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 No. 91192764 at 25 (TTAB Feb. 8, 2013) (non-precedential).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.

Revised TTAB Manual of Procedure is Now Available


The long-awaited revision of the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board’s Manual of Procedure (TBMP) is now available for download from the USPTO as a single document (large) or by individual chapters. The most-recent version prior to this one was May 2004, but the rules substantially changed in 2007, so this is a welcome publication for practitioners. (The USPTO’s summary of the 2007 rule changes remains available on the TTAB site as a quick reference.)

This new version of the TBMP is current through November 15, 2010. The Index of Changes provides a summary of what’s new.

The May 2004 version of the TBMP remains available from the TTAB’s website, but perhaps these links have not yet been updated to reflect the new version and will disappear shortly.

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).

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.