Category Archives: Lanham Act

Busy IP Docket for US Supreme Court Upcoming

Sneath, Henry 2012 headshotBy: Henry Sneath, Chair of the Intellectual Property practice at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.  hsneath@psmn.com or 412-288-4013

The US Supreme Court has a very busy IP docket in the next few months. Close watchers of the court predict a continuing focus on IP cases. Our friends at AIPLA provide a nice summary of the oral argument schedule of IP cases through April. We will follow these cases and post any important decisions. See AIPLA link below: http://www.aipla.org/resources2/reports/2014/Pages/140214AIPLA-Direct.aspx

Western District Analyzes Trademark Issues: Use in Commerce; Abandonment; and Doctrine of Foreign Equivalents

By: Joe Carnicella, an intellectual property attorney with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

On September 13, 2013, Judge Cercone of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued an opinion in Taza Systems, LLC v. Taza 21 Co., LLC, et al., No. 2:11-cv-073, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130974 (W.D. Pa. September 13, 2013), covering various fundamental trademark topics.

Relevant Facts

Taza Systems is the owner of three service mark registrations on the Principal Register of the USPTO: (1) the word mark TAZA; (2) the word mark TAZA A LEBANESE GRILL; and (3) the design mark TAZA A LEBANESE GRILL.  These marks cover restaurant and bar services in International Class 43.  Taza Systems operates two restaurants in Woodmere, Ohio and Cleveland, Ohio.  In July 2008, Taza 21 opened a restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, under the names TAZA21, TAZA21 FRESH, and TAZA21 FRESH SHAWARMA CAFE.

Use in Commerce

Taza 21 asserted that Taza Systems’ registered marks were invalid and subject to cancellation because Taza Systems did not provide services in interstate commerce as required to justify registration under the Lanham Act.

According to the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1051 et seq., a mark is used “in commerce” on services when it is used or displayed in the sale or advertising of services and the services are rendered in commerce.  Commerce is defined to mean “all commerce which may lawfully be regulated by Congress.”  Because Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause extends even to purely intrastate activity if that activity substantially affects interstate commerce, the Lanham Act’s authority includes the same.  The court discussed the term “in commerce” as it applies to restaurants located in a single state.  Some factors that have been deemed to satisfy the interstate commerce requirement include location near interstate highways, servicing customers from other states, advertisements in out-of-state publications and purchasing ingredients from out-of-state vendors.

The court determined that Taza 21 would have the burden of proving at trial that Taza Systems did not use the registered service marks “in commerce”, and in doing so, Taza 21 would have to produce evidence to contradict and overcome the rebuttable presumption of validity and ownership of the marks afforded to Taza Systems because it holds registration certificates for all three service marks.  The court concluded that Taza 21 failed to adduce sufficient evidence that could establish at trial that the service marks are not used in commerce.

Abandonment

Taza 21 asserted that Taza Systems’ marks were invalid and subject to cancellation because Taza Systems failed to police third-party uses of confusingly similar marks.

Under 15 U.S.C. § 1127, if a trademark or service mark becomes generic, or otherwise loses its significance as an indicator of source due to the conduct of the owner, it can be deemed legally abandoned.  A mark can also be deemed legally abandoned if the owner discontinues use, with an intent not to resume it.  However, a party arguing for abandonment has a high burden of proof because abandonment, being in the nature of a forfeiture, must be strictly proved.  A “failure to police” a mark is one type of owner conduct that is commonly assumed to result in abandonment.  However, in order to prove this type of abandonment, the challenger must establish that the presence of third-party users in the marketplace resulted in what is described as a “loss of trade significance,” which is another way of saying that a mark is no longer distinctive because it fails to identify and distinguish the services of one person from the services of others and to indicate the source of the services.  As a reminder, the distinctiveness of a mark is evaluated by four categories: (1) arbitrary or fanciful; (2) suggestive; (3) descriptive; and (4) generic.  The first two categories are inherently distinctive and are afforded protection under the Lanham Act automatically; the third type of mark must acquire distinctiveness as an identifier of the source of goods or services before it can be eligible for protection; the fourth category of marks is never protected as a mark.

