Common Questions – Benefits of Trademark Searching

Searching for potentially competing trademarks before you go through the time and expense of developing a strong brand is a very worthwhile exercise, but it costs money – and sometimes clients can be reluctant to spend the money if it’s not technically “required” to do so.

Trademark searching is not required before you file an application for federal trademark registration with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), but it is highly recommended. Here are a few reasons why:

1) The USPTO’s filing fees are non-refundable if an Examining Attorney refuses registration of your mark based on a pre-existing application or a registration owned by another;

2) The owner of the pre-existing mark could send you a cease and desist letter demanding that you stop using their mark, change your mark, perhaps destroy products or advertising material that uses the mark, seek disgorgement of profits for earnings using their mark or seek other remedies; and

3) The whole point of developing a valuable trademark (or service mark) is to create “source identification” – basically, to allow the consuming public to associate your unique mark with you. And only you. This value is undermined if there are lots of marks that are very similar to the one you ultimately adopt and use.

There are different levels of searching that can be beneficial – depending on your circumstances. They include:

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Is Your Company Subject to Laws Regulating Safe Destruction of Documents?

Many companies have document retention policies – in other words, policies determining how long they will keep certain kinds of documentation.  These policies also frequently cover when documents may be destroyed in the normal course of business.  (Assuming, of course, that no litigation is pending and that there is no other reason why the company would be legally obligated to keep these documents.)  It’s almost a business necessity these days given the cost of document storage.

It is also a fairly safe bet that by now, most people have heard about the potential risks associated with data breaches, or at the very least, have heard about the Target data breach during the holiday season in 2013.

However, did you know that many states regulate how personal information can be destroyed?  Or, more specifically, how documents and records that contain such personal information may be discarded?  To date, at least thirty-one states have enacted laws like this (the link attached omits the Delaware law that was just enacted).

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Common Questions: Can I Copyright My ‘Knight in Shining Armor’ Story?

The short answer is – perhaps, at least parts of it.  Copyright law protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”  17 U.S.C. § 102.  This protection attaches from the moment at which the expression is recorded – in other words, from the moment the pen hits the paper. 

While fictional stories can contain creative and innovative ways of expressing some common themes, the common themes themselves are not protectable.  These are standard story elements – such as a damsel in distress, who is later saved by the proverbial knight on a white horse (e.g., Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty), the villain who seeks redemption (e.g., Star Wars), star-crossed lovers whose romance is tragic (e.g., Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), an epic journey through which the hero has several adventures (e.g., The Iliad or the Odyssey), or corruption and betrayal by a close friend leading to a tragic downfall (e.g., Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar).  These story elements have existed for hundreds of years, and can be found even in Greek comedies and tragedies that we studied as students in literature classes or in theater programs.

These basic story elements are not protected under the Copyright Act, because to prevent others from copying them would render storytelling completely impossible.  They are generic, standard building blocks in any story.

Stories that include these elements, however, are not completely beyond the protection provided by the Copyright Act.  Instead, the way the story is told – the prose, the narrative, the alliterative descriptions that bring these story elements to life – are all the kinds of unique expression which the Copyright Act protects. 

If someone were to come along and copy verbatim several chapters of a book (or even a shorter amount), the author could still enforce his or her copyrights (subject to some defenses like fair use, expiration of copyright term or independent creation, joint ownership, etc., which are beyond the scope of this article) because of that exact duplication.  The author could not prevent other stories from being written that include a “damsel in distress” element or a “knight on a white horse” element – because those are the generic elements beyond the protection of the Copyright Act.  They can always pursue an action when exact copying of their original, creative text has occurred.

In a recent case, this dichotomy between the protection of the expression versus the lack of protection of an idea was explored further.  In Rucker v. Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., No. 4:12-cv-01135 (S.D. Tex. Feb. 26, 2013), the plaintiff – an author who had written (but not yet published) the first chapter of a romance novel – sued a book publisher for its publication of a full-length novel that allegedly copied her story about a “tall, dark and handsome,” wealthy and powerful male hero, and a beautiful red-haired heroine with green eyes, who was slender, young and strong-willed.  Rucker at 14-15.  She basically argued that the book publisher copied her idea (which she had submitted in a writing contest), put it into a full-length novel, and published it without her knowledge or consent.

The author did not provide any evidence that the publisher had actually seen her submission, but the Court later concluded that because the works were not substantially similar, there was no need to determine whether the book publisher, in fact, had access to her work prior to its own publication.  Id. at 4 n. 2.   In her complaint, the author identified 40 instances of direct infringement in a summary form, but did not provide any specific examples of them. 1.  Because the book publisher provided copies of both works in its motion to dismiss, the Court was able to compare both works side-by-side to determine whether a claim for infringement could survive.  Id. at 1-2.

After reviewing both works, the Court recognized that while there were some similarities between the two works, these similarities were “not in legally protected elements.”  Id. at 12.  The Court explained that “a theme or trope that has long existed is not ‘expression’ that the Copyright Act protects.  Rather, infringement requires copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.” 13.  In addition, “material or themes commonly repeated in a certain genre are not protectable by copyright, nor are so-called scenes a faire.”  Id.  “Scenes a faire” are later defined as involving “incidents, characteristics or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic, what flows naturally from these basic plot premises.”  Id.(quoting Atari, Inc. v. N. Am. Philips Cons. Elec. Corp., 672 F.2d 607, 616 (7th Cir. 1982)). 

