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Category: Trademark

Government Trademark Fees To Rise

The United States Patent and Trademark Office will be increasing certain trademark fees on January 14, 2017. The USPTO is unique among government agencies in that it is a profit center for the US; it generates more revenue for the government than it expends in operating costs.

Most, if not all, of the increasing fees are for paper filings. Trademark applications filed by paper are much more time-consuming than those lodged electronically through the Trademark Office’s online filing system. The filing fee for paper applications is nearly doubling to $600. It appears the costs associated with pursuing a registered trademark are not going to change.

Trademark fees are set at levels projected to cover future costs, including operating costs and reserve funds. The number of applications filed, and the number of registered trademark issued, continues to climb this year, as it has for the past six years. The Trademark Office is predicting that this will not change in the near future. Further, the Office desires to not increase the pendency of a trademark application, which currently averages 9.8 months, despite the predicted increase in trademark filings. Further, the Trademark Office is upgrading its IT systems.

The Trademark Office has chosen to fund these changes and improvements by shifting the fee burden to those still filing by paper. I don’t have figures for the number of applications filed electronically versus in paper, but I find it fascinating that there are apparently enough paper filings that these fee increases will bring in enough money to fund its changes. As the Office puts it: “The fees will allow the Office to further USPTO strategic objectives by: Better aligning fees with the full cost of the relevant products and services; protecting the integrity of the register by incentivizing more timely filing or examination of applications and other filings and more efficient resolution of appeals and trials; and promoting the efficiency of the process, in large part through lower-cost electronic filing options. The changes will also continue to recover the aggregate estimated cost of Trademark and Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) operations and USPTO administrative services that support Trademark operations.”

Securing a Domain Name with Pre-Existing Trademark Rights

Domain names are addresses for websites. Domain names are often chosen because of their ability to be remembered, marketed, or commercialized. However, sometimes a domain name is chosen for more illegitimate reasons, such as extracting a premium purchase price out of someone who wants the domain and may have some reasonable claim to it. For example, a business owner may be forced to pay a much higher price for a website domain name embodying the business name if someone is able to register the domain name before the business owner.

There are several processes that can be used to wrest the domain name from the registrant. One of them is a UDRP proceeding. A UDRP proceeding is an arbitration initiated by a trademark owner to establish superior rights in a domain name and force a registrant to cancel or transfer the domain name.

All registrants, when they purchase a domain name, agree to follow UDRP rules and policies, and to be bound by decisions of an arbitration panel ruling on those rules and policies. Thus, when someone registers a domain name that may touch on a trademark, the trademark owner can institute a UDRP proceeding. A successful UDRP proceeding will show that the domain name is similar to the trademark, that the registrant has no legitimate rights in the domain name, and that the domain name was registered in bad faith. When successful, the registrant may be forced to transfer the domain name to the proper trademark owner.

A UDRP proceeding can be an inexpensive, quick, and very effective way to obtain a domain name from an illegitimate registrant, or even a cybersquatter. However, there are very strict technical rules for the manner in which a proceeding has to be prepared and filed, and, of course, the proceeding must be based on substantively strong grounds as well. You should contact a local, competent trademark attorney if considering pursuing a domain name held by someone.

Trademarks for Etsy Shops

Chances are, if you are considering starting an Etsy shop, you have spent a fair amount of time deciding on a name for that shop. The name symbolizes you, your branding and image, your customers, and it takes on a dominant role in the creation of an online business. Unfortunately, often once a name is picked, little more is done with respect to the name.

Until you get the warning. I’ve seen Etsy shop owners get warning letters, or notification letters, regarding the use and/or infringement of trademark rights in the shop name or product. Etsy seems to have a fairly strict intellectual property rights policy: previous clients have told me that it is a three-strikes-your-out game, and just about anyone can throw those strikes in the form of a complaint submitted through an online form in a matter of minutes.

Thus, protecting your shop name, and using it properly, is a very important next step for a new shop. Developing trademark rights is essential to the success and long-term vitality of the shop.

Trademark rights arise and inure to the benefit of a person or company selling goods or services. Typically, we think of trademarks as those names, logos, and catchphrases on billboards, storefronts, and advertising brochures. However, trademark rights can be developed in much less sophisticated, though just as proper and powerful, ways.

A correctly structured Etsy shop has everything that is needed to create trademark rights. Goods are offered. The goods are advertised in connection with a shop name. The consumer can purchase the goods. That’s about all that is necessary.

However, building trademark rights in a name is not as simple as just setting up the online shop. Some consideration must be given to how the goods are displayed, how the mark is displayed, and how the trademark is used, or things can go wrong

For instance, clothing is one of the largest markets on Etsy, but poses one of the most difficult types of goods for which one can obtain trademark protection. Decorative clothing, silk-screened shirts, handmade dresses are advertised for sale, but if not done correctly, will never lead to trademark rights because the use of the trademark can be considered to be merely ornamental by competitors, the Trademark Office, and even courts. I see the ornamental kiss of death all the time; just using a name on the front of a shirt is not going to protect that name. Not only will you not be able to protect the name, but others may be able to usurp and develop their own trademark rights in it. This is a field in which careful guidance from a trademark lawyer in developing the clothing and building the Etsy shop is crucial and fairly painless.

As another example, with these other goods, the goods or services with which the trademark is used must be related to the trademark carefully. Otherwise, you can end up developing trademark rights as a retailer of goods, rather than as a manufacturer of goods. In other words, if you sell belts, and you really see yourself as a leather worker, you may not trademark rights in “online retail store services featuring belts.” You’ll want your trademarks to be associated with the belts themselves. This is a dichotomy that the Trademark Office has been getting particularly adept at noticing in the last year or two, and can be important for the depth and breadth of your protection.

In summary, consult a local trademark attorney if you are considering starting an Etsy store and are giving any serious thought about the name. Designing, protecting, and using the name are important and necessary parts of running your online business.

Increased Trademark Fees

The Trademark Office is proposing fee changes for many trademark filings. Some of these are fairly drastic. For instance, the fee for filing an initial trademark application is currently $375, but the Office is proposing that this fee be increased to $600. Most of the increased fees are associated with paper applications and paper filings. Clearly, the Office is trying to deter applicants from filing in paper because of the increased time which such applications demand in initial processing and examination. The fee changes have not been approved yet, but could go into effect this year. A comments period is currently open; more information is available here: Federal Register Notice

Acquired Distinctiveness Requires Both Continuous and Exclusive Use of a Trademark

When you file a trademark application for a mark that is descriptive of the goods and services – or a quality or characteristic of the goods and services – the Trademark Office will refuse to register it initially. You can still generally achieve registration by amending the application to the Supplemental Register. Or, if you can show long, continuous, and exclusive use, you can keep the application on the Principal Register by claiming acquired distinctiveness under Section 2(f) of the Lanham Act. Basically, you are asserting that the public has come to recognize your mark as indicative of the source of your goods or services because of the efforts you’ve made over several years to associate your brand with a certain quality.

Until recently, it was common that five years of continuous and exclusive would generally satisfy a Trademark Examiner such that you could successfully make a 2(f) claim. However, a discussion I had recently with an Examiner revealed that the Trademark Office has sent down orders to the examining corps that longer use is now going to be necessary, absent other factors such as massive branding or marketing expenditures relative to revenues.

This indicates that showing an adequate length of use is going to be more difficult moving forward. However, a recent ruling within the Trademark Office has raised a new issue. An application was just defeated in an opposition proceeding because it lacked the requisite exclusivity that is part of the 2(f) test. There, an opposer asserted that, while the trademark applicant had used the mark for a long time, it had not done so exclusively, presenting evidence that the opposer and several third parties had used the identical trademark. This was enough to weigh against the application. While absolute exclusivity – likely an impossible standard – is not required, widespread use is inconsistent with a 2(f) claim.

Patent Office Power Outage Shutdown

The Patent Office went down hard on December 22, 2015. A subdued Facebook post initially said: “We are currently experiencing some technical difficulties with some of our online systems, but we are hard at work and intent on having services back on line as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience, and stay tuned for details.” However, very quickly it became clear that the incident was major – catastrophic really. For some time, most (if not all) of the pages at upsto.gov were displaying 404 messages, including even the blog directed toward posting updates about the status of the electronic filing systems.

Apparently, the power supply lines at the USPTO incurred a “malfunction,” causing significant damage to two power filtration systems which otherwise provide power in a regulated form to the USPTO. These filtration systems are huge and could not be replaced quickly or easily.

The outage took out all of trademark and patent filing, searching, payment, and examination capabilities, effectively shutting down nearly everything the Patent and Trademark Office, and patent and trademark lawyers, do. For some of us, it was a nice week-long break when many of are taking holiday. For others, however, it was a stressful nightmare of re-learning Priority Mail Express (formerly Express Mail) rules and trying to get the Post Office – sometimes through horrible weather – to make filing deadlines. Filing by mail was still an option – but very few, if any, practitioners file by paper anymore, and I would guess that most who don’t file by paper have no clue how to file by mail. Another good reason to file early! The Office eventually did declare a few of the down days as federal holidays, purportedly giving applicants until the next (operational) business day to file. However, I cautioned colleagues not observe this PTO-granted grace period, as it was not clear that the PTO had the statutory authority to declare a holiday in this manner to toll both domestic and foreign deadlines. Better to mail it in that to find out years from now in litigation that the PTO “holiday” counted for nothing.

The systems are now up, but I have been warning clients this week to get me everything early because I believe the filing system is extremely fragile right now, given that it will probably be more heavily loaded by backed-up filings from the past week.

While the explanation that the Patent Office providfed is not entirely clear – and few details beyond this have been revealed – I am sure the Office did work tirelessly to get the systems back up. And now they are. What we can learn from this how fragile the filing system is. Yes, it apparently took a major power surge to destroy the electronic systems, but when it did, there was no backup. Or, there was a backup, but the backup was tied to a backbone common to the main system – which really isn’t a backup at all.

Practitioners have complained for years that the electronic filing system is antiquated, but the Office has failed to update it. Perhaps this will instigate a technology change at the office that represents innovation leadership in the world.

Trademark Law Ruled Unconstitutional

The Trademark Office’s prohibition phoenix trademark applicationsagainst the registration of disparaging trademarks was struck down as unconstitutional yesterday. Many have questioned for a long time how a statute could legitimately refuse to register some marks because of their moral quality. Nevertheless, for decades, federal statute has stated that a trademark will be refused registration if it “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has declared that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act unconstitutional as violating the First Amendment. The majority stated that “”The government regulation at issue amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and under the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint, we conclude that the disparagement proscription of § 2(a) is unconstitutional.”

The case arose when a band applied to register the mark THE SLANTS in connection with live music entertainment services. The Trademark Office, however, refused protection of the mark as derogatory of people of Asian descent. The band appealed the case through several layers of administrative and judicial courts. At the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the government advanced an academically interesting argument: that the Lanham Act does not actually prohibit speech at all, but rather only prohibits the registration of some types of speech. It reasoned that because the government acts as the gatekeeper for trademark registrations, registered trademarks become government speech and can thus be regulated without implicating the First Amendment at all. The trademark owner remains free to practice the speech, whether registered or not. The Federal Circuit disagreed, finding that the law was impermissibly “created and applied in order to stifle the use of certain disfavored messages.”

A similar question arose most recently in the public eye when the Washington Redskins lost their 60-some year-old trademark registration because it was deemed disparaging of Native Americans. The team has appealed the decision, and it is expected that this newest case will give them some heavy ammunition. However, the REDSKINS case is now in front of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is neither above nor below the Federal Circuit. That means that THE SLANTS decision is non-binding on the Fourth Circuit Court, but can still be persuasive. If the Fourth Circuit finds that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is not unconstitutional – which it may or may not do depending on the questions presented to the court and the sua sponte aggressiveness of the judges – the question will be ripe for the Supreme Court to settle.

Can I trademark a scent?

The short answer is yes, Scent Trademarkbut it can be very difficult. A scent mark is considered a nontraditional or non-conventional trademark. This category covers a broad spectrum of marks which includes any type of trademark that does not currently belong to a conventional category. Conventional marks are words, names, logos, and the like. Scents, sounds, colors, packaging – things like this fall under the non-conventional mark category. Non-conventional marks are not per se more difficult to register as trademarks, but they pose unique challenges not encountered when registering a more traditional mark.

