Wednesday, July 29, 2009

4th Circuit decision on “public use doctrine”

Public use doctrine concerns whether a company can acquire trademark rights in a mark it doesn’t use, but instead is a nickname by which the public refers to it or its goods and services. That’s how the term “Coke” came to be a trademark of Coca-Cola. But the plaintiff in George & Co. v. Imagination Entertainment Ltd., No. 08-1921 (4th Cir. July 27, 2009) didn’t fare as well as Coca-Cola did in days gone by.

George had used the term LEFT CENTER RIGHT for a dice game in the 1980s, but then abandoned that mark in favor of its abbreviation LCR. When the defendant later began using LEFT CENTER RIGHT, George sued. Sensing defeat if it asserted only LCR, George tried to claim that, even though it stopped using LEFT CENTER RIGHT, the public still used that term to refer to George’s dice game.

The 4th Circuit rejected the argument. It held that public use doctrine should be narrowly construed to apply only where: (1) the formal mark that is the object the public nickname is well-known (e.g., COCA-COLA or BUDWEISER); and (2) the nickname “adds distinctiveness” to the formal mark (e.g., COKE or BUD). Applying these principles to the facts in the case, the 4th Circuit held that LCR wasn’t well-known and that simply elongating it to LEFT CENTER RIGHT didn’t add to its distinctiveness.

(There’s also a lengthy and unremarkable discussion of the likelihood of confusion analysis.)

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