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.