The court analyzed Taza 21’s evidence, which consisted of only a list compiled by counsel of 51 businesses that included TAZA in their name and an excerpt from a Thomson CompuMark Trademark Research Report issued to Taza Systems’ attorney seven years prior, and determined that such evidence did nothing to establish that Taza Systems’ marks lost their significance as an indicator of the source of its restaurant and bar services.  According to the court, the evidence did nothing more than establish that, at one point in time, various businesses across the United States may have used the word TAZA in their names and that those businesses ranged from coffee shops and restaurants to blown glass manufacturers and residential building contractors.  Moreover, the court applied the Dawn Donut Rule (see Dawn Donut Comp. v. Hart’s Food Stores, Inc., 267 F.2d 358 (2d Cir. 1959)) and concluded that, because these third parties use their marks in geographically “separate trading areas” and there was no evidence that Taza Systems had imminent plans to expand into the third-party user’s territory, no public confusion was likely.  The court ruled that Taza 21 failed to submit evidence sufficient to establish that the moniker TAZA had become generically descriptive of restaurant services as a result of Taza Systems’ failure to police the market.

Descriptiveness – Doctrine of Foreign Equivalents

Taza 21 asserted that Taza Systems’ marks were invalid and subject to cancellation because the marks were merely descriptive upon application of the doctrine of foreign equivalents.

Registration of a mark on the Principal Register constitutes prima facie evidence of the validity of a trademark and of the owner’s exclusive right to use it in commerce.  However, if a challenger comes forward with evidence to establish that the mark was erroneously registered, the registration can be cancelled or otherwise invalidated.  Under the doctrine of foreign equivalents, foreign words from common languages are translated into English to determine whether they are generic or descriptive.  However, this doctrine applies only if the ordinary American purchaser would stop and translate the mark into English.  When it it unlikely that an American buyer would translate the foreign mark, either because of unfamiliarity with the foreign word or association of the word with its foreign language through decor, the doctrine does not apply.

During prosecution of its marks, Taza Systems disclosed that the word “taza” translates from the Lebanese dialect of Arabic to English as “fresh,” and each of the registration certificates explicitly reflects this translation.  Taza 21 submitted as evidence printouts from various on-line dictionaries reflecting that “taza” translated from Hindi to English as “fresh” and “green,” that “taze” translated from Turkish to English as “fresh” and “youthful,” and “taza” translated from Persian to English as “fresh, young, new.”

The court analyzed this limited evidence and determined that Taza 21 failed to adduce any evidence that would allow a reasonable juror to overcome the presumption of validity afforded to Taza Systems by its federal registrations and to conclude that the ordinary American purchaser would deem the mark TAZA to be descriptive of “restaurant and bar services.”  The court opined that, because the mark TAZA appeared in the context of a restaurant that serves Lebanese food, plays Lebanese music and is decorated with Lebanese decor, a reasonable juror could find that the ordinary American purchaser would not be prompted to translate the mark TAZA, thereby making the doctrine of foreign equivalents inapplicable.  Moreover, even assuming that the doctrine of foreign equivalents might apply, the court determined that Taza 21 failed to produce evidence that the doctrine would invalidate the marks.  In making this decision, the court considered certain statistics, which demonstrated that only a very low percentage of the U.S. population speaks Arabic, and concluded that the ordinary American purchaser would not stop and translate the term TAZA into English.  The court also considered the pages from the various dictionaries submitted by Taza 21 and determined that such evidence would not invoke the doctrine because there are multiple translations and varying foreign spellings and pronunciations.  Finally, assuming arguendo that Taza 21 could establish that the ordinary American purchase would stop and translate “taza,” the court held that no reasonable juror could conclude that “fresh” is a word used to describe restaurant and bar services.  Although “fresh” could be suggestive of the type of products or ingredients used at a particular restaurant, as opposed to another, suggestive marks are inherently distinctive and entitled to trademark protection.  The court held that the Taza Systems’ registrations for “fresh” do not remove an inevitably descriptive or generic word for restaurant or bar services in a foreign language from public use in the United States.