These elements “are not protected because they are strongly affiliated or connected with a common theme and thus are not creative.”  Id.  In other words, there are limited ways available in which these standard story elements can be described.  The Copyright Act does not preclude others from copying these same standard elements, because the ideas themselves are not copyrightable.  Id. at 9 (“Copyright law does not protect an idea, but only the expression of an idea.”) (citation omitted); see also Russ Berrie & Co. v. Jerry Elsner Co., Inc., 482 F. Supp. 980, 986 (S.D.N.Y. 1980) (“shared characteristics of both parties’ Santa toys of a ‘traditional red suit and floppy cap, trimmed in white, black boots and a white beard’ and ‘nose like a cherry’ [were] common to all Santas and not probative of copying.”) (as quoted by Rucker at 13).

Ultimately, the RuckerCourt concluded that “[t]he similarities that [the author] asserts are either stock elements of romance novels or plot elements that naturally flow from the broad themes that the two works share with other works in the same genre.” 14.  The Court held that there was no actionable similarity between the two works and dismissed the complaint.  Because the Court held that allowing the plaintiff to amend the complaint would be “futile,” the dismissal was made without leave to amend and with prejudice.

The take-away point from these cases is that unique ways of telling a story will garner protection under the Copyright Act, but one author cannot prevent others from telling stories using the same standard story elements, provided that the other authors tell the stories in their own ways and do not copy verbatim what the original author wrote.

More on the idea/expression dichotomy can also be found in these prior posts:  Common Questions: Can I Copyright My Idea?  and When is a Fictional Character Copyrightable? (and, as later updated).

Webinar Scheduled for February 12, 2013

Please join me for a webinar to be broadcast live by Thomson Reuters on February 12, 2013, entitled “Brand Protection: Ten Tips to Managing Trademark Rights Effectively.”  In this webinar, I will be joined by two of my colleagues, Christina N. Scelsi (Scelsi Entertainment and New Media Law, PL, Port Charlotte, FL) and Sharra Brockman (Verv, Pittsburgh, PA).

Our panel will address protecting trademark rights from conception to renewal and beyond, provide audience members with a basic grounding in trademark rights in the U.S. We will discuss areas where strategic thinking and planning ahead are beneficial, and give audience members some pointers in protecting their brand portfolios. This session will include a discussion of some recent opinions from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to provide some examples of common pitfalls.

Our panel will address the following topics:

1. Picking a Good Brand Name
2. Pre-Application Clearance Searches
3. Benefits of Federal Registration
4. Use and Bona Fide Intent to Use
5. Corrections to a Federal Application/Registration
6. Coping with Initial Refusals
7. Continued Consistent Use
8. Abandonment
9. Proper Use of a Trademark
10. Policing for Infringement/Enforcement

I hope you can join us.  If you are interested in joining us, please register through Thomson Reuters’ official site:   

Common Questions: So You’re Starting a New Business, How Do You Protect your Brand?

In addition to the other concerns you may have about starting a new business, you will also be deciding how to brand your new products or services. Perhaps you’ve had a team of people working on identifying a good brand name – perhaps you’re working on it yourself. Either way, you want to make sure that no one else adopts the same (or substantially similar name) and competes with you. How do you do this?

Choosing a Name

From the perspective of telling the public what you do in as few words as possible, perhaps you’ve picked a very descriptive name – such as Women’s Clothing, Inc. (if you sell women’s clothing), on the theory that people will come to you for your products if they can see automatically what you sell. However, from the perspective of developing a unique brand name that your customers and competitors will come to associate with only your products or services, you really should create a name that does not describe or suggest what products/services you provide , or serve as a generic term for them. Good examples of strong marks are Kodak for photo paper or Google for Internet searching services.

In the trademark world, if you’ve made up the name completely from scratch, and there’s no descriptive quality to the name, you can develop a very strong brand which will allow customers to think of you automatically when seeing your mark. You are also more likely to be able to achieve federal trademark registration and to keep others from trying to trade on the good will you develop if they use a name that is confusingly similar to yours.

Protecting Your Mark

Protecting your valuable trademark requires a multi-pronged approach. Under current trademark law, you obtain trademark rights under “common law” the moment you begin using the mark in commerce in connection with certain goods or services. There are benefits to federally registering your trademark (such as the availability of treble damages for willful infringement of a registered mark, ability to obtain “incontestable” status after five years, etc.), so consider whether applying for registration makes sense for you.

There are also things you should do to police your mark: for instance, you should research what new products or services your competitors are delivering, and what new brand names they may use. You should periodically search both the Internet and any relevant trade periodicals that are important in your industry to ensure that no one else is using marks that are similar to yours for similar products or services. You should also periodically search the USPTO database to ensure that no competing applications are filed covering similar marks or goods/services. You can engage a commercial search service (such as Thompson Compumark or CT Corsearch among others) to watch for new applications for a fee.

A recent study by the Secretary of Commerce confirms that trademark owners are obligated to police their markets to ensure that infringement does not occur, but the report also suggests that any single enforcement tool may not be enough on its own. Similarly, recent cases suggest that you cannot delegate this burden entirely to a third party, but instead must rely on a variety of enforcement tools. Tiffany v. eBay, Civ. A. No. 08-3947, 600 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. April 1, 2010) (rejected on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court (see also this explanation)). In that case, Tiffany tried to hold eBay liable for accepting listings of counterfeit products that appeared to be Tiffany knockoffs. This case has been read to require that eBay would be obligated to take down any listings that were demonstrably counterfeit and about which the rights holder complained. And, while it had every incentive to remove counterfeit products it learned about, it was not responsible for pro-actively policing new listings to ensure that no further knockoffs were listed. This, instead, is the burden of the trademark owner.

Where to Go for Further Information

The US Patent and Trademark Office has some good resources to get you started in determining what creation and enforcement options may be right for you. You can also contact a trademark attorney for advice. Several bar associations for trademark attorneys are the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Law Section, International Trademark Association, Intellectual Property Owner’s Association and the American Intellectual Property Law Association. Each of these organizations provides information relating to trademark law that may be of interest to you.