"notice of opposition"

A trademark opposition may be commenced based on a likelihood of confusion with a prior registered mark.   The statutory basis for a likelihood confusion cause of action may be found in Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act.

To prevail on a Section 2(d) claim, the Opposer must prove by a preponderance of the evidence the following:

Standing.  Standing to bring or maintain an action consists of two elements.  First is that the Opposer has a legitimate stake in the outcome of the proceeding.  In other words, that it is not a mere intermeddler.  Second is that the Opposer must allege that it will be damaged if the application for registration issues.  Proof of a prior existing trademark registration is a common method for an Opposer to prove its standing.  Since standing is a low threshold, it is often met.  However, Opposers must be careful to include proof of its standing in its Notice of Opposition.  The failure to do so may result in dismissal of the proceeding.

Priority.   In a likelihood of confusion case, the Opposer must also establish that it has priority.  This means that it has superior trademark rights to that of the Applicant.  This can be proven by either asserting a prior trademark registration, prior common law use, or use analogous to trademark use.  In any of the above examples, the Opposer must show that its use predates the Applicant’s filing date (in the case of an intent to use application) or use dates based on a use-based application.

Likelihood of Confusion.   Assuming the Opposer can prove standing and priority, it then must show that Applicant’s mark is likely to cause confusion with the Opposer’s prior rights.  To do so, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board looks to a 13-part test set forth in the seminal case  In re E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 476 F.2d 1357, 177 USPQ 563 (CCPA 1973) (the “DuPont Factors”).   Although the weight given to the relevant DuPont factors may vary, the following two factors are key considerations in any likelihood of confusion analysis:

  • The similarity or dissimilarity of the marks in their entireties as to appearance, sound, connotation and commercial impression.
  • The relatedness of the goods or services as described in the application and registration(s).

In addition to the above-factors, the Board also looks to the following key factors in making its determination:

  • Similarity of the parties’ trade channels
  • The conditions under which sales are made to buyers (impulse or sophisticated purchasing decision)
  • The number and nature of similar marks on similar good
  • Evidence of actual confusion

Each likelihood of confusion case is different as applied to the relevant Dupont Factors.  Therefore, it is important for an Opposer to thoroughly analyze the relevant legal standard and factual support for your case prior to bringing a trademark opposition proceeding.

Editor’s note:  If your trademark opposition is opposed based on a likelihood of confusion, it is advisable to speak with a qualified trademark opposition attorney.  Likewise, if you wish to oppose a third-party trademark application on the grounds that it is likely to cause confusion with your company’s prior trademark, it is best to review the guidelines contained in this article.  To discuss your case or for further information, feel free to contact the editor.

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.

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 contested matters before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB).  The complaint, known as a Notice of Opposition, is filed by the Opposer, who may allege several grounds for refusal of a trademark application.   Once the Notice of Opposition has been served upon the Defendant, the TTAB will issue an Order setting forth the relevant dates for each successive phase of the proceeding.  This includes the time to file an Answer, the initial conference, initial disclosures, discovery, and trial dates.  The failure to comply with the case management dates could irreversibly jeopardize a party’s rights.

Here are three considerations when preparing and filing an Answer to a Notice of Opposition:

Step #1.   Consider the rules.   Trademark opposition guidelines may be found in the Trademark Board Manual of Procedure.   The Manual sets forth the various statutes, rules, and case precedent applicable to trademark oppositions.  This includes all requirements and deadlines that must be adhered to in an inter partes proceedings before the Board.  Practitioners should refer to it often, as it provides a solid foundation to ensuring that the case stays on track.

Step #2.  Review the Complaint.   The Notice of Opposition must contain (1) a short and plain statement of the reason why opposer believes it would be damaged by the registration of the opposed mark (i.e., opposer’s standing to maintain the proceeding); and (2) the grounds for the opposition.   Standing generally requires that the Opposer have a real interest in the outcome of the proceeding and that the allegations of damages have a reasonable basis in fact.  An Opposer may raise any available statutory ground for opposition that negates the defendant’s right to registration, including likelihood of confusion, mere descriptiveness, or that the Applicant lacked a bona fide intention to use the mark at the time of fling.

