Fraud on the PTO – A Trademark Perspective

Last Friday (April 9), during the American Bar Association Intellectual Property Law Section conference, I delivered a presentation on Trademark Prosecution Ethics, and in particular, the history and current status of the fraud in the procurement theory used to cancel registrations (or oppose applications) when material misrepresentations have been made to the Patent & Trademark Office during the application or renewal process.

I plan to upload both my article and my PowerPoint presentation to my firm’s web site as quickly as feasible, and you are welcome to review them there. In sum, however, my conclusions were as follows:

“While the test for determining that an applicant’s or registrant’s conduct in filing an application or maintaining trademark registrations was fraudulent has become more stringent, applicants, registrants and their counsel still face some pitfalls in the process. Indeed, although certain amendments of an inaccurate filing may be accepted (provided that no challenge to the validity of the application or registration has yet been filed), it is clear that both the TTAB and the Federal Circuit discourage carelessness in preparing these filings.

Accordingly, applicants and registrants are strongly encouraged to do at least the following to avoid increasing the risk of claims or counterclaims of fraud on the USPTO, and thus, loss of a pending application or a particular registration:

  • Conduct appropriate due diligence to ensure that the marks sought to be registered (or renewed) qualify as “in use” or validly subject to the “intent to use” process;
  • Ensure that the intended signatory for the declaration has the appropriate level of personal knowledge to support the allegations of use or intent to use, exclusive right to use the mark and other averments of fact;
  • Ensure that any licensees upon whose use the applicant/registrant will rely to maintain the registration properly use the mark in commerce and provide sufficient evidence to the applicant/registrant to support the maintenance filing; and
  • Undertake proper due diligence before filing an Opposition or Cancellation proceeding to ensure that the trademark or service mark forming the basis of a challenge to another application or registration does not have any exposure to a counterclaim for fraud on the USPTO and thus at risk for cancellation during the pendency of the proceeding.

Note that undertaking these preparations cannot completely moot claims of fraud on the USPTO, but they lend support and reasonableness to a potential response that no “intent to deceive” can be demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence. Finally, this entire line of cases confirms that the USPTO, TTAB and Federal Circuit Court of Appeals have strong interests in ensuring that the trademark Register be kept current and accurate, and demonstrates a disfavor of carelessly filed and unreliable factual statements about the use or non-use of trademarks and services marks in active use in U.S. commerce.

I welcome your comments.

UPDATE on 4/20/10: The slides from the presentation can be found on the ABA’s IPL Section site.

UPDATE on 5/7/10: The published article and the accompanying slides are now available on my firm’s web site. The direct links are here: “Ethics in Trademark Application Prosecution: Alleging ‘Fraud in the PTO’ After In re Bose,” ABA Intellectual Property Law Section 25th Annual Conference (April 9, 2010)(with presentation slides).

SDNY Orders TAVERN ON THE GREEN Service Mark Cancelled for Fraud

In a recent decision, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment, thus cancelling the City’s former licensee’s service mark registration for the mark TAVERN ON THE GREEN in connection with restaurant services on the ground that the registration was fraudulently procured. City of New York v. Tavern on the Green, L.P. et al., Nos. 09 Civ. 9224, 09 Civ. 9254, slip op. at 3 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 10, 2010) (ECF Document No. 40). Access to a valid PACER account may be required to access the court filings cited in this blog entry. Alternatively, see Justia’s docket report – sometimes they make public filings available on their site.

Case Background

In 1934, the City of New York opened a restaurant in Central Park called “Tavern on the Green” and hired various vendors over time to run the restaurant pursuant to operating agreements. Id. at 4. The restaurant closed periodically for renovation and “improvements,” and the City paid substantial portions of the renovation costs. Id. For instance, in 1956, the restaurant closed for a $400,000 renovation project, which enabled the restaurant to expand its inside seating capacity from 300 to 720 and for which the City covered approximately 80% of the cost. Id.

