U.S. Trademark Opposition

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.