Thursday, January 13, 2005

Plaintiff Gets Injunction Despite Sloppy Trademark Practices

On January 13, the Sixth Circuit affirmed a preliminary injunction prohibiting a defendant's further use of the plaintiff's TUMBLEBUS mark for a preschool gym on wheels. The plaintiff really dodged a bullet, however, that was aimed at the sloppy way she let her customers use her trademark.

In Tumblebus, Inc. v. Cranmer, the plaintiff uses the TUMBLEBUS mark both for sales of reoutfitted school buses and for the operation of several buses in the Louisville area. The buses the plaintiff sold to 3rd parties not only looked like the plaintiff's buses, but she also (1) allowed the buyers to use the TUMBLEBUS mark, (2) gave them training lessons in how to pitch the services, and (3) further entered into informal oral agreements about where these buyers could operate. In other words, the plaintiff's business looked a lot like a haphazard and informal form of franchising . . . but without the oversight and quality control.

This informality resulted in a legal dispute when one of the plaintiff's purchasers began operating in the Louisville area, which the plaintiff considered HER territory. The purchaser later sold to someone else, who continued to operate in Louisville.

Suing the purchaser of the used bus, the plaintiff was still able to win a preliminary injunction and get it affirmed by the 6th Circuit. The courts found that the defendant had failed to create a factual record sufficient to find the mark was, or had become, generic. The court also rejected the argument that the mark was descriptive because it found "preschool gym on wheels" more appropriate as a description and thought that TUMBLEBUS required a bit of imagination.

Finally, the courts also rejected an abandonment-through-naked-licensing argument because the one geographic are where that argument really didn't apply was Louisville -- where the plaintiff herself was the exclusive operator.

The lesson here . . . . well, maybe there is no lesson here, since the plaintiff seems to have gotten away with some pretty loosey-goosey business practices. Next time, however, TUMBLEBUS may not be so lucky.

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