In 1973, the City entered into a license agreement with Warner LeRoy (and thereafter Tavern on the Green, L.P. to whom LeRoy’s interest in the agreement was transferred) to operate “Tavern on the Green” as a restaurant and cabaret. Id. at 5. Several key terms in this first license agreement between these parties were: 1) the licensee’s ability to change the name of the restaurant upon written approval from the City’s representative; 2) the City’s ability to approve (or reject) any manager that the licensee hired to run the restaurant; 3) the requirement that the licensee hire “a sufficient number of trained attendants” (presumably waiters/servers) and 4) the requirement for the attendants to wear “a City-approved uniform.” Id. at 5-6. The parties also agreed that certain renovations were to be completed before the defendant could open the restaurant for business. Id. at 5. The agreement was renewed in 1976 and the restaurant re-opened for business 1978. Id. & n.2.

In 1985, the parties re-negotiated the terms of their agreement to add the following new provisions: 1) that the City could regulate the times and manner of operation; 2) that the City could inspect the facility at any time; 3) that City approval was required for all signs and solicitations for business; and 4) that the food served by LeRoy would be “pure and of good quality.” Id. at 7. Removed from this revised agreement was LeRoy’s ability to change the name of the restaurant, even if he obtained written approval from the City. Id. at 6. After this agreement was executed, the City exercised its rights to govern the hours of operation and the types of events the occurred on the premises several times. Id. at 7.

LeRoy’s Service Mark Application

In 1978, LeRoy filed a trademark application for the mark TAVERN ON THE GREEN in connection with restaurant services on behalf of a joint venture that had been formed to operate the restaurant (“the joint venture”) and claimed a date of first use of August 31, 1976, which corresponded to the date on which the restaurant was re-opened after the 1973 renovations were completed. Id. As part of his application package, he signed a declaration that confirmed that the joint venture had the right to use this mark and “to the best of his knowledge and belief, no other person, firm, corporation or association has the right to use said mark in commerce, either in the identical form or in such near resemblance thereto as to be likely . . . to cause confusion, to cause mistake, or to deceive. . . .” Id. at 8. However, LeRoy did not disclose the 1973 agreement to the USPTO, nor did he inform the City of New York that he had applied for registration of this mark. Id. The application was ultimately approved and registered in 1981 (Reg. No. 1,154,270) without a single opposition. Id.

In 1986, the joint venture filed a Section 15 affidavit, claiming incontestability of the mark based on continued use throughout the preceding five years. The USPTO acknowledged that the affidavit had been filed, and the record was updated to reflect the joint venture’s claim of incontestability pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1065. (Once a registrant can demonstrate incontestability of its mark, third parties will be limited in the grounds that they can allege in a petition to cancel the registration.) The City apparently did not become aware of the registration until 2006, and immediately thereafter requested that LeRoy and the joint venture assign all rights in the mark to the City. Id. at 8. LeRoy declined.

In 2007, the joint venture filed a second application for registration of the mark TAVERN ON THE GREEN in connection with “cooking oils, salad dressings and dipping oils.” Although the City requested two extensions of time to oppose this application, registration ultimately issued in September 2008 unopposed (Reg. No. 3,494,658).

The Dispute at Bar

Neither LeRoy nor his estate is individually named as a defendant in this case, but both of his companies are. (Mr. LeRoy apparently passed away in 2001, but his rights in the mark passed to the companies.) The companies (collectively referred to as “Debtors”) sought protection of the bankruptcy court under Section 11 in September 2009, and thereafter initiated an adversary proceeding to obtain a declaration of their exclusive right to use the mark for restaurant services, and to prevent the City from using the name for itself. Id. at 10. In November 2009, the City filed a motion to withdraw the bankruptcy reference, which motion the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted on December 3, 2009. (ECF Document No. 9).

Both parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The Debtors sought a declaration that they had the exclusive right to use the mark in connection with restaurant services, and an injunction against the City’s continued use of the mark in commerce. City of New York v. Tavern on the Green, L.P. et al., Nos. 09 Civ. 9224, 09 Civ. 9254, slip op. at 3 (ECF Document No. 40). For its part, the City’s motion for summary judgment sought: 1) a declaration of its prior rights in the mark under New York state law; 2) cancellation of Debtors’ registration based on a “fraud in the procurement” theory; and 3) cancellation of the Debtors’ registration for use of the mark in connection with the various oils. Id.

