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.
In 2015, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) continued the trend of finding different categories of alcoholic beverages to be related goods for purposes of a Section 2(d) likelihood of confusion analysis. Although there is no per se rule that all alcoholic beverages are related goods, trademark examiners at the Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”), the TTAB, and reviewing courts routinely find that beer, wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages are related goods. For the average consumer or business owner, the grouping of all alcoholic beverages together as related goods for trademark purposes makes little sense. As the TTAB has stated, “[w]hile it is clear that tequila and wine are both beverages that contain alcohol, not even an unsophisticated purchaser would mistakenly buy one expecting the other.” In re Proximo Spirits, Inc., Serial No. 85865962 (Mar. 16, 2015) (not precedential). However, the question is not whether the goods are similar or competitive, but rather the question is whether a consumer encountering the goods in the market “would mistakenly believe that they share or are affiliated with or sponsored by a common source.” Anheuser-Busch, LLC v. Innvopak Systems Pty Ltd., 115 U.S.P.Q.2d 1816 (TTAB 2015) (precedential). Why does the TTAB frequently find, when the marks are similar, that consumers would believe alcoholic beverages of different types originate from a common source? One reason is that some manufacturers produce multiple types of alcoholic beverages and sell those beverages under the same mark. In In re Sugarlands Distilling Company, LLC, the TTAB cited five examples of wineries also engaged in distillation and the sale of spirits, as well as “internet evidence show[ing] that there are a number of combination wineries and distilleries,” and that evidence alone was sufficient for the TTAB to find that the goods, wine and spirits, were related. Serial No. 85818277 (Nov. 20, 2015) (not precedential); see also In re Sonoma Estate Vintners, LLC, Serial No. 85842056 (Jan. 9, 2015) (not precedential) (citing fifteen registrations showing that various entities registered a single mark for wine and beer). The TTAB also typically finds that alcoholic beverages are sold in the same channels of trade, such as liquor stores and restaurants, and thus that consumers will encounter multiple types of alcoholic beverages in the same stores. In re Brent Theyson, Serial No. 85663894 (Dec. 4, 2015) (not precedential); In re Millbrook Distillery, LLC, Serial Nos. 85924732 and 85954556 (Feb. 9, 2015) (not precedential). Further, the TTAB commonly finds that alcoholic beverages of all types can be found at lower price points, and thus that consumers may purchase alcohol “without exercising great care.” In re Millbrook Distillery, LLC, Serial Nos. 85924732 and 85954556; Anheuser-Busch, LLC, 115 U.S.P.Q.2d 1816. These factors all tend to lower the bar for a finding of likelihood of confusion by the PTO and TTAB. See below for examples of cases involving the relatedness of alcoholic beverages that were considered by the TTAB in 2015: Contrary to the above trend, the TTAB reversed a refusal to register REUBEN’S BREWS (and design) in Class 32 for beer, despite the prior registration of RUBENS (and design) in Class 33 for wine. In re Reubens Brews LLC, Serial No. 86066711 (Oct. 27, 2015) (not precedential). The TTAB found the marks to be different in appearance, meaning, and commercial impression, although they were similar in sound. Considering evidence of manufacturers producing both beer and wine, an overlap in trade channels, and similar price points, the TTAB conceded that the “record establishes that there is some degree of relationship between beer and wine.” However, the TTAB acknowledged that the PTO “has in the recent past taken inconsistent positions when it comes to likelihood of confusion between marks for beer and wine,” and cited eighteen examples of similar or identical marks registered to different owners in beer and wine. The TTAB ultimately found in favor of the applicant, and reversed the refusal to register. However, the TTAB stressed that the finding was based on the “overall differences between the marks in their entireties.” Notwithstanding the TTAB’s reversal in the REUBEN’S BREWS case, it would be premature to conclude that the PTO or the TTAB will increasingly recognize the potential differences between types of alcohol products, so it would be wise to consider trademarks in use on beverages of all types when evaluating a trademark for use with an alcoholic beverage product. For specific trademark guidance, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.
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 ·
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