A recent trademark opposition case before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board presents a discussion of priority based on common law rights.

In Mazama Brewing Company, LLC v. Sumerian Brewing Company, LLC, Applicant sought registration of the mark HOPRUPTION DOUBLE IPA for beer in Class 32.  Opposer brought a motion for partial summary judgment based on likelihood of confusion with its mark HOP ERUPTION for beer; and false suggestion of a connection with Opposer.  Opposer assertion of common law trademark  rights was  based on its use of the HOP ERUPTION Mark dating back to May 2013.  Applicant’s filing date was February 8, 2017.

In support of its claim of common law priority, Opposer submitted various newspaper articles, invoices, social media mentions, customer testimonials, and label approvals for its HOP ERUPTION product dating back to 2013.  Opposer further argued that the parties goods were identical and traveled in the same channels of trade.  Opposer also claimed that purchasers of beer products are more likely to make impulse purchases, thereby making confusion more likely.   Moreover, since Applicant had to disclaim  “DOUBLE IPA” as being descriptive of beer, the comparison between the marks was HOPE ERUPTION and HOPRUPTION.  Opposer argued that this meant the both marks conveyed the same commercial impression.

Applicant argued that Opposer’s common law rights and evidence were limited to Oregon and to a lesser degree Washington state only.  Additionally, Applicant argued that any likelihood of confusion was diminished by the existence of numerous third-party marks for beer that contained the terms “hop” and/or “eruption.”

To establish priority of use, a party must show that its owns a mark or trade name previously used in the United States and not abandoned.  A plaintiff may prove prior use through either actual use or use analogous to trademark use, such as advertising brochures, newspaper publications, or websites which create a public awareness of the designation of the trademark as an identifying source.   Here, the Board concluded that Applicant met its burden of showing prior use of the HOP ERUPTION Mark dating back to at least 2013.  With regard to the likelihood of confusion claim, the Board found that Opposer had not met its burden of demonstrating that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding certain of the likelihood of confusion factors.  Accordingly, Opposer’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

Practitioner’s note:   It is important for companies to establish documentary evidence of its trademark use as early as possible.  This is vitally important should its common law rights be contested at some time in the future.  Innovative companies such as Cognate assist brand owners in recording such marketplace evidence using blockchain technology.  By way of full disclosure, the author is an advisor to Cognate and its principals.