Cancellation of LeRoy’s Registration in TAVERN ON THE GREEN (Restaurant Services)

Ultimately, the Court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the TAVERN ON THE GREEN registration in connection with restaurant services, and ordered that the registration be cancelled based on LeRoy’s commission of fraud in procuring the registration without disclosing the City’s prior rights or the limitations on LeRoy’s own rights as a result of the license agreement. As to the second registration, in connection with various oils, the Court concluded that evidence was not presented sufficient to justify cancellation of this registration, and determined that the motion for summary judgment on this point was “premature.”

In reaching its decision, the Court evaluated the City’s claim of a prior right to the mark TAVERN ON THE GREEN in connection with restaurant services based on New York common law of unfair competition. It explained that “in order to establish a protectable right to a trade name under New York law, the City must proffer undisputed facts that show that the defendants are unfairly attempting to exploit the efforts of another to create goodwill in that trade name.” Id. at 11. The Court concluded that the City indeed had prior rights – predating those of the registrant by 35 years – such that the mark, “‘Tavern on the Green’ was closely associated in the public mind with a building owned by the City and located in New York’s Central Park.” Id. at 13, 14.

The Debtors argued that the repeated closures of the facility for renovation and improvement – particularly the closure in 1973 that coincided with the awarding of the concession lease to LeRoy – constituted a break in the City’s use of the mark, such that it should not be able to claim continuous use since 1934. Id. at 15. The Court disagreed, noting that “[r]enovations usually signify an intention to continue operations, which the 1973 Agreement makes clear by contemplating renovations in the transition from the prior licensee to the Debtors.” Id. Thus, the Debtor’s claim to “incontestibilty” as a result of its 1985 filing with the USPTO was not valid as against the City – because of the City’s prior rights. Id. at 16.

The Court also considered the City’s claim that LeRoy had procured the registration fraudulently when he applied in 1978 for registration of the service mark. After finding that the failure to disclose the license agreement demonstrating that LeRoy’s rights in the mark were limited was a material fact, the Court concluded that “the deliberate omission in a trademark application of information regarding another’s right to use the mark applied for is a material omission justifying cancellation of the mark.” Important to the Court’s consideration was its expectation that trademark applicants owed “uncompromising candor” to the USTPO when they file their applications. Id.

Court’s Dismissal of Debtor’s Laches Defense

In addition to denying the City’s claim for prior rights in the trademark, the Debtors raised a defense of laches, claiming that the City had waited too long to file its claim for cancellation. In dismissing the Debtor’s argument rather summarily, the Court confirmed that the Lanham Act clearly provided for cancellation at any time when the claimant can demonstrate fraudulent procurement. Id. at 20; see 15 U.S.C. § 1064.

Impact on Other Decisions

This opinion serves as a reminder that the declarations required to be signed in connection with trademark applications need to be reviewed carefully before applicants sign them. Not only must an applicant confirm that the descriptions of goods or services associated with the application are accurate (see Medinol and Bose lines of cases, covered in prior blog entries here), but also must confirm that no one else has the right to use the mark in connection with the goods or services identified in the application. Failure to read carefully and affirm the accuracy of the statements made in the application can result in a loss of registration or in a determination that another entity has more senior rights that may override any investment (no matter how significant) the applicant has made in the mark.

USPTO Trademark Public Advisory Committee Meeting Tomorrow

On November 20, 2009, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s Trademark Public Advisory Committee will be holding a public meeting to discuss, among other things, the impact that the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in the In re Bose Corp. case will have on the USPTO’s “Trademark Operation.” (More information on the In re Bose Corp. case and some of its predecessors in the Medinol line of cases can be found in my prior blog entries.)

The meeting will be webcast, and runs from 9:00am – 12:00pm Eastern Time. You can also dial in by phone to hear the audio only, if you prefer. (Instructions for participating and the proposed agenda can be found here.)

Based on the published agenda, the segments relevant to the In re Bose opinion will likely be the following:

* 10:15 a.m. (20 minutes) – Discussion with TTAB Judge Gerard Rogers regarding TTAB matters, including “What steps has the TTAB taken, and what steps (if any) does it plan to take, in the wake of the Federal Circuit decision in In re Bose Corp.”