One of the largest complications in attempting to register a scent mark is that the perception of odor can vary from person to person. This subjectivity can lead to considerable argument when deciding whether the scent actually functions as a trademark. After all, trademarks are consistently used symbols that identify in a consumer’s mind the source of the product or service. Key to the ability to identify the source is that the mark be used consistently, or that the consumer experience the mark in a consistent way. If a scent can potentially vary each time it is experienced, a question is created as to whether it is sufficiently consistent so as to function as a trademark.

Another complication is whether the mark is functional. Functional portions of marks cannot be registered. This is most often seen with trade dress, where the Office refuses to protect portions of a product which are formed or shaped purely for functional reasons. This issue can arise with smell marks. For example, the distinct smell of a perfume cannot be protected with a trademark because it is a functional part of that particular perfume.

Acronyms as Trademarks

Guest author Jordon Trapnell, currently a second-year law student at Gonzaga, writes this nugget about trademarks embodied in acronyms:

Acronyms are very commonly used in the commercial world, but present a number of complications when it comes to trademark law. First, there would seem to be an increased likelihood of confusion (which inhibits the chances of registration) since the letters comprising an acronym could have any number of different meanings. Still, there is no law that completely prohibits registering an acronym as a trademark.

The USPTO does have a specific rule that affects how it decides if an acronym can qualify as a trademark. The rule states that “an acronym or initialism cannot be considered descriptive unless the wording it stands for is merely descriptive of the goods or services, and the acronym or initialism is readily understood by relevant purchasers to be ‘substantially synonymous’ with the merely descriptive wording it represents” (TMEP 1209.03(h)). The key to understanding how acronyms can be trademarked therefore actually lies in understanding descriptiveness.

Potential trademarks are categorized along a continuum that ranges from distinctive to descriptive. Arbitrary or fanciful marks that are inherently distinctive are generally easiest to register; marks that are only descriptive are very difficult to register. A merely descriptive mark is one that describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose, or use of the goods or services it is used in connection with. An example could be a window company trying to trademark the name “Clear Glass Windows.” These marks are refused registration in order to prevent the owner of a mark from suppressing competition and to make sure the public is free to use the language involved. So in the context of the acronym rule, “considered descriptive” means the application would be denied.

Determining whether the wording is merely descriptive is relatively simple compared to determining if relevant purchasers usually perceive the acronym to be synonymous with that wording. In the 2003 case Capital Project Mgmt. Inc. v. IMDISI Inc., the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board upheld the objection and denied registration of the mark “TIA.” It was determined to be synonymous with the descriptive term “time impact analysis.” Time impact analysis is not a term that would be readily recognized by the general public, which shows how the wording “relative purchasers” refers to people in the field being discussed. An acronym “CPL” standing for computerized potential log – a term that appears comparable in descriptiveness to time impact analysis – was allowed registration by the TTAB because there was not enough evidence to suggest that relevant people would perceive it to be only an abbreviation for computerized potential log.

To summarize, there are a few questions that should be asked before filing a trademark application for an acronym. What does the acronym stand for, and does the term(s) directly describe the product or service with which the mark is used in connection? Do those who work in the same field have any familiarity with the term and its acronym? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, trademark registration may not be possible.

Specimens Showing Use of Service Marks

As part of the trademark application process, trademarkalmost all marks must be used to eventually be registered. The Trademark Office requires that a trademark applicant submit evidence in the application showing acceptable use of the mark. This evidence is called a specimen, and there are many requirements for what it must show.

The Trademark Office yesterday released examination guidelines for Service Mark Specimens, which attempts to describe the elements of an acceptable specimen for services, discusses specific issues and potential refusals, addresses commonly submitted specimens for modern technology-related services, and provides examples of acceptable and unacceptable specimens. The examination guidelines are manuals for trademark examiners to use when evaluating a trademark application, and together, with the TMEP and other trademark laws and rules, inform how an application is received and analyzed. You can read the new guidelines here.