March 10, 2016
It’s no secret to people in the alcoholic beverage business that finding a unique trademark to register is becoming increasingly difficult. A decade ago there were far fewer producers of alcoholic beverages and most had just one or two trademarks. Today there are thousands more wineries, breweries and distilleries – as well as importers – and many of them have not just one or two trademarks, but a portfolio of brands. This proliferation of products is great for consumers but has made it progressively harder to come up with a trademark that isn’t already in use on another alcohol product.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) considers all alcohol beverages to be essentially the same goods (as we previously blogged about here). When the goods are very similar, the USPTO requires less similarity between the marks to find that confusion is likely. As a result, a trademark registration for XYZ LAGER would probably prevent someone else from registering XYZ SPIRITS COMPANY or XYZ VINEYARDS, or even less similar variations, such as XYZ FABULOUS WINES or CHEZ XYZ.
One possible solution for a trademark applicant that gets a Section 2(d) refusal from the USPTO based on a similar trademark is to enter into a “consent agreement” with the owner of the registered trademark. If two parties with similar trademarks agree between themselves that they don’t think confusion is likely, or can be mitigated (e.g., by ensuring that the parties use dissimilar labels and not make the same products), they can enter into a consent agreement. The USPTO has historically given such agreements great deference and will typically withdraw a refusal to register if the parties provide a consent agreement. But a recent precedential opinion of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) reminds us that consent agreements are not always effective in securing a registration.
In In re Bay State Brewing Company, Inc., the USPTO was not swayed by a consent agreement between the applicant for TIME TRAVELER BLONDE and the registrant of TIME TRAVELER – both for beer – and did not withdraw the refusal to register TIME TRAVELER BLONDE. Serial No. 85826258 (Feb. 25, 2016) (precedential). The applicant appealed and the TTAB affirmed the refusal.
Why did the TTAB reject the consent agreement? They raised a few issues, notably that the agreement contained geographic restrictions for the use of applicant’s mark to avoid confusion (use limited to New England and New York only) but registrant was free to use its mark everywhere, so the marks would be used in overlapping areas, despite the limitation on applicant’s use. The TTAB also noted that a registration creates a presumption of nationwide trademark rights, but applicant’s rights were geographically limited by the consent agreement, so an unrestricted registration would be misleading to the trademark-searching public. The TTAB raised a few other issues related to restrictions on the parties’ use of their respective marks, but it appears that the USPTO and the TTAB were simply not comfortable with two registrations for “virtually identical marks on identical goods that are subject to impulse purchase by ordinary consumers in the same geographical area,” and no amount of trade dress restrictions would convince them that confusion could be avoided.
What does this mean for future consent agreements? The TTAB acknowledged that consent agreements still may be afforded great weight, and it is unlikely that we’ll see the USPTO begin to ignore consent agreements in Section 2(d) analyses. But the Bay State Brewing case reminds us that consent agreements are not a guarantee of registration and they should be carefully drafted to assure the USPTO that the parties can adequately avoid consumer confusion.
If you have questions about a trademark application or consent agreement, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.
May 06, 2013
Alcoholic beverage products typically are sold in glass or plastic bottles or in aluminum cans. There are a few alternative packaging options, such as bag-in-box and Tetra-packs, but the beer and wine section at the grocery store is mostly full of bottles and cans. Suppliers distinguish their products from competitors’ products by creating unique brand names and label designs, both of which can be protected as trademarks. But what about the package itself? Can you register your bottle shape as a trademark? The answer is yes, if the design is distinctive and not merely functional.
