• IP BLAWG

    Reply All

    Beverly A. Berneman
    4/28/20

    If the words “reply all” sound familiar to you, then you probably use email to communicate with others for various and sundry reasons. Despite their widespread use, these two words became the subject of trademark litigation.

    In 2012, Reply All Corp. started to sell software to let users create and share conversations.

    In 2014, Spotify’s Gimlet Media began producing a podcast named “Reply All”. The hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman talk about strange stories and trending topics.

    Would you confuse Reply All’s software with the “Reply All” podcast? Gimlet Media was convinced that customers would be.

    Gimlet Media sued Reply All for trademark infringement. After about 5 years of litigation, a judge ruled that almost every factor of a likelihood of confusion weighed against Gimlet Media and in favor of Reply All. The court found that the mark was fairly weak. Gimlet didn’t have a record of sales or marketing expenditures to show commercial strength. And the court acknowledged that the term “reply all” is a common term which is recognized by anyone who uses email. The names might be the same but the logos are different (see the graphic) and the products are different. They don’t compete in the same customer space. The court pointed out that Gimlet Media had no evidence of actual confusion. Note that you don’t have to prove actual confusion; it’s just one factor to look at. In this case, the court thought it was a significant factor.

    WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS.  For registration purposes, most countries, including the US have adopted an international scheme of classes of goods and services. There are 45 of them. It is almost impossible for someone to register a trademark in all 45 classes. The class distinction is helpful when evaluating a likelihood of confusion between trademarks. If someone uses a word for the wholesale distribution of auto parts (Class 035), consumers are unlikely to be confused if someone used the same word for graphic t-shirts (Class 025). In the Reply All case, the words are the same but they were used for totally different goods and services. One caveat though. Some trademarks are so famous that even if the goods and services don’t compete directly, the owner of the famous mark (like Barbie, Rolex, Nike and Jack Daniels) can shut down the use of the trademark even if someone is using it in a different class of goods or services. This is called dilution.

  • IP BLAWG

    Welcome to My Star Battles Party

    Beverly A. Berneman
    11/6/18

    Captain America, Thor and Iron Man can’t save your party guests without a license. Characters for Hire, LLC (“CFH”) advertises premium entertainment for parties and private events by booking actors dressed like popular characters. CFH offers hero characters and famous characters from popular scifi/fantasy movies. Understanding that Disney, Marvel and LucasFilm own the rights to characters that fall into those categories, CFH used generic names like "Big Green Guy" (Hulk) and “The Dark Lord” (Darth Vader). Similarly, CFH advertised themed parties that referenced Plaintiffs’ movies, such as “Frozen Themed” (Frozen), “Avenging Team” (The Avengers), and “Star Battles” (Star Wars). But CFH used the original images of the characters in its ads (see picture). After CFH ignored several cease and desist letters, Disney, Marvel and LucasFilm sued. The court entered summary judgment against the plaintiffs on trademark infringement. The court appeared to put a lot of weight on the fact that the plaintiffs couldn’t show actual confusion and there was enough notice that CFH was not affiliated with the plaintiffs. But the court will proceed on the other counts of unfair competition, dilution and copyright infringement. So CFH can’t breathe a sigh of relief yet.

    WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. A themed party is a popular way to entertain at a child’s birthday party, a corporate event or even a brand awareness meeting. Character themed apparel is even more common. The problem arises when one wants to use protected characters and doesn’t have the permission to do so. CFH’s experience on the trademark infringement count is not typical. Whenever contemplating the use of protected characters for any reason, be sure to get the right permissions. And, always respond to a cease and desist letter.

  • IP BLAWG

    If You See Something

    Beverly A. Berneman
    8/28/18

    Don’t wait too long to protect your trademark. Since the 1990s, Cosmetic Warriors Ltd. sells “Lush” brand personal products like soap, lotions and makeup. For a brief period, Cosmetic Warriors sold a small number of t-shirts. But for the most part, Cosmetic Warriors does not sell clothing. Pinkette Clothing, Inc. started selling clothing using the brand name “Lush” in 2003. In 2009, Pinkette applied to register the trademark and it was registered in 2010. Cosmetic Warriors didn’t contest the registration. Almost 5 years after the registration of Pinkette’s trademark, Cosmetic Warriors sued Pinkette for trademark infringement. Cosmetic Warriors said that it didn’t know about the registration to explain why it waited so long to bring suit. Cosmetic Warriors won the battle but not the war. A jury sided with Cosmetic Warriors on the infringement issue. But then the jury sided with Pinkette on Pinkette’s argument that Cosmetic Warriors was barred by laches because it waited too long to bring suit. The jury’s verdict was upheld on appeal.

    WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. There are 3 important points to unpack here. First, Trademark Law allows the registrant of a trademark to have the mark deemed uncontestable 5 years after registration. Once it’s declared uncontestable, the registration can only be challenged on the limited grounds of a fraud in the application or abandonment. That brings us to the second important point. The court in this case held that this five year benchmark is not a statute of limitations. So a registrant who is defending a challenge can claim the laches defense; even if the challenge comes before the 5 year benchmark. That’s important because the U.S. Supreme Court has held in patent and copyright cases, that the laches defense is not available before the statute of limitations runs. Third, registration of a trademark is notice of the use of the trademark. So, Cosmetic Warrior couldn’t rely on its argument that it didn’t know about Pinkette’s trademark until it brought suit almost 5 years after Pinkette’s registration.

  • IP BLAWG

    Hey Mickey!

    Beverly A. Berneman
    6/26/18

    A press release doesn’t always amount to trademark use. In the 1980s, Toni Basil had a one hit wonder “Mickey” that included the lyrics, “You’re so fine you blow my mind, Hey Mickey”. She sold the copyright to the recording of the song. When Disney Co., Kohl’s and Forever 21 started using the song in their advertising, they issued press releases and mentioned Toni’s name in connection with the song. Toni sued for various types of Intellectual Property infringement including trademark infringement based on the press releases. Toni argued that the use of her name violated trademark law based on false designation of origin. The judge disagreed and dismissed the trademark claim holding that the use of her name in the press releases as nominative fair use.

    WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. Not every use of someone else’s trademark is trademark infringement. This case is a good example. A press release is an official statement that is issued to give general information to the news media. A press release isn’t considered trademark use because its primary purpose is to provide information for news purposes. The press releases didn’t use Toni’s name in the trademark sense so she couldn’t maintain a cause of action for infringement.

  • IP BLAWG

    Trademark Goes Down for the Count

    Beverly A. Berneman
    11/7/17

    A licensee can’t knock out a confusingly similar trademark. Julie A. Moreno licensed the Mexican trademark, DEPORTES CASANOVA, for sports equipment. Julie challenged Pro Boxing Supplies, Inc.’s trademark applications and registrations for CASANOVA due to a likelihood of confusion. The TTAB denied Julie’s petitions. While this looked like a priority of use problem, the real problem was that a licensee and not the owner/licensor was claiming priority of use. The TTAB ruled against Julie because: “Allowing a licensee to claim priority for itself in an inter parties proceeding based on the licensor’s use of the mark (whether through the license or otherwise), could result in a licensee being able to claim de facto ownership of the licensed mark.”

    WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. This was a case of first impression for the Board. The Board had dealt with many cases in which the owner and its licensee jointly enforce the trademarks. But this was the first time the Board had to address whether a licensee alone had standing to enforce a licensor’s trademark rights. The Board said no. So a licensee should always insist that a trademark license either require the owner to challenge confusingly similar marks or join with the licensee to do so.

  • IP BLAWG

    The Perils of the Merely Descriptive Trademark

    Beverly A. Berneman
    10/19/16

    If you use a phrase to describe your product, it probably isn’t a trademark. Simone Kelly-Brown registered the phrase “Own Your Power” in a special form (see the first picture). When Oprah Winfrey’s “O” Magazine used the same phrase on its cover (second picture), Kelly-Brown sued for trademark infringement. The case took a tortured path up and down from trial court to appellate court to trial court and back to appellate court. In the end, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for Oprah and her publisher. The Court held that Kelly-Brown’s use of the phrase was merely descriptive of her products and services. Oprah demonstrated that the phrase had been in use since at least 1981. Oprah, herself, used the phrase in a 1993 commencement address which predated Kelly-Brown’s use of the phrase. Kelly-Brown tried to argue that the mark had acquired secondary meaning because the consuming public had come to identify the mark with her goods and services. But, the trial court held that Kelly-Brown didn’t have enough proof to support her position.

    WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. Descriptive words do not a trademark make. But, when descriptive words acquire secondary meaning, they can be registered as a trademark. A descriptive mark acquires secondary meaning when consumers have come to identify a trademark with a certain product over time. This means that the primary significance of the descriptive mark is to connect the product or service with the owner of the mark. It’s easy to fall into the trap of adopting a descriptive mark because it, well, describes the goods and services. As Kelly-Brown learned after years of litigation, a descriptive mark can be difficult, if not impossible to protect.