Saturday, March 28, 2009

4th Circuit decision invalidating OBX as trademark for bumperstickers

In an interesting decision, OBX-Stock, Inc. v. Bicast, Inc., No. 06-1769 (Feb. 27, 2009), the 4th Circuit held that the term OBX was geographically descriptive of the Outer Banks seashore in North Carolina. The court thus ruled that the plaintiff – who was the acknowledged "inventor" of the term and the first to use it on the now ubiquitous oval bumperstickers (and on other products) – could not stop others from using the term on bumperstickers.

The court based its decision primarily on the fact that, while the term was not necessarily geographically descriptive when it was coined, the plaintiff’s advertising and promotion was designed to, and did, make the term synonymous in the eyes of the public with the Outer Banks itself, and not with a particular source or brand of goods. The court also noted that copycats had gotten out of hand, and the plaintiff's policing efforts had largely failed.

In an interesting aside, the court highlighted the fact that the PTO rejected the plaintiff’s application to register the mark five (5) times before finally allowing it, and then only after intense lobbying from the North Carolina congressional delegation. The court stated that the more quickly and easily a mark is allowed, the more likely it is to be valid (i.e.¸ distinctive). Conversely, the more difficult it is to convince the PTO to allow registration, the more likely it is invalid.

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