U.S. trademark law (15 USC § 1052(e)(5)) provides that a proposed trademark cannot be registered if it “comprises any matter that, as a whole, is functional.” This applies to colors, sounds and also to package designs. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) will not grant trademark registration, and the exclusivity that trademark registration provides, if it would foreclose competitors from using a design that is functional. A four-factor test was established to determine whether a container design is functional: 1) whether a utility patent exists that discloses the utilitarian advantages of the design sought to be registered; 2) whether applicant’s advertising touts the utilitarian advantages of the design; 3) whether alternative designs are available that serve the same utilitarian purpose; and, 4) whether the design results from a comparatively simple or inexpensive method of manufacture. Package designs commonly fail the functionality test based on at least one of the above factors because packages are inherently intended to be functional. But it is possible to incorporate design features into an otherwise functional package that are purely for aesthetics, such as the shape of the iconic Coca-Cola bottle, which has been a registered trademark for decades. However, designs that are functional, such as bottle designs that offer efficient stacking or pouring methods, might be subject to refusal based on the test detailed above.
The USPTO may also refuse to register a package design if it lacks inherent distinctiveness. Several factors must be considered in evaluating a design’s distinctiveness, including whether it: 1) is a “common” basic shape or design; 2) is unique or unusual in a particular field; 3) is a mere refinement of a commonly-adopted and well-known form of ornamentation for a particular class of goods; or 4) is capable of creating a commercial impression distinct from the accompanying words.
A recent opinion issued by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in In re Mars is a good illustration of the application of the above factors to a package design – a pet food container in that case. The pet food package was an inverted cylindrical container. The registration in that case was denied based on the factors discussed above, but many package designs have been successfully registered as trademarks, so if your package has a unique element or design, you may wish to consider protecting it as a trademark.
Contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel if you have questions about trademark registrations.
Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2013 · All Rights Reserved ·
November 26, 2012
As more and more beverage brands are introduced into the U.S., it is becoming increasingly difficult for suppliers to come up with unique trademarks that do not infringe marks already in use by others. As a result, trademark disputes involving alcohol beverage brands are common. Such disputes typically come down to the issue of priority of use – if the marks and the products are very similar, i.e., both are alcoholic beverages – the party with first commercial use will have priority and will likely be entitled to register the trademark. One of the fundamental elements used to prove first-use for alcohol products and to establish priority over other users is the date on which a Certificate of Label Approval (“COLA”) was issued. As most alcoholic beverage producers and importers are aware, a COLA is required before alcohol products can be legally imported or sold in the U.S. Sales of such products without a COLA would constitute an illegal sale under 27 CFR 4.50 (wine) 5.51 (distilled spirits) and 7.41 (beer). Because sales of a product without a COLA are not legal sales, they do not constitute bona fide use in commerce and may not be relied upon in establishing trademark priority. At least, that’s what many of us thought. But a recent decision of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) suggests otherwise.
In an opposition proceeding involving the PARLAY trademark, both parties were using the same trademark on wines and the parties disagreed on who had priority. The opposer argued that the earliest use date relied on by the other party was actually before the labels had been issued a COLA; therefore, they were unlawful and did not count for trademark priority. But the TTAB ruled against the opposer, noting that even if sales without a COLA were not strictly compliant with the federal labeling regulations, that was not sufficient to deny that user priority rights. Rather, the opposing party is required to show either: (1) that a court or regulatory body had made a formal determination of non-compliance, or (2) that the improper usage was so “tainted” it could not create trademark rights. In other words, if the labels were otherwise approvable and not misleading or deceptive to consumers, sales of those products without a COLA may still be used to establish priority, even though not technically legal. In the PARLAY case, the TTAB also noted the Draconian result of denying priority because of a regulatory lapse occurring several years before. The TTAB decision is non-precedential, so it’s not binding and future decisions of the TTAB may come out differently. But for those of us who frequently scan the TTB COLA registry to determine trademark priority, this decision is of great interest.
For trademark or COLA help, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.
Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2012 · All Rights Reserved ·
June 19, 2012
Effective this week on June 21, 2012, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) will begin a two-year pilot program that allows them to require additional specimens in connection with various trademark filings.
