Sunday, June 28, 2009

8th Circuit: Intervening receipt of "incontestability" status defeats collateral estoppel in renewed trademark suit

The 8th Circuit recently handed down a decision holding that collateral estoppel did not bar a second trademark suit between the parties when, in between the two suits, the plaintiff received § 15 incontestability. The case concerned a unique fact situation that probably won’t pop up in any dispute we’ll ever see, but in case you’re still interested, I summarize it below.

Here’s the chronology in B & B Hardware v. Hargis Industries, Inc., No. 07-3866 (8th Cir. June 22, 2009): Plaintiff registered its mark. Defendant then petitioned the TTAB to cancel it. A short while later—and before Plaintiff’s registration qualified for incontestability status—Plaintiff sued Defendant for infringement in SUIT 1. The TTAB subsequently stayed Defendant's cancellation proceeding. A jury then found against Plaintiff in SUIT 1, expressly finding that its mark was merely descriptive and lacked secondary meaning. When the TTAB matter resumed, however, the TTAB wouldn’t let Defendant assert mere descriptiveness/lack of secondary meaning. It said it was too late to add that claim (which apparently was not one of the initial grounds for cancellation), and dismissed Defendant’s cancellation petition. Later, Plaintiff’s registration achieved incontestable status under § 15. Plaintiff then sued Defendant for infringement again in SUIT 2.

Defendant argued that collateral estoppel barred SUIT 2 because the jury in SUIT 1 previously held that the mark was merely descriptive and lacked secondary meaning. The 8th Circuit, however, disagreed. It held that the receipt of incontestability status constituted a “significant intervening factual change”—and reflected something more than just “the mere passage of time”—thus allowing PLAINTIFF to escape the clutches of collateral estoppel.

8th Circuit decision on laches and "progressive encroachment"

Did the 8th Circuit recently make “progressive encroachment” more of a formalistic, procedural headache than it had been? That’s how its decision in Champagne Louis Roederer v. J. Garcia Carrion, S.A., No. 08-2907 (8th Cir. June 24, 2009), seemed to me.

Roederer makes the famous CRISTAL high-end champagne; Carrion and its predecessor (“Carrion”) make a much cheaper Spanish sparkling wine under the marks CRISTALINO and CRISTALINO JAUME SERRA. There were plenty of times when Roederer had been aware of CRISTALINO. Roederer opposed Carrion’s attempts to register one or more of these marks in Spain in 1989, in Colombia in 1991, and in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Roederer also saw an affidavit in another case in 1995 from which it learned that a Cost Plus store in California was stocking CRISTALINO. In 2002, Carrion filed another application for CRISTALINO in the U.S., and Roederer filed a TTAB opposition.

But Roederer didn’t file a district court action until 2006. The district court dismissed the lawsuit based on laches because it found that Roederer learned in 1995 that Carrion was selling CRISTALINO in the U.S., and by that time Carrion was selling as many bottles of CRISTALINO as Roederer was selling of CRISTAL.

The 8th Circuit reversed. It held that progressive encroachment can alter the date that a laches defense begins to run (which other courts have noted). But where the 8th Circuit seemed (at least to me) to go further was in holding that, where progressive encroachment is asserted, the date runs from the time that the trademark holder first possesses an “actionable and provable” claim. It then said that this analysis requires an assessment of all of the likelihood of confusion factors at the time that the plaintiff first received notice of the defendant’s infringing use (in this case, the court assumed that was 1995, when Roederer found out about the California Cost Plus sales). The 8th Circuit reversed and remanded because the district court hadn’t made that full assessment.

My two cents: This test just seems too formalistic. Also, it would almost necessarily seem to have the effect of unduly lengthening and complicating trials. The parties will have to prove infringement at two times: the present time, and whatever the laches date is alleged to be. I have always conceptualized progressive encroachment as focusing on a less rigid analysis. Courts would look at objective and subjective facts concerning what the infringer had been doing and how confusing and damaging that was, and then see whether there was any substantial and relatively sudden change to the nature of the use or the extent of damage, as opposed to the simple results of natural growth in the marketplace. If it was just natural growth, laches began running at the earlier date; if there was a big, sudden change, laches began running at the later date. My view, of course, could be wrong, but in any event be forewarned about how the 8th Circuit apparently now analyzes progressive encroachment allegations.

2d Circuit: Re-sale of goods whose UPC codes are removed or altered can constitute TM infringement

Similar to the 10th Circuit case I posted recently, the 2d Circuit recently issued a decision concerning whether re-sale of materially altered goods under the original trademark can constitute trademark infringement.

In Zino Davidoff SA v. CVS Corp., No. 07-2872 (June 19, 2009), the plaintiff manufactures high-end fragrances. It sells primarily through authorized dealers. Its quality control and anti-counterfeiting programs rely in large part on UPC codes in the bottom of each product. The various information embedded in the codes permits Davidoff to control quality by being able to trace back any defective product so it can implement effective recalls, etc. The unique numbering in the codes also permits Davidoff to detect counterfeit products, since counterfeiters either don’t use such codes or their replicas of the codes don’t conform to the format of the Davidoff codes.