* 10:35 a.m. (60 minutes) – Discussion with Trademarks Commissioner Lynne Beresford about “what steps the Trademark Operation should take, if any, in the wake of the [In re Bose Corp. decision] to minimize the amount of ‘deadwood’ on the trademark registers.” Some of the suggested subtopics in this category are:

“* Should any special action be taken regarding applications claiming a large
number of goods/services?
* Should proof of mark usage be required on each
item of goods/services?
* Should there be a procedure by which a third party
can require an interim proof of use of a mark by a mark registrant on some or
all goods/services covered in a registration?”

Also of interest in this section is the discussion of a proposal to update TMEP (the USPTO’s Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure) on a continuous basis.

If you cannot participate in the meeting, but are interested in reading about it afterward, the transcript will likely be posted on TPAC’s main page at some point after the meeting concludes. Transcripts from prior meetings can also be found there.

Federal Circuit Clarifies Fraud Standard for Cancelling Trademark Registrations

On August 31, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (“the Board”) 2007 decision cancelling Bose’s federal Trademark Registration for its mark WAVE in connection with “radios, clock radios, audio tape recorders and players, portable radio and cassette recorder combinations, compact stereo systems and portable compact disc players.” See In re Bose Corporation, Appeal No. 2008-1448, slip op. (Fed. Cir. Aug. 31, 2009). More importantly, however, the Court removed the threat of cancellation of a registered trademark if a registrant mistakenly included goods or services in its application (or requests for renewal) on which the mark was never used, or which the registrant had stopped using. The key to this analysis was the Court’s return to the “knowing” requirement in fraud pleadings, instead of the current “knowing or should have known” standard.

In the underlying case, the Board found that Bose had submitted a false sworn affidavit of continued use in support of the renewal of its Registration. Having found falsity, the Board further held that cancellation of this registration was appropriate because Bose “should have known” that the affidavit was false with respect to “audio tape recorders and players,” and was thereby attempting to defraud the Trademark Office by submitting it. (The Board recognized that the mark continued to be used in connection with the remaining goods covered by the Registration and only focused on the affidavit with respect to these few goods.) See Bose Corp. v. Hexawave, Inc., Opposition No. 91/157,315, 88 USPQ2d 1332 (TTAB Nov. 6, 2007). More information about the underlying case and the Medinol line of cases can be found at these prior posts.

In reversing the Board’s decision, the Court held that the Board erred when it relied on a lower standard to prove fraud in obtaining or maintaining a trademark registration as set forth in the Board’s 2003 decision in the Medinol case and when it cancelled the Registration for this mark in its entirety. The Court remanded the case for further proceedings to narrow Bose’s registration to “reflect commercial reality,” presumably to remove the goods on which the mark is no longer used in interstate commerce (specifically “audio tape recorders and players”). Bose, slip op. at 11.

Through this single opinion, the Court has accomplished that which practitioners have sought in various fora since 2003. See Medinol Ltd. v. Neuro Vasx, Inc., Cancellation No. 92040535, 67 USPQ2d 1205 (TTAB May 13, 2003). Specifically, while practitioners may generally agree that the Principal Register (cataloging active trademark registrations) should be culled periodically of those marks that are no longer in use in commerce, it has been argued that cancelling an entire registration – even longstanding and valuable registrations – as punishment for the registrant’s carelessness rather than permitting the registrant to amend the registration to remove outdated items was Draconian. See U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Public Advisory Committee Meeting, Transcript at 137-42 (Feb. 20, 2009) (one panelist suggested that using cancellation for fraud as a punishment for these types of mistakes was akin to imposing the “death penalty” for a traffic violation).

Now, apparently, such amendments may be permitted.

