Wednesday, November 01, 2006

October TM Case Roundup

There have been a number of circuit court decisions involving trademark law in the past month, but I haven’t been as current as I should have been in reporting them. So here are the thumbnail sketches on the October roundup:

Federal Circuit Nixes Trademark Damages in Patent Case as “Impermissible Double Recovery” – In Aero Products Int’l, Inc. v. Intex Recreation Corp., No. 05-1283 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 2, 2006), the Federal Circuit used Federal Circuit law, not regional circuit law, in determining that, where “damages flow from the same operative facts,” a recovery for trademark infringement as well as for patent infringement is an impermissible double recovery. In that case, the court held that the operative facts were “sales of the infringing mattresses.” To me, this seems like a really broad-brush holding. What about the value added to the sales of the infringing mattresses by using a confusingly similar mark? What about damage to the company’s goodwill? What about damages for possible remedial advertising? And who knows what other potential types of damage can crop up despite the fact that the “operative facts” of the case revolve around “sales of infringing _______.” Once again, the Federal Circuit issues a shaky decision on trademark law.

Ninth Circuit Decides Case Involving Priority & “Tacking” Issues; Court Also Holds that the “Innocent Prior User” Defense of 15 U.S.C. § 1115(b)(5) Does NOT Require that the Junior Use be in a Geographically Remote Area – In Quicksilver, Inc. v. Kymsta Corp., No. 04-55529 (9th Cir. Oct. 6, 2006), the priority/tacking issue was very fact-specific and therefore had no earth-shattering legal pronouncements. In holding that the defendant innocently adopted and used its allegedly infringing mark before the plaintiff registered its mark, the Ninth Circuit held that § 1115(b)(5) doesn’t have the same “geographic remoteness” element that the common law has. There’s apparently a split in the circuits on this, the 9th and the 4th Circuits say no remoteness required; the 6th has required geographic remoteness, and Professor McCarthy agrees.

Ninth Circuit Holds that “Progressive Encroachment” Does Not Preclude a Laches Defense Where the Defendant Did Not Change the Mark to be More Similar and Where the Defendant’s Increased or New Sales Simply Represented “Normal Business Growth” – In Tillamook Country Smoker, Inc. v. Tillamook County Creamery Ass’n, No. 04-35843 (9th Cir. Oct. 11, 2006), the Ninth Circuit faced a pretty egregious case of laches and estoppel. The plaintiff tried to wriggle out of it by pointing to “progressive encroachment” doctrine. Under this principle, laches can be excused if the defendant changes its business significantly so as to make the likelihood of confusion much greater. This typically is shown by pointing to changes in a mark to make it more similar, or changes in products or retail outlets that bring the defendant closer to what the plaintiff does. In this case, the 9th Circuit held that where a defendant’s changes are simply natural business growth, progressive encroachment doesn’t apply, and a lazy plaintiff is out of luck.

Federal Circuit Decides that the Name Given to a Seed Varietal in a PVP Certificate Can’t Later be Registered as a Trademark Because, by Definition, It’s Generic – The court suggested that a way around this is to have two names for it: one generic and one the brand name. See In re Pennington Seed, Inc., No. 06-1133 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 19, 2006).

Sixth Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment that Hummer Grille Design and Overall Appearance Is Protectible and Infringed – In General Motors Corp. v. Lanard Toys, Inc., No 05-2085 (6th Cir. Oct. 25, 2006), the GM sued a toy maker over a toy car that looked like a HUMMER, alleging that it infringed its registered grill design trademark and the overall (unregistered) trade dress of its HUMMER vehicle. The Sixth Circuit had not trouble upholding summary judgment that the grill design mark was infringed. The trade dress issue presented more problems, but the Court ultimately upheld summary judgment that the trade dress was non-functional, had secondary meaning, and was infringed. In its analysis, there were two noteworthy points. First, the 6th Circuit held that GM adequately described the trade dress when it described the trade dress it sought to protect as “the exterior appearance and styling of the vehicle design which includes the grille, slanted and raised hood, split windshield, rectangular doors, squared edges, etc.” Second, the 6th Circuit refused to preclude two secondary meaning surveys that were conducted several years after infringement began. While not questioning that secondary meaning is to be judged at the time infringement begins, the 6th Circuit nevertheless refused to issue a blanket rule that post-infringement surveys are irrelevant. It noted that it didn’t want to issue a rule that would have the effect of excluding such a potentially probative tool in the vast majority of cases, and said that district courts could assess whether to reduce the probative value to give a post-infringement secondary meaning survey by considering the amount of time between the infringement start date and the date of the survey.

Seventh Circuit Chastises Parties and District Court for Treating a Trademark Settlement Agreement as Though It Were a Consent Judgment – This decision shows what trouble, confusion, and expense can occur when the parties don’t follow rule 65(d) to the letter. If parties to a trademark suit (or any other kind of suit) want their settlement to be enforceable as a court order (i.e., as a consent judgment rather than as a private settlement agreement) Rule 65(d) requires that the judgment itself be specific and that its directives not refer to or incorporate terms from other documents. In Blue Cross and Blue Shield Ass’n v. American Express Co., No. 05-4004 (7th Cir.Oct. 30, 2006), the district court and the parties thought American Express’s agreement that it wouldn’t use the term BLUE as a trademark was a consent judgment. But it wasn’t. It was a regular settlement agreement. The only order the district court entered was an order dismissing the case and saying that it retained jurisdiction to enforce the agreement. This problem resulted in the appeals court ordering multiple briefs on jurisdiction and, generally, a lot of time and money being needlessly spent. As the court dryly noted about the lawyers’ inattention to this problem: “If these lawyers were physicians, their patients would be dead.” (The specifics of the 7th Circuit’s resolution of whether AmEx complied with the agreement aren’t really significant.)

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