Articles Posted in Trademark

Despite the uniform reaction of courts, trademark holders insist on filing lawsuits over gripe-sites. As discussed here in the past, websites that are created for the sole reason of complaining about a service or product, and which incorporate a trademark in doing so, are not guilty of trademark infringement. In Devere Group GMBH v. Opinion Corp. d/b/a Pissedconsumer.com, pissedconsumer.com was sued by a Swiss consulting company because the site hosted a number of sub-domains that hosted public complaints about the company. The company sought damages for trademark infringement, among other claims.

Although the court determined that the consulting company had established its trademark, it had failed to establish any infringement by the gripe-site. The court agreed with the gripe-site that no reasonable consumer, “‘even the dimmest Internet user'” would believe that the comments posted to the gripe-site were sponsored by the consulting company. This was especially true here, where the complaints could never be seen as an endorsement of the services protected by the trademark or endorsed by the company, and the gripe-site did not compete with the company’s website for viewers.

For the most part, the court’s outcome should be the same for a complaint website that was less obvious in identifying its purpose. The line is crossed, however, where the complaint website has a commercial purpose or seeks to benefit from the protected trademark. In that case, judges look at the relationship with a more critical eye, to understand the purpose of the complaint website, and are more reluctant to dismiss an infringement complaint.

An appellate decision from the Federal Circuit finds that the term Milanza is confusing when used in the same class of goods as Potenza and Turanza. Seemingly, these marks sound and feel similar.

Bridgestone Corporation, owns trademark registrations for the marks Potenza and Turanza and conclusively established that it used those marks in connection with popular and successful tires. Federal Corporation sought trademark registration for Milanza, and Bridgestone objected arguing that when used on tires, that mark was confusing. The United States Patent and Trademark Trial Appeal Board (the “TTAB”), finding no confusion between the marks despite Bridgestone’s survey that consumers were confused, refused to block Federal’s application. Bridgestone appealed.

In reversing and finding that market confusion existed sufficient to bar Federal’s application, the court highlighted the standards that a party must meet to establish confusion with an ordinary registered trademark compared with the strength of a famous mark.

In an ongoing litigation between Starbucks and an outfit called Black Bear Micro Brewery, the brewer of Mr. Charbucks and Charbucks Blend coffees, a New York Southern District judge found that notwithstanding the similarity in names and the fact that Charbucks was trying to capitalize on the Starbucks name, Charbucks did not violate trademark law.

One of the privileges provided by trademark law is a trademark holder’s right to prevent another’s use of a mark that, while not confusingly similar in a direct way, nevertheless “dilutes” the trademark holder’s registered trademark. One way to dilute a mark is to “blur” it. Blurring is pretty much as it sounds: A competitor’s use of mark that, in the court’s words, “impairs the distinctiveness of the famous mark.” When a mark is blurred, its “distinctiveness,” that element of the mark by which it is known to the public, is weakened.

In this case, the Southern District court was faced with deciding whether the marks “Mr. Charbucks” and “Charbucks Blend” diluted the Starbucks trademark. To reach a conclusion, the court had to review six factors that, while not exclusive, provided guidance in determining dilution: “(i) [t]he degree of similarity between the mark or trade name and the famous mark; (ii) [t]he degree of inherent or acquired distinctiveness of the famous mark; (iii) [t]he extent to which the owner of the famous mark is engaging in substantially exclusive use of the mark; (iv) [t]he degree of recognition of the famous mark; (v) [w]hether the user of the mark or trade name intended to create an association with the famous mark; [and] (vi) [a]ny actual association between the mark or trade name and the famous mark.” Because these elements are suggested but not exclusive, the overarching consideration is whether the blurring makes the distinctive registered mark less distinctive.

In the recent case of Eva’s Bridal Ltd. v. Halanick Enterprises, Inc., Judge Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit highlights the importance of managing a license of a registered trademark.

One of the reasons that one applies for and obtains a trademark registration is to show ownership—instant identity—of a good or service. When one sees or hears the mark coca-cola, the company Coca-Cola comes instantly to mind. That’s the point. To ensure the continuity of that association, Coca-Cola must monitor the use of its trademark to ensure that no one is using it without right. Why? Well, Coke wants to make sure it gets paid for the use of its valuable trademark. But it also wants to make sure that Coke products are of good quality. If it licensed its trademark to a producer of poor quality soda, the consumer might associate bad soda with Coke and avoid Coke products in the future. Also, on some level, the consumer has an expectation that buying a Coke product will yield a Coke-quality product. Therefore, Coke will make sure that any company producing Coke products will do so under its strict rules to ensure consistent quality.

Sometimes, though, trademark holders are happy enough to pocket their licensing or royalty fees, but ignore their obligation (yes, obligation) to maintain a role in the production of the goods being sold under the trademark. That’s called naked licensing. And its a good way for a trademark holder to lose its trademark registration.

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