a longstanding principle of trademark law that merely mentioning or referring to another person’s trademark is not trademark infringement. This kind of use of a trademark, called nominative use, helps protect values central to the First Amendment. If people were not allowed to even mention another person’s trademark, then criticism and commentary about a company or its products and services would be severely hamstrung. Likewise, a photographer’s or artist’s ability to sell cityscape paintings and pictures would be severely hampered if including even a single company name or logo in it could open the artist to liability for trademark infringement.

Nominative use is a relatively easy concept to apply. If a trademark is used in a way that is not likely to confuse a consumer about the source of a product or service, then the use is not infringing. In most cases, nominative uses of trademarks are not likely to mislead any reasonable consumer about the source of a product.

Parody

Parody is another area where the First Amendment may trump trademark rights. It is an explicit statutory defense to a trademark dilution claim. Courts have used the First Amendment to extend the defense to infringement claims, too, provided certain conditions are met.

To qualify for protection, a parody product must convey two contradictory messages: (1) That it is the original; and (2) that it is not the original. That is to say, it must be sufficiently similar to the original that consumers understand the reference, but at the same time, it must also be sufficiently distinguishable that consumers are not likely to think it comes from the same source as the original. To work as parody, the second message must communicate some articulable element of ridicule, mockery, or irreverent commentary. This is consistent with the traditional trademark infringement “likelihood of confusion” requirement. A seller of a trademarked product is not likely to also sell products that mock, ridicule or make fun of the product and/or its seller.

In this case, the district court found that the Wavy Baby shoes satisfied the first element of a parody: They conveyed enough similarity to the Old Skool trademark to enable consumers to understand the reference. The court, however, found that the second message had not been communicated clearly enough, that the shoes and their packaging had failed to clearly communicate a satirical message.

In reaching its decision, the court found it significant that the Wavy Baby shoe is a “competing product” that does not “incorporate[] clear puns and parodic references.”

The Appeal

The main point MSCHF is raising on appeal is that the district court should have applied the rule announced in Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989). In that case, Ginger Rogers sued Grimaldi and MGM for producing and distributing a movie called Ginger and Fred. The movie was about a different pair of dancers who had been compared to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the use of the phrase was artistically expressive and therefore not actionable as trademark infringement. MSCF contends that Wavy Baby Shoes, too, are artistically expressive, and that Rogers, therefore, should apply.

Vans argues that Rogers is distinguishable because that case did not involve infringing trade dress used to sell goods that compete with the trademark owner’s goods. “Since Rogers was decided, the courts in the Second Circuit have uniformly limited its application to expressive works such as books, movies, and video games.” Vans Br. at 31, Dkt. 75 (July 22, 2022). Vans maintains that “[t]here is no basis under Rogers or later authority to expand this holding to a commercial product that incorporates a competitor’s trademarks and trade dress,” id. at 33.

Conclusion

Assuming the Court does not disturb the district court’s anti-parody findings, the Court will need to decide whether the Rogers v. Grimaldi test should be extended to products, on one hand, or limited to traditional expressive works (e.g., books and movies), on the other. In any event, it is hoped that the Court will take the opportunity to clarify the relationship between parody goods doctrine and the Rogers test.

Contact attorney Tom James

Need help with copyright registration or a copyright matter? Contact attorney Tom James.

“The” A Registered Trademark Now

It happened. “The” is a registered trademark now. The USPTO issued a registration certificate for the word “The” to Ohio State University (Sorry; the Ohio State University) on June 21, 2022. How did this happen, and what does it mean?

The The Saga

The legal quest to own “the” began on May 6, 2019, when Marc Jacobs Trademarks, LLC (MJT) filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to register the word as a trademark for use on clothing, bags and similar merchandise. MJT claimed a first use date of December 3, 2018.

On August 8, 2019, the Ohio State University filed its own application to register the word as a trademark for use on clothing. The university claimed first use in commerce at least as early as August, 2005.

Due to the earlier filed MJT application, the examining attorney issued an office action to the Ohio State University. It referenced the earlier filed MJT application as a potential bar to registration of the Ohio State University claim. The application was suspended pending the outcome of MJT’s “the” application.

MJT’s application was published for opposition on October 27, 2020. The Ohio State University filed an opposition. The Ohio State University alleged that;

[MJT’s THE mark] “so resembles Ohio State’s THE mark as to be likely, when used on or in connection with the applied-for goods, to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection or association of MJT with Ohio State, or as to the origin, sponsorship or approval of the applied-for goods or commercial activities by Ohio State, all in violation of § 2(d) of the Trademark Act….”

Opposition of The Ohio State University in re: TM Application No. 88416806

It appears that the parties have reached a cooperative use agreement of some kind. The opposition has been withdrawn and the opposition proceeding has been terminated.

Ornamentation vs. The Registered Trademark

Both companies have faced objections from examining attorneys that their uses of the word “the” on clothing were ornamental. A decorative use of a word, symbol, design, etc. that does not function as an identifier of the source of a particular product or service is not sufficient to satisfy the “use in commerce” requirement for trademark registration.

Mark Jacobs Trademarks specimen

After the USPTO rejected the MJT application in March, 2020, MJT filed a successful request for reconsideration. That led to the publication for opposition to which the Ohio State University responded. The USPTO issued a Notice of Allowance on October, 2021. The MJT application is still pending in the USPTO.

The Ohio State University initially encountered the same kind of resistance from the USPTO. The university remedied the problem, however, by showing that it wasn’t just using the word ornamentally; it was also putting it where trademarks usually go, such as inside the shirt at the back of the neck and on its website.

The label

That satisfied the examiner. The mark was published for opposition, and on June 21, 2022 a registration certificate issued.

Scope of The Registered Trademark

Does this mean nobody can use the word “the” in a trademark anymore? No.

To begin with, the Ohio State University has only registered it in Class 25. Class 25 consists of sports and collegiate athletics clothing.

The registered trademark certificate
The trademark registration certificate

The ultimate question, in all cases, is whether another company’s use of the word would be likely to confuse consumers as to the origin of a product or service. The Tax Curative Institute should have very little to fear from the Ohio State University’s registration of “the” as a trademark for collegiate and athletic clothing.

What about displaying the word on clothing, though? Does the Ohio State University’s ownership of the “the” trademark for clothing mean that no one can display the word “the” on a T-shirt now?

Not necessarily. Purely ornamental uses of the word should not expose a T-shirt seller to a risk of infringement liability. For example, a company selling T-shirts emblazoned with the band name “The Slants” should not have to worry about being sued by the Ohio State University.

Of course, unless they have a license from The Slants, they might encounter some pushback for using the band’s name. That’s because the band owns a trademark in their name (“Slants”). Merely using the word “the,” however, should not be a problem. Consumers are not likely to think that every shirt they come across originates from The Slants merely because it has the word “the” on it.

Get in touch with The Cokato Copyright Attorney.

For Whom the Za Tolls Update

You’re driving the Florida Keys when suddenly you get a hankering for pizza. Tragically there is no toll booth in sight. Minnesota attorney Tom James explains.

by Minnesota attorney Tom James

The trademarks at issue in the case Minnesota attorney Tom James discusses

“You’re driving over the ocean in the Florida Keys when suddenly you get a hankering for a slice of pizza. Unfortunately, there is no toll booth in sight. What will you do?”

Some of you might remember an article I wrote several years ago that began this way. I was alluding to the strange case of a state turnpike authority that was suing a pizzeria for trademark infringement. Here is a very belated update on that case.

The lawsuit

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority filed a federal lawsuit against Jersey Boardwalk, a Florida pizzeria, for trademark infringement. It claimed the pizzeria’s mark was so similar to its mark that people were likely to mistakenly assume the pizza restaurant was connected in some way with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. It accused the pizzeria of trading on the good will of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. It sought an injunction, compensatory damages, and treble damages, claiming trademark infringement, dilution, and unfair competition.

Disposition

The court ultimately dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds. The court noted that the pizzeria does not have any stores in New Jersey. It had only made sales to a handful of New Jersey customers, and they were online sales. These contacts with New Jersey were “too attenuated to put the Defendants on notice that they would be subject to a trademark infringement suit in New Jersey,” the court ruled.

Nor did the company’s use of the word “Jersey” amount to purposeful availment of the privilege of doing business in New Jersey. Using the name of a state to conjure consumer interest in nostalgia or exoticism is not what “purposeful availment” of a state’s services or resources means, for purposes of Due Process analysis.  

USPTO proceedings

Years before this litigation, the Turnpike Authority had filed an opposition to the pizzeria’s application to register its mark. The United States Trademark Trials and Appeals Board (TTAB) dismissed the Turnpike Authority’s opposition to the pizzeria’s registration of the trademark for restaurant services.

After the registration certificate was issued, the Turnpike Authority filed a petition to cancel it. The U.S. TTAB denied the petition . The Board found that the Turnpike Authority failed to establish likelihood of confusion with its registered trademark for highway maintenance and information services. The Board did not believe that consumers would expect restaurant and highway maintenance services to come from the same source.

It is one of those kinds of cases that can make you simultaneously scratch and shake your head.

Man with raised eyebrow. This is not Cokato attorney Tom James
(Not me.)

Contact attorney Tom James

Need help with a trademark or copyright matter? Contact Cokato, Minnesota attorney Tom James.

Digital Tokens and Trademarks

The Nike and “JRR Token” cases

by Cokato attorney Tom James

Minting and selling digital tokens can raise copyright issues, trademark issues, or both. I talked about copyright issues in a previous post. In this article, I outline the trademark aspects of digital tokens.

Image that was displayed on the website to which the domain name jrrtoken.com resolved, displayed in Tom James article solely for purposes of illustrating an article about digital tokens and trademarks

Blockchains and digital tokens

You can find a quick explanation of what blockchains and digital tokens (fungible and non-fungible) are in this article.

People use digital tokens for various reasons, including:

  • Cryptocurrency. Fungible tokens are used for this purpose.
  • Authentication. Some companies use NFTs as an authentication system for their customers, especially for high-end or luxury goods.
  • Advertising/Publicity. Companies sometimes distribute collectibles or other branded merchandise as a way of increasing brand awareness. NFTs offer one more way of doing that.
  • Revenue. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) increasingly are sold at auctions. Sometimes a decent profit can be made this way.

Trademarks

A trademark is something that operates as an identifier of the source or origin of a product or service, distinguishing a particular product or service from those marketed by other people or companies.

Many kinds of things can serve as trademarks. Words, letters, symbols, logos, sounds, motions, colors, trade dress (product packaging or design), architecture, etc.  – and combinations of them – can potentially serve as trademarks, provided they operate as such.

Functional aspects of a product, packaging or other trade dress cannot be claimed as trademarks. This includes both utilitarian and aesthetic functionality. The presence of a drive-through window cannot be claimed as a fast food company’s trademark. Why not? Because it is not just ornamental; it serves a useful function. The orange flavor of a beverage or chewable tablet cannot be claimed as a trademark because it enhances the consumer’s enjoyment (or tolerance) of the product. That is to say, it serves an aesthetic function. You get the idea.

Trademark protection for digital tokens

Like an identifier of any other product or service, an identifier of the source or origin of an NFT or other digital token may be protected as a trademark, provided it operates as trademark, is distinctive, is nonfunctional, and is not likely to cause consumer confusion.

There are people and companies whose only business is dealing in digital products and services.  In addition, a growing number of owners of existing trademarks for non-digital products (such as shoes, books, clothing, and so on) are now marketing digital goods, as well.

For a list of major brands that have filed NFT trademark applications in the United States, check out this Trademark Tote Board.

Some examples of companies that have filed for trademark protection of identifiers of NFTs include Nike, Converse, Mattel, Lion’s Gate, Estee Lauder Cosmetics, Kiss Catalog Ltd. Famous personalities (or their representatives), such as Kobe Bryant and Jay-Z are also filing trademark applications. The New York Stock Exchange has filed an application to register “NYSE” as a trademark for a marketplace for the trading of NFTs.

The most common classes in which digital tokens and services related to them are registered are IC 9 (downloadable software and media); IC 35 (business services), IC 36 (financial, banking, and real estate services), and IC 42 (scientific and technical services). This is not an exhaustive list.

In the United States, a trademark arises by operation of law when a valid mark is used in commerce as a trademark. By “valid mark,” I mean a mark that meets the requirements for one in the United States. It must be distinctive, nonfunctional, not likely to cause confusion about the source or origin of a product or service, and it must be used in commerce as a source identifier.

The JRR Token

The recent WIPO decision in Tolkien Estate Ltd. V. Domain Investments/Matthew Jensen illustrates the interplay of digital tokens and trademark law.

In this case, a Florida resident marketed and offered for sale digital tokens corresponding to a digital currency. He registered “jrrtoken.com” as a domain name for the conduct of this business. J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate filed a UDRP claim challenging this registration. The estate owns the trademark in “J.R. R. Tolkien,” which is registered as a trademark in both the U.K. and the U.S. The website of this domain name resolved to a website at “thetokenofpower.com.” That website included images of wizards, including one which the panel found looked like Gandalf from The Hobbit, and the phrase, “The One Token That Rules Them All.”

The panel found that “jrrtoken,” although not identical, is confusingly similar to “J R R Tolkien,” noting that “[w]hen viewed quickly, the disputed domain name and the . . . trademark look similar.”

The panel concluded that the name was selected for the purpose of creating a false and misleading association with J. R. R. Tolkien and profiting from the author’s reputation and goodwill.

Using a trademark in parody is a protected fair use. The panel here, however, did not regard the use to be parody. It found nothing humorous or funny in the domain name. It was “just a domain name chosen due to its similarities with the Complainant’s trademarks to take commercial advantage of its evocation.” The website was “clearly a commercial venture, which is clever but not humorous.”

Finding that the registration was in bad faith, the panel ordered the domain name transferred to the Tolkien estate.

Nike v. StockX

This month, Nike, Inc. filed a complaint in federal court against StockX, LLC for trademark infringement, dilution and other causes of action allegedly arising out of StockX’s alleged unauthorized use of Nike trademarks to mint NFTs. StockX allegedly claims its NFTs represent physical  Nike products that it stores in its vault.

This case demonstrates the importance of the distinction between an NFT and the product it represents. The first sale doctrine normally protects a reseller from trademark infringement liability. For example, if you legally purchase a pair of Nike brand shoes, then you are entitled to resell them at a garage sale without incurring trademark infringement liability. If StockX legally purchased Nike products and is reselling them without altering the labels on them, then the first sale doctrine might shelter the company from trademark infringement liability. Tokens, however, are not shoes.

It is sometimes possible for two different companies to use the same (or substantially similar) marks to market different kinds of goods or services. For example, one company may use DELTA to market airline services; another may use it to market faucets; and still another may use it to market electronics. The same mark, however, generally cannot be used to market the same, similar or related goods or services.

What is a “related” product or service? Basically, it is a product or service that a consumer could reasonably expect a company to expand into selling. For example, a consumer could reasonably expect a company that currently only sells computers to expand into the market for printers and other computer peripherals as well. Even if a company is currently only selling computers, you should expect to be sued for trademark infringement if you use their trademark to sell peripherals.

Expect courts to be called upon to decide whether consumers could reasonably expect a company to expand into the NFT market. That might be easier for the court in the Nike case to determine, if Nike establishes that it made its intention to move into the NFT market publicly known. It might not be as easy for a court to decide this question in other cases. Expect to see a lot more companies announcing their entry, or intention to enter, into the digital token market.

Dilution

It should be noted that it is not always safe to use an existing company’s trademark even for completely different, unrelated goods. If the trademark is famous, then using it in a way that blurs its distinctiveness or tarnishes its reputation is also unlawful. This is known as “dilution.”

Licensing

If you have a great idea for an NFT using characters or other trademarks that someone else owns, consider obtaining a license to use the trademarks. True, you might have to share profits with the trademark owner, but that could be a small price to pay compared to how much you stand to lose if you are hauled into court for violating trademark rights.

Need help with a trademark registration?

Ready to register a trademark? Contact the Law Office of Tom James.

No Trademark Registration .sucks

The U.S. Trademark Office denied an application to register “.sucks” as a trademark. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Cokato attorney Tom James explains.

by Cokato attorney Tom James

the stylized font claimed for the "SUCKS" trademark discussed in this article by Cokato attorney Tom James

Most people are familiar with a few gTLDs (generic top level domains). The gTLDs .com, .net, .biz, .info, .edu and .gov come to mind. The list of available gTLDs has grown considerably over the past few years, however. Now there are literally hundreds of them. (View the full list here.) Some examples: .food, .auction, .dog, .beer.

And .sucks.

The United States Trademark Office denied an application to register that gTLD as a trademark. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals just affirmed that decision. The case is Vox Populi Registry, Ltd., No. 2021-1496 (Fed. Cir., February 2, 2022).

The applications

Vox is the domain registry operator for the .SUCKS gTLD. The company filed two trademark applications with the USPTO. One was for the standard character mark .SUCKS in Class 42 (computer and scientific services) for “[d]omain registry operator services related to the gTLD in the mark” and in Class 45 (personal and legal services) for “[d]omain name registration services featuring the gTLD in the mark” as well as “registration of domain names for identification of users on a global computer network featuring the gTLD in the mark.” The other application was for the stylized form of the mark, as shown in the illustration accompanying this article.

The examining attorney refused both applications, on the ground that they failed to operate as trademarks, i.e., as source identifiers. The TTAB agreed, finding that consumers will perceive “.sucks” as merely one of several gTLDs that are used in domain names, not as a source identifier.

Concerning the claim in the stylized form, the Board concluded that although the pixelated font resembling how letters were displayed on early LED screens is not common today, it is not sufficiently distinctive to qualify for trademark protection in this case.

Vox appealed the part of the decision relating to the stylized font to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. The court affirmed.

The standard character mark

Under the Lanham Act, a service mark may be registered only if it functions to “identify and distinguish the services of one person . . . from the services of others and to indicate the source of the services.” 15 U.S.C. § 1127. Matter that merely conveys general information about a product or service generally does not function as a source identifier.

In this case, the court held that substantial evidence supported the Board’s finding that consumers will view this standard character mark as only a non-source identifying part of a domain name rather than as a trademark. The court pointed to specimens from Vox’s website that treated domain names ending in “.sucks” as products. rather than as identifier of Vox’s services. Consumers are likely to see gTLDs as part of domain names, not as identifiers of domain name registry operators.

The stylized design

Design or stylization can sometimes make an otherwise unregistrable mark registrable, provide the stylization creates an impression on consumers that is distinct from the words or letters themselves. Here, the Board determined that because of the ubiquity of the font in the early days of computing, consumers would view the pixelated lettering as ordinary rather than as a source identifier.

It appears that Vox did not claim that the stylized presentation of .SUCKS had acquired distinctiveness. If it had done so – and if it could present persuasive evidence of acquired distinctiveness – then the stylized mark might have been registrable.

Conclusion

Does this decision mean that a gTLD can never serve as a trademark? No. To give just one example, AMAZON is both a gTLD and a trademark. The import of the case is only that a gTLD is not likely to be registrable as a service mark for a domain name registry service, where consumers are more likely to see it as simply being a part of a domain name, not as an identifier of a particular domain registry service.

Contact Tom James

Contact Cokato attorney Tom James for help with trademark registration.

The Trademark Modernization Act

Not many people are aware that tucked into the 5,593-page Act are two major pieces of intellectual property legislation: the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act and the Trademark Modernization Act. Since the TM Act just went into effect, it seems appropriate to address it first.

By Tom James, Minnesota attorney

Outdated books not in Minnesota attorney Tom James' law library

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 was signed into law on December 27, 2020. Most people have heard of the provisions relating to COVID-19, such as rental and other kinds of financial assistance, and Title XIV of Division FF of Section 2 (COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act). Most people are probably also aware that it contains the usual annual appropriations for things like the promotion of women’s interests. Not as many people are aware, however, that tucked into the 5,593-page Act are two major pieces of intellectual property legislation: the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act (“the CASE Act of 2020”) and the Trademark Modernization Act (“the TM Act of 2020.”) I will be talking about the CASE Act in later articles. Since the TM Act just went into effect, it seems appropriate to address it first.

Injunctions against infringement

In order to obtain an injunction, it is necessary to convince a court that you will suffer irreparable harm unless the court issues one. That can be difficult – and expensive – to do.