The public relies on the USPTO’s database of registered trademarks to clear trademarks that they may wish to adopt or are already using. When a potential trademark applicant searches the database and uncovers a similar registered mark, that party may feel compelled to change its plans to use the mark, or may incur costs and delays in determining whether the registered mark is still in use. The potential applicant may also incur costs in resolving a dispute over the mark. If a registered mark is not actually in use in the U.S., or is not in use on all the goods/services recited in the registration, these potential problems and costs may be incurred unnecessarily. Thus, accuracy and reliability of the USPTO database is critically important to trademark applicants. But there is a growing sense among practitioners that the USPTO’s register of trademarks does, in fact, contain many registrations for marks not in use on the full range of goods/services claimed – or not in use at all.
In response to this concern, the USPTO will be experimenting with requiring additional evidence that applicants are actually using their trademarks in commerce as they claim on the documents they file with the USPTO. The USPTO is implementing a two-year study during which they will randomly select 250 cases per year for additional audit. In those randomly selected cases, the USPTO can require that the registrant provide up to two additional specimens for each class of goods and/or services for which a mark is registered. Currently, applicants and registrants need only provide one specimen and are not required to provide specimens for every class of goods or services covered by their registration. These additional requirements may be imposed at the time of filing a use-based application, or when a registrant files its Section 8/Section 71 affidavits on already registered marks. The registrant will have six months to respond to such requests from the USPTO. No additional fees will be required from the registrant. The USPTO hopes that the program will enable it to assess the accuracy of the trademark database in order to determine whether new policies are required in order to ensure the accuracy of the trademark register. The full text of the new rule is available here. If you have questions about trademark registrations, please feel free to contact Barry Strike or Katherine Robb at Strike & Techel.
April 05, 2012
Consumers don’t just buy products – they buy brands. Brand loyalty means that protecting ones trademarks is vital to a successful business. If a competitor registers a mark that is confusingly similar to one of your company’s registered marks, one clear way to challenge the registration is to wait until the mark is published for opposition and then file a Notice of Opposition with the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. But you can also jump into the fray earlier, before the mark is published for opposition, by sending a Letter of Protest to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The Letter of Protest is a request for the attorney reviewing the proposed mark to consider certain information, which must be provided with the Letter of Protest, when deciding whether the mark should move forward in the registration process or not. If the USPTO believes the evidence provided has merit, the evidence, but not the cover letter itself, will be provided to the reviewing attorney. Thus, it is important that a broad, factually accurate, and objectively persuasive set of evidence is provided. The Letter of Protest may raise any grounds for rejection that are available to the examining attorney. The most popular issues raised tend to be likelihood of confusion with a registered mark, descriptiveness of the proposed mark, and arguments that the proposed mark is generic.
While a Letter of Protest can be filed after a proposed mark is published for opposition, the deadline is thirty days after the proposed mark’s publication. Additionally, the standard of review for examining the evidence provided increases after the proposed mark is published. If a Letter of Protest is filed prior to publication of the proposed mark, the USPTO reviews the evidence to see if it is relevant and supports a reasonable ground for denying registration of the proposed mark. But a Letter of Protest submitted after publication of the proposed mark will be reviewed to see if the evidence supports a prima facie case for refusal, meaning a case for refusal that is self-evident. This standard of review is much higher and more difficult to meet. Thus, if you are going to file a Letter of Protest, it is important to do so early in the examination process. The attorneys at Strike & Techel have filed successful Letters of Protest on behalf of clients before. Please feel free to contact one of our attorneys if you are interested in such a filing or need other trademark assistance.
February 29, 2012
Protecting your trademark is a key part of your business. And scam artists know that. Because trademark filings are public information, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) databases and the Official Gazette, which is published weekly by the USPTO, are often mined by hucksters looking to earn a quick buck. Scams include requesting payment to be added to an alternate unofficial trademark registry or to secure foreign domain name rights, e.g. trademark.cn. The communications are often marketed with graphics like the American flag and variations on the USPTO name, such as USTRO or USTPA. Fraudulent companies often send frenetic correspondence regarding the need to renew a mark or face abandonment months before actual renewals become due, and hence months before valid correspondence from your law firm handling the trademark application would be received. If you receive any such correspondence, please read it carefully and contact the attorney handling your trademark affairs to avoid being fleeced by such frauds. Additional information from the USPTO about such scams is available here.
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