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
On October 8, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA) into law. This law basically prevents the government from accessing private electronic communications or electronic data without a warrant, subpoena or wiretap order, or without consent of the appropriate individual. State Senator Mark Leno explained the impetus for seeking to pass this legislation: “For what logical reason should a handwritten letter stored in a desk drawer enjoy more protection from warrantless government surveillance than an email sent to a colleague or a text message to a loved one?” Kim Zetter, “California Now Has the Nation’s Best Digital Privacy Law,” WIRED Magazine, Oct. 8, 2015.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation summarized, “CalECPA protects Californians by requiring a warrant for digital records including emails and texts, as well as a user’s geographical location.” Dave Maass, “Victory in California! Gov. Brown signs CalECPA, Requiring Police to Get a Warrant Before Accessing Your Data,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, Oct. 8, 2015.
The law focuses on two kinds of data sets: “electronic communication information” and “electronic device information.” 2015 Cal. Stat. Ch.651. Continue reading
In a recent decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a copyright application solely directed to screen shots generated from a software program was insufficient to establish copyright rights in the software as a whole, for purpose of giving the plaintiff a right to sue for infringement of the software. In A Star Group, Inc. v. Manitoba Hydro, the Second Circuit considered whether a plaintiff had jurisdictional standing to file suit for copyright infringement relating to its software – specifically because the plaintiff applied for copyright protection only over screen shots showing various displays that appear when its software was used and not in the software as a whole. (A Star Group, Inc. v. Manitoba Hydro, No. 14-2738-cv (2d Cir. July 27, 2015) affirming No. 13 Civ. 4501, 2014 WL 2933155 (S.D.N.Y. June 30, 2104) – BNA’s cite: 2015 BL 238362.)
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: