A motion for summary judgment in a trademark opposition or trademark cancellation proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) can be an effective strategy.  Summary judgment motions are often are filed near or at the end of discovery, prior to the trial phase of the case.  Sometimes, summary judgment motions are brought even earlier in the proceeding.  If the movant is successful, it can save the moving party the time and expense of a full trial on the merits.  Equally important is the possibility that it could obtain a conclusive ruling by the Board sooner — sometimes even a year or more.   This potential savings in the time and expense of litigation can be appealing.

Yet a summary judgment motion in a trademark opposition or trademark cancellation proceeding is not without risk.  Due to its high burden of proof, a summary judgment motion is granted less than 50% of the time.  This alone could be a deterrent for companies seeking such expedited relief.   That being said, the facts of each case are unique.   Therefore, the facts and law should be weighed carefully when considering filing a motion for summary judgment.

Here are some things to consider when considering the merits of a summary judgment motion:

   1.   Legal standard:  Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party can show the absence of any genuine dispute as to any material fact, and that it entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.  A party either asserting or refuting that a material fact exists must do so by citing to admissible supporting evidence that is properly made of record.

   2.  Standing.   A party’s standing to bring or maintain a trademark opposition or cancellation proceeding is a threshold issue that an opposer or petitioner must meet in every inter partes case before the Board.  The plaintiff must demonstrate that it has a real interest in the proceeding beyond that of a mere intermeddler and that it has a reasonable basis and belief that it will be damaged.

   3.  Priority.   In cases that are filed on the grounds of a likelihood of confusion pursuant to Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act and most other statutory grounds, the movant must establish that it either has a preexisiting trademark registration that it deems to be confusingly similar to the non-movant’s mark or proprietary prior common law use.

   4.  Proving the merits.   In Section 2(d) likelihood of confusion cases,  the plaintiff must establish the presence of a likelihood of confusion between the parties’ trademarks pursuant to the thirteen factors set forth in the case of In re E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 476 F.2d 1357, 177 USPQ 563 (CCPA 1973).   Some of the primary Dupont factors include similarity of the marks, similarity of the goods or services, similarity of the trade channels, actual confusion, and the fame of the prior mark.

   5.  Opposition to Motion.  The non-moving party should file an opposition to the motion for summary judgment.  The opposition should set forth the existence of any and all genuine issues of material fact that would make granting the motion improper.   As with the moving party, the opposing party must establish the existence of genuine issues of material fact through properly admissible evidence, such as declarations, documents, admissions, interrogatory answers, and deposition testimony.

   6.  Reply Brief.   After the non-moving party files its opposition to the motion, the moving party has the opportunity to file a reply brief, refuting any factual or legal contentions that are made by the non-movant in its opposition papers.

   7.  Judgment.   After all the moving papers have been submitted, the Board will render a written opinion.  Sometimes the Board will summarily deny the motion; most often it will include a written opinion of several pages that lays out the relevant record, legal standards, burdens of proof, and its decision.  The Board, in its discretion, may grant the motion in its entirety, deny it in its entirety, or grant it in part and deny it in part.   Any claim for relief that is not granted and could be dispositive to the outcome of the case will remain for trial.

Client Advisory.   If you are considering file a motion for summary judgment or have been served with a motion for summary judgment, it is advisable to discuss all options with your attorney or seek out other qualified legal advice.

Over 5,000 U.S. trademark oppositions are filed against trademark applications every year.  Often, the opposer is a competitor of the applicant or a company that believes that it would be damaged if the U.S. trademark application were to proceed to registration.

Here are considerations to take into account when determining whether to file a U.S. trademark opposition:

1.   Jurisdiction.   The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) is the adjudicative body of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that is responsible for, among other things, trademark opposition and trademark cancellation disputes.  The TTAB’s jurisdiction is limited to registration rights only; it cannot enjoin a party’s use of a trademark, nor can it award attorney’s fees.   Nonetheless, it has proven to be the preferred jurisdiction for trademark registration disputes in the United States.

2.  How to Commence.   A trademark opposition is commenced by filing a Notice of Opposition.  The Notice must set forth a brief explanation of the Opposer’s standing as well as the grounds for the notice of opposition.   The Applicant then has 40 days to file an answer to the Notice, or to otherwise seek an extension or file other pleadings, such as a motion to dismiss.

3.  Grounds.   There are several grounds on which a party may bring an opposition.  These include that the applicant’s mark is:

  • likely to cause confusion with the Opposer’s prior trademark registration or common law rights
  • merely descriptive of the goods or services for which the mark is being applied
  • generic of the goods or services
  • not entitled to registration due to fraud
  • primarily merely a surname
  • geographically misdescriptive
  • applicant lacked a bona-fide intention to use the mark (in the case applications based on intent to use)

A full list of the available grounds for filing a Notice of Opposition, including opposition to an International rights application based on Section 66a of the Trademark Act, may be found here.

4.  Procedure.   U.S. trademark opposition proceedings before the TTAB are governed by relevant U.S. statutes; the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”); the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”); and Federal Rules of Evidence (“FRE”).    A complete explanation of TTAB rules and processes may be found in the Trademark Board Manual of Procedure (“TBMP”).

5.  Process.   A trademark opposition is a civil litigation heard before the TTAB.  Like other civil matters, trademark oppositions follow three, distinct phases:  pleadings, discovery, and trial.   The discovery phase is often the longest and well as most costly.  Discovery may include written interrogatories, requests for production of documents, admissions, depositions, and various motion practice.

6.  Settlement Alternatives.  Prior to filing a U.S. trademark opposition, it is advisable to assess the full merits of your company’s potential case and what steps can be taken to achieve your brand protection goals without the need for a full trial on the merits.  Settlement discussions with the applicant are encouraged and often undertaken with varying degrees of success.  This can can occur either before filing the notice of opposition, or at any time during the trademark opposition proceeding.

Note:  The author represents global corporations in U.S. trademark oppositions and is a member of the INTA Panel of Trademark Mediators.

A recent trademark opposition decision by the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board is an example in how an Opposer should properly establish use analogous to trademark use.

In Dexas International, Ltd v. Ideavillage Products Corp., the Opposer filed an Opposition against Applicant’s Mark, SNACKEEZ DUO  for “beverage ware; household containers for foods; thermal insulated containers for food or beverages; bottles, sold empty for beverages; cups for beverages; insulating sleeve holder for beverage cups; portable beverage and food container holder” in International Class 21.  In support of its notice of opposition, Opposer relied on its priority use of its common law mark SNACK-DUO as used on food and drink containers.   Opposer grounds for the opposition was a likelihood of confusion under Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act.

To establish proof of its priority common law use, the Opposer submitted seven declarations and three deposition testimonies.   The declarants and witnesses included the President of World Pet Association that hosted a industry trade show where Opposer displayed its SNACK-DUO product; the President of ICD Publications that ran an advertisement of Opposer’s SNACK-DUO product in its September 2014 print issue; and Opposer’s Sales, Marketing, and Project Management Directors.

To prevail on the ground of likelihood of confusion under Section 2(d) of the Lanham Act, based on a previously used mark, it is the Opposer’s burden to prove both priority of use and likelihood of confusion by a preponderance of the evidence.   Here, since Opposer did not have a prior registration and did not establish first use prior to Applicant’s constructive first use date, it had to establish its priority rights based on use analogous to trademark use.  In addition, Opposer introduced evidence of a shipment of two samples of its SNACK-DUO product to a retailer that was done prior to Applicant’s constructive first use date.

What is use analogous to trademark use?  Use analogous to trademark use is invoked for the purpose of establishing priority in a 2(d) likelihood of confusion case.   The predicate for such a claim is that the relevant consuming public must associate the mark with the party invoking such analogous use.  Such proof may include prior advertising in newspapers or other consumer or trade publications; including press releases.  Here, the Opposer was able to show analogous use activities that predated Applicant’s constructive first use date through advertising in a trade show publication that reached over 25,000 recipients as well as generated pre-sales inquiries.  It also placed its SNACK-DUO product on display at the Super Zoo Trade Show, attended by over 16,000 individuals and 910 companies.  Opposer’s product won second-place for new products for dogs.

Based on a totality of the evidence, the Board found that Opposer had indeed established its priority through use analogous to trademark use and went on to find a likelihood of confusion between the parties’ marks.   The opposition was sustained in favor of the Opposer.

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A recent trademark cancellation action by Major League Baseball against an individual who had a registration for sports apparel is another victory for well-established brand names.

In Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. v. Christopher Webb, MLB petitioned to cancel U.S Reg. No.  4472701 for the mark MAJOR LEAGUE ZOMBIE HUNTER and design, for “clothing, namely, short and long sleeve t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, baseball hats, and beanies,” in Class 25, registered on the Supplemental Register.   The grounds were a likelihood of confusion under Section 2d of the Trademark Act, as well as dilution.  MLB also asserted that Respondent’s registration was void ab initio since Respondent never had a bona fide intent to use its mark in commerce as well as fraud on the Trademark Office.  In support of its standing and likelihood of confusion and dilution claims, MLB introduced four of its trademark registrations for MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, including the MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL word mark, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL and Design mark and two design marks of its iconic baseball player with bat and ball logo.  Three of MLB’s registrations were for apparel goods in International Class 25.

In a preliminary ruling on MLB’s motion for summary judgment on Respondent’s lack of bona fide intent to use its own mark in commerce and fraud, the TTAB granted  summary judgment on MLB’s standing and no bona fide use of Respondent’s mark on sweatshirts, jackets, baseball hats, and beanies. The TTAB denied Petitioner’s motion for summary judgment on no bona fide use of Respondent’s mark on t-shirts and fraud.

MLB claimed that its trademarks are strong, which would entitle it to a wide latitude of protection for likelihood of confusion purposes.  Based on its evidence of extensive sales, advertising, and wide spread recognition of the MLB brand, the Board agreed.  It went to to  conclude that the parties’ goods (at least some of them) were legally identical, which would presume that the channels of trade and classes of purchasers are the same.    Finally, it observed that the parties’ design marks gave a confusingly similar commercial impression. Based on a totality of the circumstances, the Board found the Respondent’s mark to be confusingly similar to MLB’s marks and accordingly ordered Respondent’s registration be cancelled.

Trademark cancellation tip for large brands  Well-established brands are often successful in trademark cancellation proceedings based on the strength of their trademarks and supporting evidence.  Therefore, it is important for brand owners to create a repository of historical sales and advertising figures, as well as marketing and advertising specimens and trade channels that shows widespread use and consumer recognition of its marks.

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Prevailing in a TTAB opposition proceeding against a food and beverage company proves to be sweet for the makers of Nutella.

In Ferrero S.p.A. v. Ruchi Soya Industries Limited,  Ferrero, who is the owner of the NUTELLA spread brand, opposed Applicant’s mark NUTRELA for a wide variety of food and beverage products in International Classes 29 and 30.  The Opposer relied on four registrations of NUTELLA and NUTELLA and Design for its well-known hazelnut spread, beverages, and an extensive list of meat and dairy products, as well as coffee, tea, and desserts and other food items.

In its likelihood of confusion analysis, the Board first considered if the marks NUTELLA and NUTRELLA and Design were similar in sight, sound, meaning, and commercial impression.  It concluded the differences between the marks to be insignificant, so this factor weighed in favor of a finding of a likelihood of confusion.  it then compared the NUTELLA mark and goods listed in Reg. No. 4192415 (which consisted of a large assortment of food and beverage products with Applicant’s goods, some of which were overlapping to Opposer’s goods.  While the analysis to determine whether a likelihood of confusion exists under Trademark Act 2(d) takes into account all the relevant facts in evidence, two of the key factors are similarity of the marks and similarity of the goods.   The TTAB first considered the fame of Opposer’s NUTELLA mark, as famous marks are afforded a broad scope of protection.  Based on Opposer’s evidence of widespread success, recognition and sales, the Board found that the NUTELLA mark is famous.

The TTAB next went on to assess the similarity of the parties’ respective goods.   Noting that several of the parties’ goods are legally identical, it indicated that it did not need to make the same determination for all other goods.  In other words, a similarity between the parties’ goods for a certain class will apply to all goods in that class. Moreover, where Applicant’s and Opposer’s goods are in-part identical, the TTAB presumes that the channels of trade and classes of purchasers for those goods are the same.   Based on a totality of the facts, the TTAB concluded that a likelihood of confusion existed and entered judgment in favor of the Opposer.

Editor’s Note:   If you are the Opposer in a TTAB Opposition proceeding, be sure that your evidentiary proof of sales, marketing, and advertising expenditures are introduced to ensure the support of your case.  To learn more about proving likelihood of confusion, please contact us.

No likelihood of confusion this time as the TTAB finds beer and wine to be unrelated goods.

In Justin Vineyards & Winery LLC v. Crooked Stave, LLC, Applicant Crooked Stave, LLC sought registration of the word mark HOP SAVANT, with “HOP” disclaimed, for “beer” in International Class 32.  Opposer Justin Vineyards and Winery opposed the application based on a likelihood of confusion with its preexisting registration of the mark SAVANT for wine in International Class 32.

The Board looked at the relevant Dupont factors for likelihood of confusion (13 in total), starting with the strength of Opposer’s mark.  It concluded that based on the record, Opposer’s SAVANT mark had both  conceptual and commercial strength.  Accordingly, it concluded that Opposer’s mark was inherently distinctive, having achieved at least some marketplace recognition during its nearly twelve years of use.  With regard to the similarity of the marks, the Board also opined that both parties’ mark included the identical “savant” component, with Applicant’s “hop” portion of its compound mark disclaimed.  Therefore, for comparison purposes, the marks were identical, making this factor weigh in Opposer’s favor.

The most interesting analysis was of the similarity of beer and wine as set forth in the parties’ respective applications.  Despite that fact that beer and wine have been held to be similar goods in numerous other cases before the TTAB and the Federal Circuit, the Board reiterated that each case must be decided on its own facts and evidence.   It also indicated that there is no per se rule regarding the similarity of alcoholic beverages.  Here, the Board concluded that Opposer did not introduce enough evidence to establish that beer and wine are sufficiently related that consumers expect them to emanate from the same source under the same mark.

The Federal Circuit has ruled that even a single Dupont factor may found to be dispositive in a likelihood of confusion analysis.  Here, the Board found that since the Opposer could not establish that the parties’ respective goods (i.e., beer and wine) were related for likelihood of confusion purposes, then the opposition should be dismissed.

Editor’s Note:  The burden of an Opposer to establish the relatedness of beer and wine in every single case (without much weight given to case precedent) is somewhat —well— burdensome.  Would it be too much to ask that the Board take notice of the relatedness or non-relatedness of certain goods as the Trademark Office routinely does during the trademark examination process?  This could be one reason why U.S. trademark opposition and cancellation proceedings are some of the most expensive in the world.  

A recent trademark opposition is a lesson in what happens when there is a crowded field of similar trademarks.

In Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair v. LM Industries Group, Inc., Applicant sought registration of the mark ICAR or land vehicles in International Class 12.  Opposer filed a notice of opposition against the ICAR application on the basis that it was likely to cause confusion and dilute Opposer’s rights in its eight registered marks incorporating the term I-CAR.   Opposer’s marks are in the field of auto body repair and damages analysis.  In its analysis of whether a likelihood of confusion existed between the parties’ marks, the TTAB compared Opposer’s Reg. No. 1607727 of I-CAR for “educational services consisting of conducting training course in auto body repair and damages analysis,” in Class 41 with Applicant’s mark in Class 12.  The Board chose this specific registration as it was the closest to the goods offered by Applicant for the same or similar auto body repair and damages field.

