Category Archives: Common Law Marks

Common Questions – What’s Involved in Registering a US Trademark?

So, you’ve decided to launch a brand name in the U.S. and are contemplating registering it in the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“PTO“). What can you expect? Not every application is the same, so there will be variations in exactly what happens in the prosecution of your application, but hopefully this will serve as a “Trademark 101 Primer” to describe the basic process overall.  (Note – this post is for general information purposes only and does not provide any specific legal advice.  Contact your trademark attorney to discuss any areas of specific concern.)

BASICS

What is a Trademark? It’s a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. A service mark performs the same function as a trademark, but applies to the source of a service rather than of a product. (For simplicity, this post refers to trademarks and service marks collectively as “trademarks.”)

How Valuable is a Good Trademark? The value of a good trademark lies in its ability to convey to the public the source of a particular good or service. The key is to develop a mark unique enough that customers associate it with your goods or services – and only your goods and services. While temptingly simple, choosing a mark that describes your goods and services will not create any trademark value. Customers won’t know to distinguish your goods from others in the same market.

Can  Rights Develop Based on Use? Federal registration is not a requirement to protect trademarks in the U.S. – instead, rights in a particular trademark can be established simply based on use in connection with particular goods or services in the marketplace (aka “common law trademark rights”). Nevertheless, federal registration offers more comprehensive protection than reliance upon common law rights, including providing nationwide notice of the owner’s claim to the mark.

TRADEMARK APPLICATION PROCESS
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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.

Proposed Legislation to Address Perceived Misidentification of Geographic Source of Goods

On July 31, 2009, Representative Daniel B. Maffei (D-NY) introduced H.R. 3499, to be called the “Trademark Protection Act” in the House of Representatives. The Bill purports to assess civil liability for unfair competition in the form of misleading the public as to the geographic source of a particular product. This provision would amend Section 1125(a)(1), which prohibits “False designations of origin, false descriptions and dilution” in the use of trademarks in commerce in the U.S. 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(1).

Apparent Objection to Relocating Manufacturing to China

Among the findings Rep. Maffei proposes, he explains why he introduced the Bill: “Syracuse China was an upstate New York manufacturer in the city of Syracuse. The company was founded in 1871 as the Onondaga Pottery Co. and was one of the last major china makers in the U.S. On April 9, 2009, after more than 130 years in business, Libbey Inc. (of Toledo, Ohio) halted production in Syracuse, eliminating 275 local jobs. Libbey plans to continue selling dinnerware under the name ‘Syracuse China’ even after they stop production at the New York-based plant, but the company will manufacture the product in other countries and import them into the U.S.” H.R. 3499 § 2 (3).

It appears that the Syracuse China Company (which appears to be a different legal entity than the one identified in Rep. Maffei’s Bill) owns a valid registration in the word SYRACUSE, standing alone, which is registered in connection with “China tableware and ornamental chinaware” (Reg. No. 104,744, registered in 1915, alleging a date of first use in 1897). The registration was renewed in 2005, and could be asserted against a different company seeking to confuse consumers about the source of the goods sold in connection with a confusingly similar mark. (That being said, it’s possible that the Libbey Company referenced in the Bill is somehow affiliated or related to the Syracuse China Company such that litigation would not be considered.)

Indeed, it appears that at one time, predecessors of the Syracuse China Company registered variations of the mark “SYRACUSE CHINA” and then let the registrations lapse. Specifically, the following three registrations are marked “dead” in the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s database – and therefore cannot be asserted in litigation against some one else’s actual use of the mark in commerce:

* SYRACUSE CHINA (& design), Reg. No. 734,163 applied to “dinnerware and tableware made of China” and was registered in 1962 (alleging a date of first use in 1961). The registration was deemed abandoned in 1987 when the registrant failed to renew it.

* SYRACUSE CHINA 1871 (& design), Reg. No. 841,235 applied to “dinnerware and tableware made of China” and was registered in 1967 (alleging a date of first use in 1966). The registration was deemed abandoned in 1989 when the registrant failed to renew it.

* SYRACUSE CHINA CORPORATION (& design), Reg. No. 975,004 applied to “dinnerware and tableware made of China” and was registered in 1973 (alleging a date of first use in 1972). The registration was deemed abandoned in 1994 when the registrant failed to renew it.

Protection of “Weak” Marks

Also interesting about this proposed Bill is the following draft “finding:” “Trademarks that describe some feature or quality of the goods or that are based on someone’s name or a geographic term are considered to be ‘weak’ and thus are not protectable under trademark law. However, once the trademark owner can demonstrate substantial sales, advertising or other public awareness of a weak trademark, the trademark will be considered distinctive and can be registered with the [US Patent & Trademark Office].” H.R. 3499 § 2 (2).

The statement that “weak” marks are not protectable under U.S. trademark law perhaps goes too far, and despite the second sentence of these draft findings, suggests that these marks may never be protectable. Certainly, in any litigation or other dispute involving a “weak” mark, the parties will debate whether the owner of that mark has demonstrated secondary meaning or acquired distinctiveness, such that the consuming public would automatically associate such a “weak” mark used in connection with the relevant goods or services with the owner of the mark – in other words as a “source indicator”. Descriptive marks such as these can acquire distinctiveness and obtain a level of trademark protection that seems to somewhat be undervalued in the draft “findings” in this Bill.

In addition, this Bill appears to focus only on the ability to register a trademark with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Under U.S. law, trademarks can be protected from misappropriation and confusingly similar use by someone else based on the actual use of the earlier mark in commerce. There is no requirement that every trademark be registered before protection from infringement is available. Instead, senior rights may even exist for unregistered marks in certain circumstances. Notably, the Bill contemplates amending the civil liability provisions relating to marks that are either registered or unregistered – including those known as “common law marks”.

There are definitely benefits to filing an application for trademark registration – including the presumption that the registrant can expand the use of its mark nationwide on the goods or services described in the registration. Even the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office will only register a mark if there has been bona fide use in U.S. commerce, as demonstrated by evidence submitted by the applicant through the application process. See Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (“TMEP”) § 901.01 (quoting statutory language: “The term ‘use in commerce’ means the bona fide use of a mark in the ordinary course of trade, and not made merely to reserve a right in a mark.”).

In addition, even after registration, if a registrant stops using the mark in U.S. commerce, the registration can be cancelled or narrowed to only those goods or services on which the mark continues to be in active use. See TMEP § 1604.10 (explaining requirements to maintain a registration, which will be cancelled if continued use cannot be demonstrated).

Conclusions

Upon introduction, the Bill was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. At present, no hearings are scheduled for the Bill. It is unclear whether there will be any further action taken on the Bill.

It also appears that this issue of misidentification of geographic source of origin might not be a pivotal issue for Rep. Maffei. Press releases relating to the various legislative initiatives that he has sponsored or speeches that he has delivered are available on his web site, but none of them relate to this Bill (at least, none had been posted at the time that this blog entry was prepared). Instead, the only relevant reference appears to be Rep. Maffei’s June 23rd announcement that the Syracuse China Company was eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance.

Current status of the Bill can be found through the legislature’s search service, Thomas.gov.