The plaintiff caught CVS selling the products with the UPC codes removed, and sued for trademark infringement, obtaining a preliminary injunction.

The Second Circuit affirmed the injunction, holding that -- regardless of whether the goods were genuine or counterfeit, and regardless of whether the goods are of lesser quality than Davidoff’s product -- the re-sale of these goods with the Davidoff UPC code removed interfered with Davidoff’s legitimate quality control and anti-counterfeiting programs. The court also noted that the removal of the UPC codes was detectable by consumers of such luxury goods, but its decision did not appreciably rely on this ground for sustaining the injunction.

10th Circuit: Re-sale of materially-altered original goods not immunized by first sale doctrine from Lanham Act liability

The 10th Circuit recently handed down an important trademark decision concerning “first sale doctrine” and non-genuine goods. In Beltronics USA, Inc. v. Midwest Inventory Distribution, LLC, No. 07-3340 (10th Cir. April 9, 2009), the court held that:

(1) first sale doctrine does not immunize a re-seller of goods that are materially different from genuine goods from Lanham Act liability (no biggie here); and

(2) differences in warranty or service terms can constitute such a material difference (this was the important part).

Beltronics makes radar detectors. It had only two authorized distributors, but these two companies sometimes sold to other (unauthorized) companies for re-sale. The authorized distributors stripped Beltronics’ serial number from the product (or placed a phony serial number label on the product) before shipping to the unauthorized re-sellers. The unauthorized products were then sold on eBay. Beltronics’ warranty policy precludes coverage for detectors not bearing the original serial number. A few customers returned detectors bought on eBay for warranty service but Beltronics told them the goods weren’t covered. The customers were angry and blamed Beltronics for deceiving them.

In addition to the holdings mentioned above, the court noted that it was theoretically possible for such re-sellers of materially-different goods to avoid liability if they disclosed the differences in a manner sufficient to prevent confusion. But the 10th Circuit upheld the district court’s factual finding that the instances of actual confusion here (and resulting loss of goodwill) indicated that the defendants’ disclosures in this case were inadequate.

Federal Circuit Clarifies Analysis for Preliminary Injunction in Patent Cases

The Federal Circuit recently issued a precedential opinion clarifying, in two respects, the proper analysis for deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction in patent cases.

In Titan Tire Corp. v. Case New Holland, Inc., No. 2008-1078 (Fed. Cir. June 3, 2009), the court first noted that the basic standard for issuance of a preliminary injunction in any type of case is the four-factor test set forth recently by the Supreme Court in Winter v. Natural Resource Defense Council, 129 S. Ct. 365, 374 (2008): “[a] plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish [1] that he is likely to succeed on the merits, [2] that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, [3] that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and [4] that an injunction is in the public interest.” (emphasis added). Prior to Winter, each circuit had its own variation of the test, but the Federal Circuit acknowledged that the Winter test “is now the definitive one,” and that the movant bears the burden of persuasion on these factors.
Second, the court addressed the patent-specific issue of the parties’ respective burdens concerning the invalidity at the preliminary injunction stage. In a nutshell, the Federal Circuit held:
  • The trial court must weigh the available evidence for and against validity;
  • If there is a “substantial question of invalidity,” then the patentee has by definition not shown that he is likely to succeed on the merits;
  • A “substantial question of invalidity” exists where “the alleged infringer has presented an invalidity defense that the patentee has not shown lacks substantial merit”; and
  • While the “clear and convincing evidence” standard for proving invalidity does not apply at the preliminary injunction stage, the judge should consider that the infringer must meet that standard at trial in deciding whether, at the preliminary injunction stage, a substantial question of invalidity exists.

5th Circuit: Need "Fixed" Product Design to Invoke DJ Jurisdiction in Trade Dress Dispute

On May 8, the 5th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a declaratory judgment action concerning the trade dress of a bottom-dump truck trailer design. In Vantage Trailers, Inc. v. Beall Corp., No. 08-21039 (5th Cir. May 8, 2009), the defendant Beall owned a registered trademark for the design of its bottom-dump trailer. It learned that its rival, Vantage, had begun to manufacture and offer to sell a competing bottom-dump trailer, and so wrote Vantage a nasty letter accusing the new trailer design of trade dress infringement. Vantage sued for a declaration of noninfringement.

The 5th Circuit, however, pointed out that during the litigation Vantage had made certain modifications to the external configuration of the trailers. During this period, Vantage also sent one of its customers different depictions of the trailer. Based primarily on these facts, the 5th Circuit concluded that Vantage was thus “not immediately prepared to manufacture and sell trailers at the time it filed suit.” As a consequence, the courts entertaining the dispute would be unable to “compare [the shape of Vantage’s trailers] against that of Beall’s trailers” to determine whether trade dress infringement existed. Citing two patent DJ decisions (one from the Federal Circuit and a much older one from the 7th Circuit), the 5th Circuit held that Vantage “failed to meet its burden to show that its design was substantially fixed as to the potentially infringing elements, i.e., the appearance of the trailers, at the time of suit” (emphasis added), and therefore affirmed dismissal of the declaratory judgment action for lack of an immediate and real controversy.

