Both can serve as examples of trademark use in connection with membership in an organization. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported on enforcement actions by the New Hampshire Board of Barbering, Cosmetology & Esthetics to fine the unauthorized use of a barber pole by a hair salon that did not have any barbers on staff. Jennifer Levitz, “Barber Poles Have Their Own Police Force, With Badges and Everything,” Wall Street Journal (May 2, 2017) (subscription may be required). The article also reported on the enforcement actions by the Arizona State Board of Barbers carried out by their state inspectors against salons for unlawful displays of barber poles or its likeness, without a licensed barber on duty (a violation of the Arizona Administrative Code). Id.
On January 25, 2017, the USPTO released its Draft Examination Guide on “Incapable Informational Matter” (“Draft Guide”) for public comment. As it has with several prior requests for comment about draft examination guides, the USPTO has requested interested parties to submit their comments electronically through the USPTO’s Idea Scale “Trademark Policy Collaboration Site.” Initially, the USPTO requested that comments be submitted no later than February 13, 2017 (Trademark Alert 1/25/17), but has since extend the deadline until March 15, 2017. (Trademark Alert 2/7/17). To date, no comments have been posted about the guide.
In its January 25 Alert, the USPTO explained the purpose of the Draft Guide:
“The types of wording held as merely informational by case law is growing. Marks that include such wording must be refused because they do not identify the source of the goods or services. Each section of this guide discusses a common category of informational matter and covers case law, analysis, and possible response options. This guidance is intended to promote consistency by clarifying examination policies and procedures.”
See Alert; see also February 13 Alert (same message with minor editorial changes). More particularly, the Draft Guide focuses primarily on refusals to register marks that fail to function as source indicators (in other words, instances where marks, or portions of marks, “fail[ ] to distinguish the applicant’s goods/services from those of others or to identify a single source” and which are thus not qualified to be registered as trademarks because they “fail to function as a mark.” Draft Guide at 1.
EXAMPLES OF MATTER THAT FAILS TO FUNCTION AS A MARK
The Draft Guide focused on three main categories of “informational matter” that are incapable of functioning as a trademark and thus is not registrable: matter that is 1) “used in a manner merely to convey information about the goods/services;” 2) a widely-used message; and 3) a “direct quotation, passage and/or citation from a religious text.” Highlights in each category will be addressed below.
This is actually a trick question – the answer is, “not much”. Generally, trademarks refer to source-identifying marks used in connection with goods (products) and service marks are used for the same purpose, but in connection with services. The associated rights – to be able to preclude others from using a confusingly similar mark in connection with similar goods or services – are the same.
But one important way in which they are different is the way in which an applicant for registration of a mark with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“PTO”) demonstrates that it is using the mark in commerce. Whether an applicant applies for registration of a mark based on actual use in commerce (§ 1(a)) or based upon a bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce (“ITU” – § 1(b)), each applicant must at some point during the prosecution of its application submit an example (“Specimen”) of how the mark is used in commerce in connection with the specific goods or services. (For more about the trademark application process, see Common Questions: What’s Involved in Registering a U.S. Trademark.)
Acceptable Specimens for Trademarks
Simply put, if an applicant seeks to demonstrate use of its mark in connection with goods, it must show the mark as used in the process of selling or offering to sell those goods to the purchasing public. Examples of such use include:
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.)
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
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: