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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.

Trademark cancellation proceedings based on abandonment continue to present challenges to trademark registrants.   In the latest case before the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, however, the registrant’s trademark registration was spared.

In AD5 Inc. v. Jennifer M. Estes dba #SELFiE T’s, the Petitioner sought to cancel Reg. No. 4642072 of the Registrants #SELFIE design mark (in a reverse mirror image) for a wide variety of apparel items in International Class 25.  Petitioner had alleged that Registrant had abandoned the trademark.  The relevant statute to prove abandonment is Section 45 of the Trademark Act:

Section 45 of the Trademark Act provides that a mark shall be abandoned when its use has been discontinued with intent not to resume such use. Intent not to resume may be inferred from circumstances.

The party seeking cancellation bears the burden of proof to establish abandonment by a preponderance of the evidence.  If the Petitioner can show nonuse of the Registrant’s mark for at least three consecutive years, the burden shifts to the registrant trademark owner to show that it was using the mark or that it had an objective intent to resume use.
Here, although Petitioner alleged that Registrant was not using the mark for at least three consecutive years, the Registrant denied the allegation, citing evidence that she maintained her website for the products bearing the  mark and donated goods to potential marketplace customers.  The Board noted that nonuse of a mark due to lack of demand coupled with on-going marketing efforts may not constitute trademark abandonment.  In the end, Petitioner could not overcome Registrant’s evidence of continued marketplace attempts to sell the items.  This case stands as a reminder that the burden of proof always lies with a petitioner to cancel a trademark registration on abandonment grounds.
In addition to not proving its abandonment claim, the Petitioner was unable to establish its standing to bring the petition for cancellation.  Therefore, the Board’s dismissal of the petition was technically due to lack of standing.  The Board nonetheless proceeded to evaluate the merits of Petitioner’s abandonment claim, stating that Petitioner failed to establish its burden of proof.
Note:  The author was a recent CLE Faculty Member for a training webinar on trademark abandonment sponsored by Strafford, a leading educator of attorneys.

A trademark opposition involving beverage trademarks was the subject of our most recent post.  Now, we review a trademark cancellation dispute between two beverage trademark owners.  In both proceedings, the grounds were a likelihood of confusion pursuant to Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act.

In Rebel Wine Co. LLC v. Piney River Brewing Co., Rebel Wine petitioned to cancel Piney River’s Registration No. 4597351 of the mark MASKED BANDIT for beer and brewed malt based alcoholic beverages in the nature of beer.   Rebel Wine plead ownership of Registration Nos. 33119263 and 39743404 both for the mark BANDIT for wine and alcoholic beverages except beers.  The U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that Petitioner had priority based on its earlier registrations.

In analyzing the likelihood of confusion between the beverage trademarks, the Board reiterated the well-known rule that two key considerations are the similarities between the marks and the relatedness of the goods.  Considering the marks in their entireties, it found that MASKED BANDIT and BANDIT are similar, therefore weighing in favor of likely confusion.   With regard to the relatedness of goods factor, the proper test is whether consumers would tend to believe that the parties’ respective products emanate from the same source.  Here, the Board observed that both parties had beer and/or wine in the goods covered by its registrations.  The Board also noted that it often concludes that “beer” and “wine” are related goods for purposes of likelihood of confusion.  In the end, it opined that in this proceeding was no different and found that the parties’ respective goods were related.   It also found that the trade channels of the parties and purchasing conditions were similar.  As a result of the totality of the evidence, the Board granted the petition based on a likelihood of confusion and Piney River’s trademark registration for MASKED BANDIT was cancelled.

Practice Note:  While the Board had indicated that each proceeding is different, when it comes to the similarity between wine and beer, it almost inevitably concludes that the two goods are related for purposes of likelihood of confusion.  This is despite the fact that here, Respondent introduced 237 pairs of third-party registrations of the same or very similar marks for wine and beer, respectively, owned by different companies.

For purposes of likelihood of confusion, not all beverage trademarks are created equal.

In Patrón Spirits International AG v. Conyngham Brewing Company, the Applicant sought registration of the mark PIRATE PISS for “beer, ale, and lager” in International Class 32.   Opposer Patron had opposed the application based on its ownership of the previously registered marks PYRAT and PYRAT RUM for distilled spirits and rum in International Class 32.  Patron had disclaimed exclusive rights in and to the term “rum” as uses in the latter mark separate and apart from the mark as shown.  In support of its case, Patron had submitted its registrations, and various internet printouts showing various spellings of the term “pirate.”  In addition, it introduced 13 third-party registrations showing marks where the goods contained both beer and rum.  However, of these, only 6 were use-based registrations, prompting the Board to observe:

Opposer’s submission of the six relevant third-party registrations is not very convincing for purposes of showing that beer and rum are sufficiently related that consumers expect them to emanate from the same source.

There is no per se rule that all beverages are related for purposes of likelihood of confusion.   The Board noted that while beer and wine are often found to be related in trademark oppositions involving beverages, each case must be weighed by its own facts and evidence.   Here, the Board proceeded to conclude that Opposer could not evade its burden of proving relatedness of the goods by “bootstrapping upon previous factual findings made in other decisions on different records.”   In the end, it believed that the both the quality and quantity of Opposer’s evidence was insufficient to prove that beer and rum are related goods for purposes of likelihood of confusion.  This factor, as well as the unique connotation and strong commercial impression of Applicant’s mark helped to distinguish it from Opposer’s mark.  Accordingly, the Board dismissed the Opposition and ruled in favor of Applicant.

Practice Tip:  In proving the relatedness of beverage trademarks, an Opposer should cite to as many third-party use based registrations as possible and further present probative evidence that the related goods in question are in use by the same source.  Note, however, that if the marks being compared are identical or highly similar, the degree of relatedness required between the respective goods need not be as great.