On December 27, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (H.R. 133 – as enrolled) which included the full text of the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020 (“TMA”) as modified from the versions originally introduced on March 11, 2020 as H.R. 6196 and S. 3449. See H.R. 133 at 1019-1029; see also H. Rept. 116-645* at 37-57 (Dec. 14, 2020) (report by House Committee on the Judiciary in support of H.R. 6196).
Purpose of the TMA
At its core, the TMA provides some new tools aimed at “decluttering” the trademark Register of those registrations for which a registered mark was either (1) never used in connection with the recited goods or services, or (2) not used as of an operative date (either the filing date of the application if it was submitted based on existing use in commerce, or the date identified on a Statement of Use/Amendment to Allege Use for an intent-to-use application) – thus suggesting that these registrations should never have been issued. The House Judiciary Committee explained that these new proceedings are intended to “clear registrations from the trademark register for which proper use in commerce was not made.” H. Rept. 116-645* at 37 (Dec. 14, 2020).
Legislative history suggests that this Act was aimed at addressing the “recent rise in fraudulent trademark applications,” particularly those from China, that impede legitimate efforts to launch new marks into the marketplace. Id. at 39. As of September 2018, applications emanating from China had increased by more than 1100% over the prior 6-year period, and investigations revealed that a significant number of these applications “have fraudulent claims of use and/or fake specimens” supporting the registration. Id. Rep. Johnson (one of the co-sponsors of the House Bill) lamented the difficulty small businesses face in obtaining registrations for “strong, commercially viable marks”, especially when “[t]his market-entry problem has been exacerbated by the recent flood of fraudulent trademark registrations from China, many of which rely on doctored photos to demonstrate use of a mark to fraudulently obtain a trademark registration.” One-Page Summary ¶ 3-4. Ideally, these new proceedings will help create a cost-effective mechanism to clear the Register of this narrow set of blocking registrations for which no valid use could be demonstrated.
Provisions of the TMA
Some highlights from the Act (H.R. 133 at 1019-1029):
- Permits flexible response deadlines for certain Office actions issued by examining attorneys during prosecution of trademark applications – such that some responses would be due between 60 days and 6 months, instead of the standard 6 month deadlines. TMA, Sec. 224. More details about these flexible response deadlines and associated fees to request extensions up to the full 6-month period must be established by regulation within the next year.
- Creates two new ex parte proceedings to allow for further examination or cancellation of registrations when the registered marks either have never been used in commerce (expungement), or were not used as of a relevant time period (reexamination). TMA, Sec. 225(a) and (c) (creating processes under Section 16A and 16B).
- Creates an additional ground for cancellation in a proceeding before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board where a mark covered by a registration was never used in connection with some or all of the goods or services covered by the registration. TMA, Sec. 225(b).
- Codifies the rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm, resolving a Circuit split involving the standard for proving entitlement to an injunction for violations of the Lanham Act. TMA, Sec. 226.
- Commissions a study of the effectiveness of this Act – focusing on the time period between 12 months and 30 months after enactment and addressing several targeted areas relating to attempts to reduce inaccurate and false claims of use in commerce of marks registered with the USPTO. TMA, Sec. 227.
- Confirms the USPTO Director’s authority to “reconsider, modify or set aside” a decision of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in interference, opposition, concurrent use or cancellation proceedings in connection with the Principal Register, in connection with ex parte appeals of an examiner’s refusal to register the mark of an application, or the cancellation of registrations on the Supplemental Register. TMA, Sec. 228.
More On Expungements and Reexaminations
Ex Parte Expungement Proceedings
Expungement applies when a registered mark has never been used in commerce in the U.S. in connection with the goods or services covered by the registration. TMA, Sec. 225, Sect. 16A(a). There are some important exceptions for those relatively new registrations that were filed under Section 44(e) (based on a foreign registration) or under Section 66 (requesting an extension of protection from a foreign application filed under the Madrid Protocol) within the statutory period for proving use in the U.S. Id., Sect. 16A(f) (describing showings of excusable non-use).
A petitioner can only seek expungement between the third and tenth years after registration – which takes into account not only the initial three-year period following registration during which Section 44(e) or Section 66 registrations are not subject to cancellation for non-use, but also caps exposure for these ex parte claims to a maximum of ten years following registration. Id., Sect. 16A(i). In essence, expungement proceedings are intended to target those relatively new registrations for which use never occurred, and, theoretically, the registration should never have issued.
(Note that inter partes cancellation proceedings are not estopped by these proceedings; a new grounds for an inter partes proceeding seeking cancellation of registrations for which the registered marks were never used in connection with the recited goods or services was also created by this Act. Id., Sect. 16A(b).)
Ex Parte Reexamination
Reexamination applies when a mark was not in use in U.S. commerce in connection with some or all of the goods or services recited in the challenged registration as of a relevant date. For use-based applications, the “relevant date” is the date of filing of the initial application. For intent-to-use applications, the “relevant date” is the date on which a Statement of Use or Amendment to Allege Use is filed, or when all approved extension to file these have expired. TMA Sec. 225, Sect. 16B(b).
A petitioner can only seek reexamination within the first five years after a registration issues. Id. Sect. 16B(i). This provision aligns with the current time periods under 15 U.S.C. § 1064 for cancellation of a registration on all available grounds, given that some grounds for cancellation are not available after this initial five-year anniversary.
