Category Archives: Likelihood of Confusion

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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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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Yankees Successfully Oppose Registration of “BASEBALLS EVIL EMPIRE” Trademark

On February 8, 2013, the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (“TTAB”) sustained the opposition filed by the New York Yankees Partnership (“Yankees”) against the registration of “BASEBALLS EVIL EMPIRE” filed by Evil Enterprises, Inc., on likelihood of confusion grounds and on the ground that the mark falsely suggests a connection with the Yankees baseball team.  New York Yankees Partnership v. Evil Enterprises, Inc., Opp. No. 91192764 at 25 (TTAB Feb. 8, 2013) (non-precedential).  The Yankees did not succeed on its claim that the mark would be disparaging.  Id.

Evil Enterprises (the “Applicant”) filed its application for registration of the mark BASEBALLS EVIL EMPIRE in connection with clothing (Class 25) on July 7, 2008, alleging a future intent to use the mark in commerce.  On its website, Applicant indicated that the goods would be directed to consumers who were looking for Yankees-related merchandise:  “If you are passionate about the New York Yankees then you have come to the right place.”  Id. at 5.

Record evidence also indicated that the Yankees had come to be known as the “evil empire” over the years, and even played the “ominous music from the soundtrack of the STAR WARS movies at baseball games.”  Id. at 5, 12.  Since being coined by a rival baseball club to refer to the Yankees, the “term EVIL EMPIRE has . . . been taken up by the media, Yankees’ fans, and detractors as a reference to the Yankees.” Id. at 5.

It was because of this implicit adoption of the phrase by the Yankees that the portion of its opposition alleging disparagement was denied.  Id. at 25.

In connection with the claims of likelihood of confusion under § 2(d) and false suggestion of a connection between the applicant’s goods and the Yankees under § 2(a), however, the Yankees’ opposition succeeded.

Likelihood of Confusion (§ 2(d))

In its opposition, the Yankees alleged that the applicant’s mark so resembled the mark “EVIL EMPIRE which has come to be associated with opposer [the Yankees] as to be likely to cause confusion.”  Id. at 8.  The court based its analysis on the du Pont factors, noting that not all of them would be relevant in every case, “and only factors of significance to the particular mark need be considered.”  Id. (citing In re E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 476 F.2d 1357 (C.C.P.A. 1973).

The Yankees, as the Opposer, bore the burden to introduce sufficient facts to allow the fact finder to conclude that confusion, mistake or deception was likely.  Id.at 9 (citations omitted).  Notably, however, the Yankees were not required to actually use the mark in commerce in order to establish their rights to the mark.  All that was required was that the public associate that mark with their goods and services.  Id.  “[T]he public’s adoption of [the mark] to refer to [opposer] is enough to establish trade name and service mark use.”  Id. (quoting Martahus v. Video Duplication Servs., Inc., 3 F.3d 417, 27 U.S.P.Q.2d 1846, 1845 n.9 (Fed. Cir. 1993)).

In support of their position, the Yankees introduced hundreds of news articles, stories and blog entries, as well as admissions by applicant showing that the phase “Evil Empire” had come to be known by the public to refer to the Yankees Ball Club.  Id.at 11.  Applicant even included the following sales pitch on its web site:  “Baseballs Evil Empire takes pride in our merchandise and our great task of alerting all baseball fans and the like to send the message out loud that the Yankees are Baseballs Evil Empire.”  Id. at 12.

The court went on to analyze whether the mark had become famous, the level of similarity between the goods, channels of trade and classes of consumers, as well as that of the marks themselves as to “appearance, sound, connotation and commercial impression” and the remaining duPont factors.  Id. at 17.

Notwithstanding the many duPont factors weighing heavily against its position, the applicant also argued that its use of the mark was a “spoof and parody of the New York Yankees baseball club, and thus no likelihood of confusion can be established . .  .,” an argument that the court rejected when it held that “[p]arody . . . is not a defense to opposition if the marks are otherwise confusingly similar, as they are here.”  Id. at 20 (citations omitted).  The court found that a likelihood of confusion had been shown.

False Association (§ 2(a))

To establish a claim of falsely suggesting a connection between the mark and the opposer, the opposer must prove “(1) that the applicant’s mark is the same or a close approximation of opposer’s previously used name or identity; (2) that applicant’s mark would be recognized as such by purchasers, in that the mark points uniquely and unmistakably to opposer; (3) that opposer is not connected with the goods that are sold or will be sold by applicant under its mark; and (4) that opposer’s name or identity is of sufficient fame or reputation that when applicant’s mark is used on its goods, a connection with opposer would be presumed.”  Id. at 20-21 (citations omitted).  Considering all of the evidence previously discussed in the opinion, the court concluded that the Yankees demonstrated that the mark falsely suggests a connection with the Yankees.

Summary

As mentioned above, the court concluded that there was a likelihood of confusion, that the mark falsely suggested a connection with the Yankees, and that the disparagement claim could not stand.  As a result, the court sustained the opposition on two of the three grounds, and registration was refused.

For more information about this decision, the following links may be of interest:


John L. Welch, “Yankees Win!  TTAB Sustains Opposition to BASEBALLS EVIL EMPIRE on Confusion and False Association Grounds,” TTABlog, Feb. 21, 2013.

Joan Schear, “TTAB Rules NY Yankees Baseball’s Only “Evil Empire,”” Boston College Legal Eagle Blog, Mar. 22, 2013.