Under Armour Seeking to “Protect Its House”

By: Joseph R. Carnicella, intellectual property attorney with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

Under Armour has filed suit against Nike alleging that Nike has infringed certain Under Armour trademarks as a result of Nike’s use of the phrase “I Will” in advertisements.  Under Armour alleges that Nike’s use of “I Will” infringes its trademark rights, dilutes a famous mark, e.g. the slogan “I will protect this house,” and constitutes unfair competition.  Under Armour alleges that Nike launched an advertising campaign on its Facebook page and YouTube video page that repeatedly use the “I Will” trademark/tagline, and as a result, consumers have already associated Nike’s use of “I Will” with Under Armour.

Under Armour filed the lawsuit on February 21, 2013, in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, Baltimore Division (1:13-cv-00571).  Nike has not yet filed a response to the complaint.  We will continue to monitor this action.

The Dangers of Misleading Press Releases

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

When a patent holder sues a potential infringer, the question often comes up about what the patent holder can publicly say about the lawsuit, either to its customers or in press releases. A recent blog post by Scott Daniels in the Reexamination Alert Blog and cross-posted at IPWatchdog shows the problems one company found itself in when it issued press releases that the other side felt went too far.

Background

TASER International (which makes numerous products, such as the famous TASER stun gun) sued Stinger Systems for infringing some of TASER’s patents and for false advertising. While the false advertising claims were resolved by a joint stipulation, the court ultimately found that Stinger infringed one of TASER’s patents.

In response, Stinger filed its own lawsuit against TASER the week before TASER issued its quarterly earnings report, claiming that TASER engaged in false advertising, unfair competition, and injurious falsehood arising out of a study by the National Institute of Justice (“NIJ”) that TASER circulated. Stinger waited until the day of the earnings report to announce the lawsuit in a press release, but never actually served TASER. Later, Stinger voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit after receiving an order to show cause.

Contending that the press release and lawsuit were shams designed to harm TASER’s stock and business, TASER brought another lawsuit against Stinger—Taser International, Inc. v. Stinger Systems, Case No. 2:09-cv-289, in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada—alleging a number of claims, including violations of the Lanham Act. Judge Miranda Du issued an opinion on August 3, 2012 deciding the parties’ partial summary judgment motions on the Lanham Act claims (among other things).

In it, the Court refused to grant summary judgment in favor of Stinger on the claims related to Stinger’s press releases. The Court found that TASER had presented sufficient evidence that the allegations that the press releases were false and misleading could go to the jury.

In particular, the Court noted four issues of fact that prevented granting Stinger’s motion. First, Stinger claimed in its press release that it had served TASER with the lawsuit when it had not. Second, the press release did not adequately explain what the NIJ is and what its report contained. Third, there was evidence that suggested that Stinger “wanted to pursue misleading press releases as an avenue for devaluing TASER.” And, fourth, there were telephone recordings suggesting that the litigation was designed to be vexatious and to drive down TASER’s stock.

Take Aways

While this case is more extreme that most cases, it still serves as an important reminder that the filing of a lawsuit does not give a party a license to say anything it wants. Press releases need to foremost be truthful and provide sufficient context for the statements contained in them, especially those statements that might be viewed as impugning another.

As this case shows, courts will look sometimes look behind the statements to the motivations of the speakers in determining whether the statements are actionable or were intended to mislead others.

As tempting and satisfying as it may be to issue strong press releases, companies and individuals need to take care that the press releases do not themselves become the subject of additional litigation or distract from the legitimate claims an individual is trying to make.

