Two incredible things happened in 1992 for the NFL football team Washington Redskins. It won the Super Bowl and applied to register a trademark Washington Redskins. It has not been so lucky ever since. It has not won another Super Bowl and has not registered that mark since 1992. Now, thanks to the touchdown scored by the Supreme Court for Washington Redskins and its compadres The Slants band of Asian-American musicians in the Matal v. Tam case last term, the team just converted its 25-year old application into a US registration and is about to get its six presently-cancelled other US trademark registrations back. This is a natural fall out from the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the Lanham Act’s Section 2(a) prohibition against registering “disparag[ing]” trademarks as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. [See Mintz Levin’s prior post on the Matal decision.] This decision has now forced the hand of the Fourth Circuit to vacate and remand in an unpublished per curiam opinion the Washington Redskins’ appeal of the district court decision to uphold the PTO’s cancellation of its six trademark registrations as disparaging to Native Americans. [See Mintz Levin’s prior post on this saga.] The Supreme Court’s decision has left nothing to consider for the Fourth Circuit, the district court, and the PTO, which will now have to reinstate the presently cancelled trademark registrations.
Susan Neuberger Weller is a Member based in our Washington, DC office whose practice focuses on IP, related transactions, and IP litigation. Susan specializes in trademark, copyright, domain name, trade dress, and related areas of Internet, e-commerce, unfair competition, customs, and advertising law. She has written and contributed to numerous IP books and has provided IP commentary for Court TV as well as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other publications. Susan was named a DC Super Lawyer from 2006 to 2010, has been listed in multiple editions of the Guide to the World’s Leading Trade Mark Law Practitioners, and is rated AV Preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell.
On May 18, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a copyright infringement complaint and added further to a circuit split on when copyright “registration” occurs for purpose of filing a copyright infringement complaint. “Registration” of a copyright is required of US copyright owners prior to being able to file suit for copyright infringement (17 U.S.C. § 411(a)). However, there is no consensus on whether registration occurs when an owner files an application to register the copyright or occurs only when the Register of Copyrights actually issues a copyright registration.
In this case, Plaintiff Fourth Estate Benefit Corporation (“Fourth Estate”), a news organization, filed a complaint for copyright infringement against Wall-Street.com, also a news website. Wall-Street.com had obtained copyright licenses for a number of Fourth Estate’s articles, but failed to remove Fourth Estate’s articles upon cancelling its account with Fourth Estate as required by the license agreement. When Fourth Estate filed suit for copyright infringement, the complaint merely alleged that Fourth Estate had filed applications to obtain copyright registrations for the articles, not that any action had yet been taken on the applications by the US Copyright Office.
Selecting and protecting your “brand” should begin from the very moment a business is in the process of being formed, whether that business is a sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, limited liability company, or some other type of entity. It makes no difference whether the entity is a for-profit or not-for-profit organization, and the size of the entity is also irrelevant. Your “brand” is your public facing identity by which you will be known and through which your reputation will be developed. The goodwill you develop in your “brand” will be one of the most important and valuable assets you own.
The first “brand” a new entity may adopt is its business name. This may be a formal corporate name obtained through a Secretary of State’s office and/or a fictitious business name, such as a trade name or a DBA. Regardless of which type of entity is adopting and using a new name, and regardless of whether the name has been cleared by a Secretary of State’s office, it is critical that an appropriate trademark search be conducted for the new name to ensure that it does not infringe upon the prior existing registered or unregistered trademark rights of a third party. Continue Reading Company “Branding” and the Benefits of Federal Trademark Registration
In a unanimous decision handed down on June 19th, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a long-standing prohibition against federal registration of “disparaging” trademarks, finding that the this provision of the Lanham Act violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
We have been tracking this case since 2013, when the TTAB refused registration of the mark THE SLANTS for an Oregon rock band. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act which prohibited the registration of marks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a). The PTO found the mark to be a derogatory or offensive term for people of Asian descent. The Federal Circuit reversed the PTO, finding the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act unconstitutional, and the government appealed. Continue Reading Matal v. Tam: U.S. Supreme Court Holds Prohibition on Disparaging Trademarks Unconstitutional under First Amendment
In a decision that may have broader implications in the U.S. fashion industry, the U.S. Supreme Court in Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. (No. 15-866) ruled that the decorative elements on a cheerleading uniform can fall within the scope of articles protectable by copyright.