Historically, courts relieved some of the burden on trademark owners by applying a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm upon a showing of likelihood of confusion. The United States Supreme Court, however, disrupted that practice in some circuits in 2006. In eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange, 547 U.S. 388 (2006), the Court held that an injunction against patent infringement cannot be granted unless the plaintiff makes an evidentiary showing that irreparable harm will ensue unless an injunction is granted. A split in the circuits resulted with respect to the question whether the requirement also applies to injunctions against trademark infringement. Some courts continued to apply the presumption; others did not.

The TM Act resolves the split. Now, 15 U.S.C. § 1116(a) requires courts in all jurisdictions to apply a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm upon a finding of likelihood of confusion with a federally registered trademark, when an injunction is sought under the Lanham Act. In the case of a motion for a preliminary injunction or TRO, the presumption arises upon a showing of likelihood of success on the merits of an infringement claim brought under the Lanham Act.

The rebuttable presumption applies not only to infringement claims, but also to claims for injunctive relief with respect to false advertising, unfair competition, trademark dilution, or cyberpiracy under Section 43 of the Lanham Act.

By codifying this rebuttable presumption in the Lanham Act, the TMA removes uncertainty in the law and makes it easier for trademark owners to establish entitlement to injunctive relief.

Throwing out unused trademarks

If you’ve ever conducted a trademark search at the USPTO website, you’ve probably noticed an overabundance of registrations. In many cases, a trademark is registered in more categories of products and services than is really needed. Trademarks are often registered for good or services that either never have been used, or are not current being used, in connection with the mark. The TM Act provides new ways of clearing some of them out.

Expungement

The TM Act makes non-use a grounds for cancellation of a trademark registration. Cancellation of a trademark upon proof of abandonment is not new. The ability to remove unused goods or services from the coverage of the registration is. Moreover, an expungement does not require proof that the registrant has stopped using the mark since it was registered. To the contrary, it allows claims that a trademark has never been used (or has never been used for specified goods or services) to be made.

It is now possible to initiate a proceeding (called an “expungement”) to cancel a registration or narrow the categories of goods and services on the grounds of non-use.

Anyone may file an expungement petition. It may be brought between three and ten years after the registration. Until December 27, 2023, petitions to expunge trademarks may be brought with respect to registrations that are more than three years old, even if they are more than 10 years old. Thereafter, a petition may be brought only if the registration is between three and 10 years old.

Reexamination

The TM Act also makes it possible to petition the Trademark Office to reexamine the registration of a trademark. Under the TM Act, it will now be possible to seek the cancellation of a trademark on the grounds of that it was not actually used in commerce prior to the registration date. There is a 5-year limitations period for filing such a petition, measured from the date of issuance of the registration.

Who may initiate a proceeding

Anyone may initiate a proceeding. In addition, the USPTO may commence one on its own initiative. The filing fee is $400 per class of goods or services.

Appeals

The director’s determination with respect to an expungement or reexamination petition may be appealed. A party seeking to challenge the determination must first seek review from the Trademark Trials and Appeals Board (TTAB). Further review may then be sought from the Federal Circuit court of appeals.

Madrid Protocol registrations

A foreign or Madrid Protocol registration under Sections 44(e) or 66 cannot be cancelled on this new ground of non-use if the nonuse was due to special circumstances excusing the non-use.

Office Action response deadlines

Currently, trademark applicants have six months to respond to an Office Action. The TM Act authorizes the USPTO to specify a shorter time period.

The USPTO has announced that people (other than Madrid Section 66(a) applicants) will have three months, instead of six, to respond to office actions. For $125, you can request a 3-month extension. This shorter time period, however, will not be implemented until December 1, 2022.

Third-party evidence in examinations

Finally, the Act facilitates the submission and consideration of evidence submitted by third parties during the examination process. In the past, opponents of an application for registration typically initiated an opposition proceeding to contest a registration application. Under the new provisions, we are likely to see more attempts to forestall registration even before the application is published for opposition.

The Law Office of Tom James

Need help with a trademark matter? Whether it’s an application to register a trademark, an expungement or re-examination petition, an opposition proceeding, or an appeal, Cokato Minnesota attorney Thomas James at the Tom James Law Office can help you.

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