The War of 1404 Continues

The Federal Circuit recently issued two precedential orders concerning transfers under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Both concerned E.D. Tex. cases.

In In re Volkswagen of America, Inc., No. Misc. 897 (Fed. Cir. May 22, 2009), the court denied a writ of mandamus that sought to overturn the E.D.Tex. court's refusal to transfer two patent infringement cases (based on the same patents) brought by a Texas company against many, many auto manufacturers located around the world. In a short order, the court agreed with the district court that it made sense to try such a case in one district. Apparently the Federal Circuit viewed the E.D. Tex. as good as any other district for that purpose.

In In re Genentech Inc. and Biogen, Inc., No. Misc. 901 (Fed. Cir. May 22, 2009), however, the court granted the writ of mandamus and ordered the E.D. Tex. to transfer a patent suit brought by a German company against a San Diego company and a San Francisco company to San Francisco. In a lengthier discussion, the Federal Circuit explained that the district court made several legal errors in its convenience analysis.

A 4th Circuit Copyright Decision that Stretches Fair Use Too Far?

A.V. v. iParadigms, LLC, No. 08-1424 (4th Cir. Apr. 16, 2009) involved a company that offers an on-line anti-plagiarism service to high schools and colleges who want to make sure their students aren’t cheating.

iParadigms signs up schools for a fee. The schools then require their students to submit all their term papers through iParadigms’ “Turnitin” program. The program stores the papers and compares them to content on the Internet and with all previously-submitted papers and other materials in the database it keeps. The service then creates an “Originality Report” for the school, suggesting how much of the work, if any, is not original.

Some students challenged whether this service violated their copyrights in their papers. The decision addressed many issues, but one of the key disputes was whether iParadigms’ service fell within the fair use provisions of 17 U.S.C. § 107.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the ruling was on the first fair use factor: “the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.” Keep in mind that iParadigms is a for-profit company that enjoys millions of dollars of revenues from “Turnitin” and that it does not alter the papers in its database in any way. So one would think that with a for-profit motive and no physical transformative use, this factor disfavors fair use, right? Wrong. The 4th Circuit held that the purpose of unauthorized copying was transformative (iParadigms’ purpose was plagiarism detection, not the creative purpose of the students) notwithstanding that it didn’t alter the documents. And this transformative “purpose” trumped the fact that iParadigms raked in beaucoup $$ from its program.

The rest of the opinion is worth reading too. See if you don’t get the impression, like I did, that this was a result-driven decision (teaching students that plagiarism is wrong is a good thing, right?).

2d Cir. decision allowing Lanham Act complaint against Google's "Adwords" program

The Google programs allow companies to “buy” keywords that may consist of competitors’ trademarks and, when an Internet user searches Google for that keyword/trademark, have Google’s search result page display an ad and a link for the purchaser’s website.

Rescuecom Corp. v. Google Inc., No. 06-4881 (2d Cir. Apr. 3, 2009) held that the district court erred in concluding that the complaint failed to state a claim because Google didn’t “use” the keyword/mark “in commerce.” Rejecting this reasoning, the Second Circuit held that the complaint alleged that Google indeed uses the mark in commerce by displaying it—and even suggesting it—to potential purchasers of advertisements through the two Google Adwords and Keywords Suggestions Tool. The fact that the Internet searcher doesn’t see the mark in a resulting ad in a later search didn’t seem to matter to the Court once the Court found that the complaint had alleged use by Google at the stage of selling their programs to advertisers.
Since it was properly alleged that Google’s programs did in fact “use” the plaintiff’s marks in commerce, and the complaint also alleged that the resulting ads were likely to cause confusion, the Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

Fed. Cir. decision involving use of prosecution history in a trademark case

Be careful what you say to the PTO in trying to register your mark. The Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Aycock Engineering, Inc. v. Airflite, Inc., No. 2008-1154 (March 30, 2009), shows how prosecution history can sometimes be as dispositive in trademark disputes as it is in patent cases.

Airflite filed a petition to cancel Aycock’s registration for AIRFLITE for the service of “arranging for individual reservations for flights on airplanes.” The key issue was whether Aycock ever “used” the mark. If not, bye-bye registration. This required construction of the meaning of the service Aycock identified in the registration.

The prosecution file showed a lot of back-and-forth between the PTO and Aycock, in the course of which Aycock made several representations about the nature of the service. These representations made clear that Aycock’s service involved putting a traveler in touch with an air charter company with empty seats to fill.

Aycock took several steps towards getting his service off the ground, including signing up several air charter companies, and argued that this showed that he “used” the mark in commerce. The TTAB and Federal Circuit disagreed. Using Aycock’s own prosecution history statements against him to construe the meaning of the identified services, the TTAB and Federal Circuit held that “use” required, in this context, that Aycock have at least tried to have signed up a traveler or two. Signing up air charter companies was merely a step towards offering the service, but didn’t constitute the service itself, which required a traveler as well as a plane. Because there was no evidence that Aycock ever actually offered the service to the traveling public, the registration was canceled.