In the decision handed down on March 22, 2017, Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, ruled that the decorative elements on the cheerleading uniforms (shown below) met the threshold requirement of being a “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work” that can be granted a copyright if the copyrightable elements are sufficiently original and meet other requirements of the Copyright Act. Slip Op. at 10-11.
Although most people will recognize the ubiquitous PIZZA! PIZZA! slogan mark owned by the pizza chain Little Caesar’s, the company’s collection of repeated term marks does not rise to the level of a “family of marks” according to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. In a precedential decision, the Board held that to grant this status to the slogan marks at issue would give Little Caesar’s excessively broad rights not justified by the facts. In re LC Trademarks, Inc. (TTAB December 29, 2016). However, the Board did clarify that proof of the existence of a “family of marks” can be a factor used to prove that otherwise descriptive marks have acquired distinctiveness. Continue Reading Pizza! Pizza!: Little Caesar’s Repeated Term Slogans Are Not a “Family of Marks”
As we reported to you last September, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case involving the constitutionality of the provisions of the Lanham Act upon which the U.S. Trademark Office relied to deny registration of the rock band name “The Slants.” The hearing before the Court is scheduled for January 18, 2017. We are following this case closely and will report back with all developments. Stay tuned.
In a non-precedential opinion, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board cancelled two US trademark registrations for the mark PORTON, finding it to be confusingly similar to the mark PATRON. Patron Spirits International AG v. Pisco Porton, LLC, Cancellatio No. 92059527 (January 4, 2017). PORTON is the brand name for a Peruvian brandy sold by Pisco Porton. PATRON is the brand name for a Mexican tequila sold by Patron Spirits International. Continue Reading Trademark Trial and Appeal Board: Non-Spanish Speakers Would Confuse PATRON and PORTON Trademarks
Well, a lot has happened since we last reported on the District Court’s decision in the FLANAX trademark dispute. As you may recall, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board granted Bayer’s Petition and cancelled the FLANAX registration although Bayer, a German company, did not use the mark FLANAX in the US. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed Bayer’s subsequent Complaint and reversed the TTAB, finding that Bayer had no standing to challenge the FLANAX mark under the Lanham Act since it had no rights in the mark in the US. Bayer appealed this to the Fourth Circuit which then reversed the District Court. The Fourth Circuit concluded that Bayer did have the right under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act to assert claims for false association and false advertising and to pursue a cancellation claim under Section 14(3). The Court held that nothing in the Lanham Act or the law mandated that Bayer have used the FLANAX mark in the US “as a condition precedent” to its claims. On October 20, 2016, Belmora, the owner of the US trademark registration for FLANAX, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari seeking resolution of a split among the circuit courts on the application of territorial provisions to certain trademark claims in the US. The specific question presented to the Court by Belmora is as follows:
“Whether Sections 14(3) and 43(a) of the Lanham Act allow a foreign business that has neither used nor registered its trademark in the United States to sue the owner of a U.S. trademark for conduct relating to the owner’s use of its U.S. mark.”
Bayer can file a brief in opposition within 30 days if it decides to do so.
We will keep you posted on all further developments.
Further to our post last Friday on the SLANTS trademark case, the U.S. Supreme Court today, without comment, refused the Redskins’ Petition to join the SLANTS case challenging the U.S. Trademark Office’s ban on “offensive” trademarks. Since both cases involved a provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the football team hoped to have both cases considered concurrently by the high Court. However, this now means that the outcome of the SLANTS case will have a huge impact on the Redskins’ appeal still pending before the Fourth Circuit. Although the team’s case will not be heard with the SLANTS case, it will have the opportunity to file amicus briefs in the proceeding.