Eastern District of PA Holds Qui Tam False Marking Statute Unconstitutional

by: Joseph R. Carnicella, intellectual property attorney with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

In February 2011, the Northern District of Ohio determined that the Qui Tam False Marking Statute, 35 U.S.C. § 292, was unconstitutional under the Take Care Clause in Article II of the United States Constitution.  See our post on this decision.  On June 2, 2011, Judge Eduardo Robreno from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed plaintiff’s qui tam action on the same constitutional grounds.  See Memorandum for a complete analysis of the legal issues by Judge Robreno.  This issue is expected to be resolved by the Federal Circuit following argument in FLMC v. Wham-O Inc. in July 2011.

Agree To License Or Else

by: Joseph R. Carnicella, intellectual property attorney with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

According to Law.com and Law Technology News, an e-discovery company, Recommind, is in the early stages of negotiating licenses to various competitors for both its already patented technology and its “expected-to-be” patented technology.  Recommind will then decide, based on the final outcome of such negotiations, whether to file lawsuits against its competitors.  While the pre-suit negotiations may serve as an effective method for the different companies to attempt to save costs invariably associated with patent litigation, such approach is unique in the sense that Recommind is negotiating with technology that may or may not be protected by patents.  Click here for the complete article.

The Cost of IP Justice – Can Small Businesses Afford it?

Posted By: Henry M. Sneath, principal shareholder and IP Group Chair at Pittsburgh Litigation and Patent Prosecution boutique Picadio, Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (hsneath@psmn.com or 412-288-4013)

The Patent Reform Act of 2011 portends yet another problem for small business folks trying to develop technology, and more importantly trying to enforce it. We have written about the pending legislation in prior posts. If it passes the US Congress, and if the “first to file” patent rule is therefore adopted by the USPTO as the law, patents will go to those with superior resources, in-house legal departments and the wherewithal to file patents on a moment’s notice. Gone will be the rule that “invention” is the starting point. It will be the result of a race to the PTO.

This is only part of the current IP problem for small businesses however, and the bigger problem is litigation cost. Small businesses simply cannot afford to bring or defend intellectual property lawsuits. If they are the plaintiff, it is likely that they have been given advice by counsel on the anticipated expense of patent or trademark enforcement litigation. Legal fee costs, expert witness costs, deposition costs, demonstrative evidence for trial costs and lost opportunity time for employees can add up quickly and it is important for the client and counsel to set a budget and to discuss each phase of the litigation with a projection of costs. Sadly this cost discussion is often ignored and we have received calls from potential clients who have exhausted their litigation budgets and who are nowhere near a settlement or trial. Frustrated they seek new counsel, but often new counsel is hampered by the inability to properly fund the ongoing litigation.

More difficult perhaps is the plight of the small business (or individual) defendant in an IP suit. These litigants are often ill-prepared for the costs and rigor of defending litigation in Federal Court. Having never been sued before, but having read about the high cost of lawsuits, they frequently seek legal counsel with the plea: “Can we end this quickly as I can’t afford to be in a lawsuit?” When Plaintiff is seeking to shut down production and sale of the new defendant’s chief product line, the answer to this question may not be easy. I tell them sure – we can end it early – all you need to do is stop making  the product that is your main source of revenue, agree never to make it again, pay the plaintiff money for their alleged damages and pay all of their legal fees. These legal fees are generally not insignificant and may have been generated by one or more large law firms at enormous billing rates.

The client, who may even have solid defenses, is then faced with a difficult choice between: 1) Ignore the defenses and cave in quickly with all of the resultant cost and loss of income; 2) Engage in some litigation to try to establish some leverage for a favorable settlement or 3) Take the chance that expensive litigation will, over time, allow a favorable result and perhaps even an award of attorney’s fees to repay the defendant for the litigation cost. It is option 2 which poses the problem of delicate balancing by lawyer and client. How much litigation and cost is enough to create favorable settlement leverage? The client needs to balance the revenue/profit of the allegedly offending product or mark, against the phased cost of litigation.  We can project that phase one (investigation, pleadings, Federal Rule initial disclosures, status conference before the court etc) might cost “x” dollars. The client can decide whether that cost is appropriate against the revenue stream attributable to the product or mark, and determine when to make the settlement move. There is never, of course, any guarantee that the settlement option will work and therein lies the balancing act problem. The client may get stuck in long litigation and need to simply fight its way out. Good communication between lawyer and client is critical to making these decisions.

