Likelihood of Confusion

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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.

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.

The U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has disclosed first and second quarter filing and pendency statistics for 2018.   Year to date (YTD) statistics as compared to the same period in 2017 include the following:

U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board filings

  • extensions of time to oppose:  9,498  (+2.7% YTD)
  • trademark oppositions: 3,211 (+4.3% YTD)
  • trademark cancellations: 1,143 (+8.8% YTD)
  • trademark appeals: 1,643 (+4% YTD)

Pendency of Proceedings  (commencement to completion processing times)

  • trial cases (average):  140.6 weeks (-10.6% YTD)
  • trial cases (median):  126 weeks (-14.9% YTD )
  • ACR trial cases (average): 112 weeks (-6.2% YTD)

Contested Motions

  • decisions issued:  535 (+8% YTD)
  • average pendency: 9 weeks (+15.4% YTD)
  • cases awaiting decision: 172 (+17% YTD)

Of note is the increase in trademark cancellation proceedings as well as trademark oppositions.  This may be a sign of greater brand enforcement efforts by companies.  At the same time, there are mixed performance trends within the TTAB itself.  While the pendency of proceedings has decreased, the average pendency of contested motions has increased.   One reason may be due to the inability of counsel to fully cooperate in discovery disputes, with an increase in contested motions being an unfortunate result.

TTAB filing and performance data for 2015 and 2016 may be found here.

Practitioner’s Note:   The importance of cooperation with opposing counsel in the prosecution or defense of TTAB proceedings should not be overlooked.   Where antagonism and lack of communication are the norm, increased client expenses and unnecessary motion practice often follow.  This can have a direct impact on the  risk and costs associated with trademark opposition proceedings. 

When it comes to trademark oppositions, it pays to be Kühl.

In Alfwear Inc. v. Shuff, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was asked to consider whether the Applicant’s KU:L and design trademark for bicycles in International Class 12 created a likelihood of confusion with Opposer’s asserted “family” of KUHL trademarks for inter alia, clothing, bottled water, textile fabrics, lip balm and other items.  Of interesting note is that Opposer’s trademark registrations on which it had relied to constitute a family consisted of multiple variants of the English translation of “cool,” including KUHL, KÜHL, and KUUL.

Family of trademarks.   The Federal Circuit has defined a family of trademarks as a group of marks having a recognizable common characteristic; however, simply using a series of similar marks does not a family make for purposes of protection.  Instead, there must be a recognition among the relevant consuming public that the marks are indicative of a common origin, which is generally established by considering the use, advertising, and distinctiveness of the marks as a whole.  Here, the Opposer introduced evidence that showed that although it used multiple spellings of its “Kühl” mark, it did not establish sufficient proof that it had extensively used all of them in commerce, and in particular, “Kuul” and “Kuhl,” such that it created a family of trademarks.

Likelihood of Confusion.  While there are at least 25 separate grounds that an Opposer may assert for the basis of a trademark opposition, by far, the most prevalent is likelihood of confusion pursuant to Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act.  In determining whether a likelihood of confusion exists under Section 2(d), the Board looks to several factors, with two key considerations being the similarities between the marks and the similarities between the goods or services.  In comparing the similarities between the marks, the Board, unsurprisingly, noted that closeness in spelling between the parties’ marks, and also concluded that consumers were likely to pronounce the two marks similarly.  In analyzing the similarity of the parties’ goods, the Board concluded that since there was ample evidence introduced of third-party party registrations and websites offering both bicycles and outdoor apparel together, this tended to support the conclusion that the Opposer’s and Applicant’s goods were similar.  The TTAB went on to find that since the parties’ goods were offered in the same channels of trade to consumers who exercise a low degree of purchasing care, confusion was likely such that the Opposition was sustained in favor of Opposer.

Practitioner’s Note:  Opposer was unsuccessful in convincing the Board that its “Kühl” marks were famous, despite the fact that it sells its products bearing the Kühl mark in over 1,0000 retail outlets nationwide.  This is due to the fact that Opposer’s introduction of advertising and sales figures alone did not provide context as to the level of exposure and recognition that consumers  might have had to the Kühl trademark in order for it to be considered famous.  The Kühl mark, was, however, deemed to be strong for purposes of the Section 2(d) likelihood of confusion analysis.

 

When a brand owner’s trademark application is opposed,  there is a helpful checklist that it should consider.   By doing so, it will help the applicant assess the merits of the case, and determine the best course of action moving forward.   Here are some of the top defenses that can call into question the likelihood of success of a trademark opposer’s claims:

Lack of standing.  Standing is a threshold issue that an Opposer must establish before the merits of the case are even considered.   It is required in every inter partes proceeding before the Board.  This is to determine that there is an actual case or controversy between the parties.   Standing requires that the Opposer show a real interest in the outcome of the proceeding, as well as a reasonable basis for its claim of being damaged should the Applicant’s trademark registration issue.