In its opinion, the Board recognized in that analyzing the relevant likelihood of confusion factors, two key considerations are the similarity of the marks and the similarity of the goods or services.  Yet at the end of the day, the number of third-party registrations of ICAR and its derivatives proved conclusive.

In ruling against the Opposer, the Board reasoned that:

Despite the similarities of the marks and the niche fame of Opposer’s mark, we find that the number of third-party users for automobile related services, the differences between the goods and services, channels of trade, and classes of consumers, as well as the heightened degree of sophistication and care in the decision-making process in purchasing Opposer’s educational services and Applicant’s automotive goods, warrant a finding that there is no likelihood of confusion.

Editor’s Note:   The Board’s finding that no likelihood of confusion existed between the parties’ marks was despite the fact that it concluded that Opposer’s mark was strong and had achieved fame in the field of automobile collision repair.  However, since ICAR derivatives had been registered and used by numerous other third-parties for other facets of automobile goods and services, it concluded that Opposer was entitled to a restricted scope of protection outside the automobile collision repair category.

Trademark opposition proceedings are civil litigations before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB).  Companies that wish to enforce their trademark rights through TTAB proceedings should take into account the following pre-filing considerations:

  1.  Standing. Standing is a procedural requirement for all potential opposers.  To establish standing to bring or maintain a trademark opposition, the Opposer must allege a real interest in the outcome of the proceeding together with a claim that it will be damaged by the Applicant’s mark.
  2.   Priority.  In cases where the Opposer is claiming that the offending application will cause a likelihood of confusion with the Opposer’s trademark, the Opposer must allege that is has senior rights. This may be accomplished by showing ownership of a prior U.S. trademark registration or by alleging common law rights that predate the applicant’s first use date or filing date.
  3.  Ownership.  The Opposer should make sure that it is the owner of the senior trademark and file the opposition under its corporate name.   If a related company or licensee is using the trademark, a review of all agreements should be made prior to filing a notice of opposition to ensure rightful ownership and proper chain of title.   Licensees generally do not have standing to bring a trademark opposition proceeding unless specifically governed by a trademark license agreement.
  4.   Jurisdiction.  The TTAB has jurisdiction over the right to register a trademark only.   Even if the Opposer prevails, the TTAB does not have any authority to order the Applicant to cease use of its trademark.  Nor does it have the right to award monetary damages or attorney’s fees.  Only Article III courts such as U.S. District Court has the jurisdiction to enjoin a party’s right to use its trademark in commerce or to award monetary relief to the prevailing party.
  5.  Proper use.  Under U.S. law, trademark rights are based on use.  The fact that an Opposer is the owner of a preexisting trademark registration does not mean that it automatically has superior rights to those of the Applicant.  The Applicant has the right to seek evidence that the Opposer is currently using Opposer’s trademark on all of the goods and services set forth in its pleaded trademark registration.  If the Opposer had never commence use of its mark on some of the goods, or if it has abandoned use on some or all of the goods, then the Opposer’s pleaded registrations are subject to cancellation.
  6.  Likelihood of confusion. The test for whether a trademark applicant’s mark is confusingly similar to a senior owner’s mark has been set forth is a 13-part test known as the Dupont  While no one factor is dispositive, some of the key factors that the TTAB looks at to determine if a likelihood of confusion may exist are (a) similarity of the marks; (b) similarity of the goods or services; and (c) similarity of the parties’ trade channels.

The above checklist is not inclusive.   Other legal and factual considerations should be weighed prior to bringing a notice of opposition.  Such factors include a discussion of preferred business goals, and how to achieve them without the need of a full-trial on the merits.   Often, these goals can be achieved with the assistance of an experienced trademark opposition attorney.