Trend Begins Under New High Pleading Standard Imposed by Fed Circuit

by: Joseph R. Carnicella, intellectual property associate with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

Check out this article published in The National Law Journal on April 1, 2011.  The Federal Circuit’s decision in In Re BP Lubricants USA Inc. has had an impact already (in only a 3 week period of time) on the number of false marking cases on the dockets across the country.

High Pleading Standard Imposed by Federal Circuit for False Marking Claims

by: Joseph R. Carnicella, intellectual property associate with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

In In Re BP Lubricants USA Inc., No. 960, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 5015 (Fed. Cir. March 15, 2011), BP Lubricants USA Inc. filed a petition for a writ of mandamus after the Northern District of Illinois denied BP’s motion to dismiss a complaint filed by a patent attorney as a qui tam relator on behalf of the United States pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 292.  The complaint alleged generally that BP falsely marked products as covered by a patent that expired in 2005.  The district court relied on Exergen Corp. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and determined that the complaint alleged circumstances with enough particularity regarding the intent to deceive to satisfy Rule 9(b).

In its petition, BP asserted that the complaint lacked sufficient facts for a court to reasonably infer that BP knew its patent had expired when it was marking its products.  The Federal Circuit concluded that false marking claims should be treated analogously to actions brought under the False Claims Act and held that “Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement applies to false marking claims and that a complaint alleging false marking is insufficient when it only asserts conclusory allegations that a defendant is a ‘sophisticated company’ and ‘knew or should have known’ that the patent expired.”

Judge Unclogs Issue on Redirection of Internet Traffic Between Competing Companies

by:  Joseph R. Carnicella, intellectual property associate with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

On February 15, 2011, Judge Schwab of the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of Fagnelli Plumbing Company, Inc. on its motion for summary judgment and found that there were no genuine issues of fact relating to the claims against Gillece Plumbing and Heating, Inc., et al., for a cybersquatting violation of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), a violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(1)(A), and common law trademark infringement and unfair competition.  

According to the Judge’s Memorandum Opinion, Fagnelli Plumbing has been the registrant of the domain name “fagnelliplumbing.com” since 2000, and Gillece Plumbing purchased and registered the domain name “fagnelli.com” with GoDaddy in March 2007.  After learning that internet traffic was being redirected to Gillece Plumbing’s website and requesting in a letter that Gillece Plumbing cease and desist from redirecting internet traffic, Fagnelli Plumbing commenced the lawsuit on May 18, 2010. 

With respect to Fagnelli Plumbing’s cybersquatting claim, the Court analyzed the ACPA and concluded that the name “Fagnelli” was a distinctive mark entitled to protection, the registration of “fagnelli.com” was identical or confusingly similar to the name “Fagnelli” and Gillece Plumbing acted in bad faith with the intent to profit.  In regard to the alleged Lanham Act violation, the Court noted that generally the Lanham Act does not protect surnames unless they are distinctive or famous, yet held that “Fagnelli” acquired a distinct and secondary meaning with Western Pennsylvania at the time when Gillece Plumbing began to use the mark.  The Court also determined that Gillece Plumbing’s use of “Fagnelli” created a likelihood of confusion in the marketplace.  Moreover, the Court granted summary judgment on Fagnelli Plumbing’s claims for common law trademark infringement and unfair competition because the Court found these claims to be identical to the violation of the Lanham Act claim.  In addition to granting Fagnelli Plumbing’s motion for summary judgment, the Court also granted a permanent injunction prohibiting Gillece Plumbing from redirecting internet traffic from fagnelli.com or any other domain name using the word “Fagnelli” and owning the domain name fagnelli.com or any similar domain name.  The Court noted that a subsequent proceeding will be held to determine damages against the Defendants.