Lack of priority.    A trademark opposer must show that its trademark rights are superior to those asserted by the Applicant.  Trademark Rule 2.122(b)(2) provides that it is not merely enough for an opposer to rely on its date of first use of a mark shown in its trademark registration.  Rather, the Opposer must prove, through competent evidence, that its first use dates are prior to those claimed by the Applicant. 

No likelihood of confusion.   In cases where it is alleged that the Applicant’s mark is likely to cause confusion with the Opposer’s mark under Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board will look to the factors for likelihood of confusion set forth in the case In re E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 476 F.2d 1357, 177 (CCPA 1973).   Some of the  DuPont factors that the TTAB will consider in its analysis include:

  • the similarity or dissimilarity of the marks
  • the similarity or dissimilarity of the goods (or services)
  • the fame of the prior mark
  • actual confusion

Since the TTAB places greater weight on the similarity of the parties’ marks and the similarity of their goods and/or services, special consideration of these two factors should be made.

The above discussion contains just some of the considerations that an Applicant should review in determining the merits of a trademark opposer’s case.   Where a Notice of Opposition does not contain these elements, or if the evidence does not support it, the Applicant should pursue applicable affirmative defenses and other remedies that may be available.

Carl’s Jr. has prevailed in a surprising trademark opposition before the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

In Carl’s Jr. Restaurants LLC v. AKM Food Svcs. LLC., the Applicant, AKM filed a trademark application for THE GREEN PEPPER in standard characters, for restaurant services in International Class  43.   Carl’s Jr. filed a notice of opposition to oppose the application based on a likelihood of confusion with its family of GREEN BURRITO marks, including the following:

  • Reg. No. 3015454 for the mark GREEN BURRITO (“Burrito” disclaimed) in standard characters for restaurant services in International Class 43;
  • Reg. No. 2924101 for the mark GREEN BURRITO & Design (“Burrito” disclaimed) for restaurant services in International Class 43;
  • Reg. No. 1689454 for the mark THE GREEN BURRITO & Design for restaurant services in International Class 43; and
  • Reg. No. 3526233 for the mark GREEN BURRITO in standard characters for various food items for consumption on and off the premises in International Class 29 and 30.

In analyzing the likelihood of confusion factors, the Board affirmed that two key considerations are the similarities of the marks and the relatedness of the goods and/or services.  In comparing the Opposer’s GREEN BURRITO word mark for restaurant services and applicant’s THE GREEN PEPPER mark for restaurant services, the Board concluded that the dominant portion of the parties’ marks was the word “green,” and given the fact that they both appeared as the first part of a compound mark, that “green” was the term that purchasers would most likely remember.   The Board further noted that similarity in any one of the elements of sound, appearance, meaning, or commercial impression is sufficient to support a finding of likelihood of confusion — in appropriate cases.    Given the additional fact that both marks were for restaurant services,  the Board concluded that a likelihood of confusion indeed could exist and therefore sustained the opposition on the issue of likelihood of confusion in favor of Carl’s Jr.

 In the trademark opposition case, Halo Trademarks Limited v. Halo 2 Cloud LLC,
Trademark imagethe Opposer opposed the intent to use application of Applicant’s mark HALO  for handbags, briefcases,  electric adapters and a wide variety of other business accessories on the ground of likelihood of confusion under Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act.  As the basis for its opposition, Opposer relied on its previously used HALO and HALO and Design marks for numerous business accessories in International Class 18, including certain goods applied for by Applicant.
To prevail on a likelihood of confusion claim brought under Trademark Act Section 2(d), a party must first prove that:
  • it owns “a mark registered in the Patent and Trademark Office or a mark or trade name previously used in the United States …and not abandoned….” Trademark Act Section 2, 15 U.S.C. § 1052.

Here, the Opposer did not have a registration for its own HALO marks and therefore was required to establish its prior proprietary rights in and to the mark through testimony and documentary evidence showing actual use or use analogous to trademark use.   Accordingly, the Opposer sought to rely on its intent to use application for HALO to establish constructive use priority rights in and to the mark.  The filing date of Opposer’s intent-to-use applications was March 19, 2010, which preceded Applicant’s filing date of its HALO mark of May 5, 2014.  Neither party took testimony evidence and submitted notice of reliance of their respective applications and discovery requests and responses.

The  U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the Opposer was entitled to rely on the filing dates of its intent to use applications to establish constructive use of its HALO mark as of that date pursuant to Section 7(c) of the Trademark Act.  That being said, in order to prevail based on trademark priority, any judgment entered in favor of the Opposer would be contingent on the Opposer actually using its marks in commerce and registration issuing on its pending applications.  In addition to establishing priority of rights, the Opposer would still have to bear its burden under Section 2(d) that Applicant’s HALO mark was likely to be confused with the HALO marks of Opposer.
The Board concluded that the parties’ respective marks as examined in connection with the goods and respective trade channels, pointed towards the conclusion that they were confusingly similar in sight, sound, meaning, and commercial impression such that the Opposition should be granted and registration refused.   Therefore, the Board entered judgment, contingent on the issuance of the Opposer’s pending applications.