Step #3.   Draft the Answer.    The requirements for a properly drafted Answer may be found in TBMP Section 311.   While there is no standard format for an Answer, it is generally best to answer each numbered paragraph of the complaint by providing a short statement either admitting or denying the alleged facts.  If you cannot do so, then state that you have insufficient facts to either admit or deny the claims.  The Answer is not the place to respond to the merits of the Notice of Opposition.  In conjunction with the Answer, a list of  possible affirmative defenses and potential counterclaims should also be considered.

As a defendant in a trademark opposition proceeding, it is important to have a well-crafted answer, affirmative defenses, and counterclaims, where appropriate.  Depending on the facts of the case and relative strengths of the parties’ positions, doing so could provide needed leverage at the discovery conference and later settlement discussions.

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When your company is faced with a trademark opposition,  there are many misconceptions of what it is and what it is not.  Be sure to have a clear understanding of what to expect to help guide your decision making process.

Governing Rules.  Trademark oppositions in the United States are heard before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB).    Proceedings before the Board are governed by various federal statutes and administrative rules, including the Lanham Act, Trademark Rules of Practice, as well as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.   How the Board may rule in a particular case is largely influenced by  decisions in prior cases.  These include the holdings of the TTAB as well as the decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  Litigants should consult the Trademark Board Manual Procedure for all rules applicable to proceedings before the Board.

Phases of Litigation.   As a contested civil litigation between two parties, a trademark opposition consists of several distinct phases.   These include pleadings, discovery, and trial.   Each one is briefly summarized below:

  1.   Pleadings.   The complaint is known as a Notice of Opposition (“Notice”).   Any party that believes that it will be damaged by the registration of another party’s trademark may file an opposition during the proscribed period for doing so.  The Notice of Opposition should include a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the Opposer is entitled to relief and the demand for the relief sought.  The most common grounds for a Notice of Opposition are likelihood of confusion, descriptiveness, and lack of a bona fide intention to use the mark in commerce at the time of filing.   An Answer to the Notice must be filed after 30 days of service, and may include affirmative defenses and counterclaims if applicable.
  2.  Discovery.   The discovery phase is often the most lengthy and protracted phase of litigation.  Discovery may include interrogatories, requests for production of documents, requests for admissions, and depositions.  The purpose of discovery is to gather relevant information and documents that tend to support one’s own case, or alternatively, discredit the legal position of one’s adversary.   The discovery period is set by the Board, and each party has 180 days to conduct relevant discovery.
  3.  Trial.   Commencing 60 days after the close of discovery, the trial period begins with the Opposer’s 30 day testimony period, followed by the Applicant’s 30 day testimony period, and the Opposer’s 15 day rebuttal.  Interestingly, a trial before the TTAB is unlike other civil proceedings, in that the “trial” is all on the papers — there is no live trial before judges.  Instead, the parties submit their evidence in the form of notices of reliance and trial briefs to establish the facts and legal support necessary to prevail.   Notices of Reliance generally reference to documents, deposition testimony, and other information gathered in the discovery process, and in certain situations, during the trial phase of the case.

How to Get Started.    In evaluating a U.S. trademark opposition, it is important to have knowledge of your own case, as well as that of your adversary.   Therefore, it is best to first conduct a search of the other party’s trademarks and common law uses that may be available on the internet or other publicly available sources.  Once this is done, it is best to discuss the matter with a qualified trademark opposition attorney who will be able to discuss with you how such proceedings work, the potential attorney’s fees involved, as well as your options moving forward.

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.

 

What happens when a trademark application is opposed and then the Opposer does not follow the rules?   In the case of West Indies Trading Company LLC v. Nicole Averette, a quick dismissal that is a lesson in the importance of form over substance.