Editor’s Note:   To discuss your trademark opposition or brand enforcement strategy, please contact James Hastings.

More than 5,000 trademark oppositions are filed every year.  One of the grounds for bringing a trademark opposition is that the application is likely to cause confusion with the Opposer’s preexisting trademark.  Yet many trademark opposers are unsuccessful and have their case dismissed.  So prior to filing a notice of opposition, it is advisable to be aware of common mistakes that beset litigants before the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

Mistake #1:  Failure to know TTAB rules.   Procedures for trademark opposition proceedings are set forth in the Trademark Board Manual of Procedure (TBMP).  The failure to follow the strict rules of the TTAB that are contained in the TBMP could result in dismissal of a case or otherwise severely prejudice a litigant’s rights.

Mistake #2.   Failure to assess the case.   Many trademark owners engage in robust trademark monitoring.  This includes filing numerous trademark oppositions against trademark applications deemed to be confusingly similar.  While this tactic can prove successful in certain cases, it could be disastrous where the Opposer fails to adequately research the law and how it may apply to the specific facts of the case.  The lesson here is to assess your strengths and weaknesses before filing a notice of opposition; not after.  No two cases are alike.

Mistake #3.   Overconfidence.   This error in strategic judgment has gotten many a trademark opposer in trouble.   Should the Applicant vigorously defend the opposition and expose fatal weaknesses in the Opposer’s case, the Opposer may be faced with the undesirable choice of either proceeding with the expense of the litigation, or, even worse, face a negative ruling.  This could result in a weakening of the brand owner’s future brand enforcement efforts or even cancellation of its own trademark registrations.

Trademark Management Recommendations:   Brand owners should create and implement a written trademark monitoring and enforcement plan.   Factors to consider are (1) what trademarks should be monitored and enforced; and (2) under what circumstances should third-party applications be opposed.   By creating a written brand enforcement process and updating it once a year, companies can help mitigate their risks and strengthen their trademark portfolios. 

Not all trademark opposition proceedings proceed to a final decision.  In fact, the vast majority of trademark opposition disputes are resolved between the parties or involve trademark mediation.  Estimates are that over 90% of cases before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board amicably settled before trial.

Short of the cost and expense of a full trial on the merits, parties may elect to do the following:

  1.   Withdraw the Application.    The Opposer may request that the Applicant withdraw its trademark application in consideration of a consent agreement that the Applicant may use its mark in commerce under well-defined circumstances.
  2.   Narrow the Identification of Goods.    A frequently invoked compromise is for the Applicant to agree to delete certain goods or services contained in its application.  The Applicant would then be permitted to proceed with its registration based on the narrowed identification of goods.  This is so as to avoid a potential likelihood of confusion with the Opposer’s goods and services.
  3.  Trademark assignment and license back.    Under this scenario, the Applicant would assign its ownership in and to its application and eventual registration to the Opposer.  The Opposer would then license-back the mark to the former Applicant for a limited-use purpose under the supervision and control of the Opposer.  This strategy is used in limited circumstances.
  4.  Withdrawal and agreement not to use.   This is a last-resort strategy for an Applicant.  By signing an Agreement not to use the mark in commerce, it generally gives the Opposer contractual rights to police the Applicant’s use of marks in the future that the Opposer may deem to be confusingly similar to its own.    If the Applicant has decided to make the business decision to withdraw its application and not use the mark, it should avoid signing any other documents that would give the Opposer any future right to approve or disapprove new trademarks of the Applicant.
  5.   Trademark Mediation.   Mediation is an effective means for the parties to come together to discuss their dispute and narrow their differences between a qualified trademark mediator.   The mediation may be either binding or non-binding at the election of the parties.

Editor’s Note:  The author is an approved mediator with the International Trademark Association Panel of Trademark Mediators, a professional group that is compromised of approximately 175 mediators worldwide.