Standard to Find Fraud on the Trademark Office

In order to support the cancellation of a registration based on the claim that the “registration was obtained [or maintained] fraudulently” (15 U.S.C. § 1064(3)), a court must find that the applicant “knowingly [made] false, material misrepresentations of fact in connection with his application.” Bose, slip op. at 3 (quoting Torres v. Cantine Torresella, S.r.l., 808 F.2d 46, 48 (Fed. Cir. 1986)). The Court confirmed that a “heavy burden of proof” is required and that the party seeking cancellation has to prove the allegation of fraud “to the hilt” through clear and convincing evidence. Id. (“There is no room for speculation, inference or surmise and, obviously, any doubt must be resolved against the charging party.”).

The Court focused on the Board’s conclusion that Bose “should have known” that its renewal affidavit was false and held that the Board’s prior opinion in the Medinol case changing the standard from “knew” to “should have known” (on which the Board relied in the Bose case) improperly reduced the standard to that of ordinary negligence. Id. at 5-6. In addition, finding that an applicant’s conduct constituted “mere negligence” or even “gross negligence” would be insufficient to meet the proof requirement for fraud. Instead, a subjective “intent to deceive” is an indispensible element of the claim. Id. at 6-8.

In sum, “a trademark is obtained fraudulently under the Lanham Act only if the applicant or registrant knowingly makes a false, material representation with the intent to deceive the PTO.” Id. at 7 (emphasis added). Fraud does not exist when false statements are “occasioned by an honest misunderstanding or inadvertence without a willful intent to deceive.” Id. at 10 (citations omitted).

Applying the Proper Standard to the Bose Registration

Applying the rule to the case at bar, the Court determined that this “intent to deceive” was absent and credited the testimony of Bose’s general counsel that he believed that repairing previously-sold tape players and shipping them back to consumers constituted “use in commerce” sufficient to support the renewal when he signed the affidavit in 2001. Id. at 9. While the Court declined to reach the issue of whether this belief was “reasonable,” the Court noted that no prior decision had been issued that found the repair/return activity to be insufficient to prove use of the mark in commerce. Id. at 9 n.2. As a result, Bose’s general counsel had not ignored prior legal precedent in submitting his affidavit.

Applying the Proper Standard to Prior “Fraud on the PTO” Cases

Not only did the Court confirm that a “knowing” misrepresentation and intent to deceive are required to support a fraud allegation, but it also clarified that “honest misunderstandings” or “inadvertence” in sworn statements made in connection with trademark applications or renewals do not constitute fraud in the absence of proof of a willful intent to deceive the Trademark Office.

This clarification is significant, particularly in light of the many decisions by the Board to cancel a registration or affirm the refusal of registration in reliance on the “should have known” standard articulated in its opinion in Medinol. One could argue that the Federal Circuit’s opinion in Bose effectively overturns many of these decisions.

Certainly, applicants could rely on the Bose opinion to seek to amend their registrations to reflect commercial reality where they can demonstrate that mistakes in their sworn statements about whether a mark is or continues to be used in commerce were inadvertent or the result of honest misunderstandings, a result which Medinol would have precluded.

AIPLA Reports on the May 6, 2009 Federal Circuit Oral Argument on the Bose v Hexawave Case

In today’s issue of AIPLA Reports, the AIPLA (American Intellectual Property Law Association) summarized very cogently an oral argument on May 6, 2009 before the Federal Circuit in the Bose Corp. v. Hexawave, Inc. case. Opposition No. 91157315 (filed July 17, 2003). The AIPLA had submitted an amicus brief in the case and partipated in the oral argument.

The AIPLA’s summary also includes a link to the MP3 file of the audio recording of the oral argument. Based on this summary, it sounds as if the Federal Circuit might consider overturning the TTAB’s opinion in the underlying case, in which the TTAB held that Bose’s reliance on its repair services to demonstrate a continued “use in commerce” in support of its Section 8 and 9 declarations (for renewal of the registration) was unreasonable. Opinion at 14-17. The TTAB found fraud in the filing of the renewal declaration, granted the counterclaim to cancel Bose’s Registration No. 1633789 and ordered that the cancellation occur in “due course.” The appeal to the Federal Circuit followed, on June 11, 2008.

It remains to be seen how the Federal Circuit will actually rule, but this promises to be a pivotal decision in the Fraud on the PTO jurisprudence, which perhaps will provide more guidance to practitioners and their clients in determining what goods and services should be included in the applications and/or renewal declarations.