Features Common to These New Ex Parte Proceedings
In both cases, there are certain protections built into the process against misuse of the proceedings by bad actors, such as competitors seeking to tie up a legitimate user by maliciously invoking these proceedings. First, while any third-party can file a petition seeking expungement or reexamination, every petitioner must submit documentary evidence supporting the claim – and the Director has discretion not to institute a proceeding if the Director finds that the evidence is insufficient. The statute requires the Director to promulgate regulations within the next year defining the specific procedures, types of and volume of evidence required to support a prima facie case justifying the institution of proceedings and the requisite filing fees. TMA, Sec. 223 & Sec. 225, 16A(c) & 16B(c).
Registrants have an opportunity to submit counter evidence to prove that their marks are in use in connection with the applicable goods and/or services. Once registrants meet their burden to prove such use, no further ex parte proceedings under this section will be permitted against the same goods and services of this registration and estoppel will apply – regardless of who the petitioner is. TMA Sec. 225, 16A(j) & 16B(j).
The Director also has the discretion (1) to decline to institute proceedings, notwithstanding any evidence submitted by a petitioner, (2) to institute proceedings on the Director’s own initiative based on evidence that he or she discovers independently, and (3) to reconsider, modify or overrule a decision of the TTAB in these cases. This discretion may act as an appropriate check and balance against a potential misuse of these proceedings.
Availability of These Proceedings
Before either of these new proceedings will be available, the USPTO will have to engage in rulemaking within the next year to establish specific evidentiary requirements, procedures to challenge applicable registrations and respond to petitions filed, and the requisite filing fees. As a result, these proceedings are not scheduled to be available to interested parties until December 2021.
Potential Impact of TMA on Trademark Registrants with Legitimate Use in the U.S.
Unfortunately, while the legislative history makes clear that the sponsors intended this Act to target a narrow type of fraudulent activity by foreign actors, as written this Act has a potentially broader impact. Even registrants who can demonstrate legitimate use in the U.S. may also find themselves defending proceedings under this Act.
Accordingly, registrants should be proactive and prepare to defend such challenges by, among other steps:
- Keeping records documenting use in the U.S. of their registered marks in connection with the goods and services recited in the registration, to be produced on demand quickly and without significant operational expenses at the time the challenge is made;
- Carefully identifying the correct “dates of first use” on their applications to avoid exposing the resulting registrations to potential reexamination (and cancellation) if their dates prove to have been (fatally) inaccurate;
- Regularly reviewing their portfolios and confirming that their marks remain in use in the U.S. in connection with all of the goods or services claimed in their registrations – particularly when they are required to submit Declarations of Continued Use during the maintenance periods; and
- Any time there is no use of the registered mark in connection with specific goods or services recited in the registration, making written records of the registrant’s intent to resume use and documenting steps taken to resume use.
In light of COVID-related business interruptions, many trademark owners may have seen related supply chain interruptions that impact whether or not they can distribute goods bearing their relevant marks in the marketplace in order to preserve their trademark rights. In some instances, these kinds of interruptions might qualify for “excusable non-use” that might avoid a cancellation, but a careful evaluation of the registrant’s portfolio or pending maintenance deadlines might be in order to determine whether these exceptions might apply in a particular case.
The purpose of all of these new provisions is to strengthen the Register of marks in the USPTO’s system. It is possible that these new proceedings could be a welcome tool for trademark owners seeking cost-effective ways to clear away marks that managed to reach registration despite the registrant’s failure to properly use the marks in U.S. commerce. In particular, these new ex parte proceedings could help clear some deadwood from the Register, since many registrants would not attempt to defend registration for marks not in use.
The U.S. registration system does not permit registrants to merely reserve rights in marks to be used at a later time in order to prevent others from using them in connection with their own goods or services – but once an application matures to registration, it becomes more difficult (and expensive) to challenge these registrations on an inter partes basis, even if there were proof of fraud. Once the effective date for these new proceedings occurs, and following the implementation of sufficient regulations regarding the process and evidentiary requirements, these tools could prove valuable to U.S. trademark holders as cost-effective ways to clear the way for registration of their own marks.
Other USPTO Programs Designed to Combat Fraudulent Filings
- Mandating that foreign filers must engage U.S. counsel in order to prosecute an application and requiring mandatory electronic filing for all applications and TTAB proceedings – see “USPTO Published New Exam Guide on Mandatory Electronic Filing,” Privacy and IP Law Blog (Feb. 7, 2020) (includes links to the exam guides and proposed/final Mandatory US Counsel and Mandatory Electronic Filing rules).
- Procedures to examine questionable or fraudulent specimens – see “USPTO’s Recently Announced Pilot Program on Fraudulent Specimens,” Privacy and IP Law Blog (June 12, 2018).
- Developing and testing automated systems to check the validity of specimens submitted in connection with applications, called the “Automated Specimen Analysis Project” – see discussion in TPAC’s Annual Report 2020 at 14 (Nov. 3, 2020).
- Heightened verification of declarations and specimens submitted with post-registration renewal applications through a post-registration audit program – see “USPTO Expands Random Audit Program,” Privacy and IP Law Blog (Aug. 11, 2019).
Additional Resources regarding the TMA
* As this article went to publication, the link to House Rept. 116-645 as stored on Congress.gov did not work. However, this link was provided in the listing of actions take in connection with H.R. 6196, a prior version of this bill. It is hoped that the broken link to the official copy will be fixed soon.