Sunday, June 28, 2009

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.

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