In West Indies, the trademark Opposer filed a trademark opposition against Applicant’s mark NIKKI VS NICOLE for dresses, shirts, shorts, and swimwear in International Class 25.   The mark was opposed based upon a likelihood of confusion under Trademark Act Section 2(d) based on Opposer’s six trademark registrations for marks containing the words NIKKI BEACH for a wide variety of goods and services as well as Opposer’s alleged common law mark NIKKI BEACH for “clothing, sun care products and related merchandise that have included fragrances.”  The Opposer cited as additional grounds that its NIKKI BEACH mark had become famous and that Applicant’s mark would dilute the distinctive value of Opposer’s marks.  Applicant filed an Answer but neither side submitted any evidence or took testimony during their trial period.  Opposer did, however, file a brief in the case.

The Record on which the Board rendered its decision consisted only of the pleadings and Applicant’s trademark application.  Most importantly, Opposer’s trademark registrations were not made of record nor was there any other testimony or evidence.  In ruling against the Opposer, the Board made the following observations on how Opposer missed several opportunities to introduce its registrations into evidence.  For example:

  • opposer could have attached to its Notice of Opposition status and title copies of its registrations; or
  • a current copy of its registrations from the USPTO’s electronic database; or
  • introduced the registrations through its notice of reliance or through its witnesses during the testimony period

Although Opposer did submit copies of its registrations with its brief, the Board held that it was too late in the proceeding to do so and therefore the registrations were inadmissible.  In addition, the Board ruled that the Opposer failed to establish its standing but nonetheless recognized Opposer’s standing to bring its opposition based on admissions in Applicant’s answers.  In the end, however, Opposer’s failure to present admissible evidence of its registrations or prior use doomed its Opposition without it ever proceeding to a decision on the merits.

The lesson?  Always be sure to follow the rules as found in the Trademark Board Manual of Procedure. 

 

Given the burden of proof necessary to establish a finding of trademark genericness, it comes as no surprise that a recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decision affirmed this principle of trademark law.

In the trademark opposition case Frito-Lay North America Inc. v. Real Foods Pty. Ltd.,  Applicant sought to register two trademarks, CORN THINS for “crispbread slices primarily made of corn” and RICE THINS for “crisp bread slices primarily made of rice.” (the “THIN marks”).   The terms corn and rice were disclaimed in the applications.   The Opposer, Frito-Lay, in its notice of opposition, alleged that Applicant’s THIN marks were generic names for Applicant’s respective goods; highly descriptive of Applicant’s goods so as to be incapable of acquiring distinctiveness; and merely descriptive of  crispbread  made of thin slices of corn or rice, without evidence of acquired distinctiveness.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recognizes a two-part test for genericness:

(1) what is the genus of goods or services at issue; and

(2) does the relevant public understand the designation primarily to refer to that genus of goods and services.

In doing so, the relevant consuming public’s perception is the primary consideration.   Such evidence may be in the form of consumer surveys, dictionaries, trade journals, newspapers, or other credible sources.   Here, the Opposer introduced evidence to support its claim that RICE THINS and CORN THINS are generic, including dictionary definitions, examples of Opposer’s own use of “thin” for its various snack product, as well as third-party marketplace uses.  In addition, Opposer introduced various internet search results for use of “thin” to promote third-party snack products.   To refute the claim of genericness, Applicant submitted the trademark registrations of numerous third-parties who have received registrations for marks containing the word “thins” in connection with snack and food products that did not include a disclaimer for the “thin” portion of the marks.    Here, the Board concluded that based upon the totality of the evidence, “thins” was not generic due to the various marketplace use of thins in combination with various food items and as a source-indicator for third-party products.

The Board went on to discuss whether RICE THINS and CORN THINS were incapable of acquiring distinctiveness, which could occur if the word or phrase being considered is so laudatory or descriptive as to be incapable of acquiring distinctiveness.  Here, the Board found that “corn thins” and “rice thins” were not so highly descriptive or laudatory so as to prevent the terms from being source indicators of Applicant’s products.  However, at the end of the day, what was required of Applicant was that it had to make a showing that its “thins” marks were not merely descriptive of  its goods.  Applicant failed to do so, due in part to its lack of substantial sales or advertising expenditures connected with its rice thins and corn thins products.  Accordingly, Applicant, having failed to establish evidence of acquired distinctiveness, was refused registration and the opposition was sustained on the ground that Applicant’s marks were merely descriptive and did not acquire distinctiveness.