Wednesday, September 30, 2009

5th Circuit (in Unpublished Opinion) Says Strength of Junior User’s Mark May be Relevant in Reverse Confusion Analysis

Seemingly approving of other circuits’ holdings that, in a reverse confusion case, the strength of the junior user’s mark is relevant, the 5th Circuit vacated summary judgment in the reverse confusion case of The Great Amer. Rest. Co. v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, No. 08-40654 (5th Cir. Sept. 30, 2009). The court designated its short, four-page opinion as “unpublished,” however. While unpublished opinions can be cited pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 32.1, the 5th Circuit’s local rule 47.5.4 states that its unpublished opinions “are not precedent.” So it’s questionable how much weight any court might give it.

I believe this is the first time that the 5th Circuit has mentioned the “reverse strength” concept applying in a reverse confusion case. Off the top of my head I know that the 3d and 9th Circuits also take this view (the 5th Circuit cited only the 3d Circuit’s decision in A&H Sportswear, Inc. v. Victoria’s Secret Stores, Inc., 237 F.3d 198 (3d Cir. 2000)). The court did not address, however, whether the strength of the senior user’s mark remains relevant (or how) in the likelihood of reverse confusion calculus.

Friday, September 25, 2009

6th Circuit decision on IP license transfers through intra-corporate mergers

The Sixth Circuit today held that a copyright (or patent) license that expressly provides that it is non-assignable or non-transferrable is breached when (1) the licensee merges with its corporate sibling entity, (2) the licensee is not the surviving entity, and (3) state law provides that the surviving entity owns all the assets of the constituent entities.

The court noted that even if the license hadn’t expressly addressed assignability or transferability, federal common law would have led to the same result because its default rule prohibits transfer of a patent or copyright license without authorization.

The case is Cincom Systems, Inc. v. Novelis Corp., No. 07-4142 (6th Cir. Sept. 25, 2009).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Couple of Marginally Interesting TM Decisions (9th Cir. and Fed. Cir.)

Hey, They Copied My Product Idea and Owe Me Mega-$$

First, a Ninth Circuit decision dealing with the familiar and usually unsuccessful case of someone claiming that a defendant copied their idea for what ultimately became a tremendously successful product. At issue in Art Attacks Ink, LLC v. MGA Entertainment Inc., No. 07-56110 (9th Cir. Sept. 16, 2009) were the popular line of BRATZ dolls. The court shot down the plaintiff’s copyright claim because the plaintiff had insufficient evidence of copying or access by the defendants. The plaintiff’s trade dress claim foundered on the shoals of inadequate proof of secondary meaning.

Numbers as Secondary Trademarks

Hidden in the middle of the patent decision in Vita-Mix Corp. v. Basic Holding, Inc., No. 2008-1479 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 16, 2009), was the Federal Circuit’s discussion of whether the asserted trademark—here, the numerical designation 5000—functioned as a trademark or merely as a “grade designation.” The plaintiff used the number in the mark “Vita-Mix® 5000,” to distinguish it from the plaintiff’s previous products, the “Vita-Mix® 3600” and “Vita-Mix® 4500.” Given that the plaintiff didn't use the number apart from the mark “Vita-Mix® 5000,” and in light of plaintiff’s concession that the number served only to differentiate from the two previous “Vita-Mix®” products, the Federal Circuit held that "5000" reflected only the “style or grade” of product and possessed neither inherent nor acquired distinctiveness.

Commentary: The Vita-Mix case touches upon, but doesn’t really discuss, an issue that has always intrigued me: the tension between the numbers=style/grade “presumption” (if you can call it that) and the principle that a product can bear more than one trademark. Think, for example, whether the numbers in the following designations are trademarks or mere style/grade designations: BMW 530, BOEING 767, MITCHELL 300. There are probably circumstances at which a number used in this manner becomes a separately protectable trademark, but I’ve never had the opportunity to research exactly where that line is drawn.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

6th Circuit decision affirming dismissal of TM infringement complaint under rule 12(b)(6)

In a decision with potentially important procedural ramifications, the 6th Circuit today affirmed the rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of a trademark infringement complaint for failure to state a claim.

In Hensley Mfg., Inc. v. ProPride, Inc., No. 08-1834 (6th Cir. Sept. 3, 2009), the plaintiff alleged it was the owner of the HENSLEY mark, which it purchased from Jim Hensley when it purchased Hensley’s trailer hitch business. Jim Hensley then started working with a competing company (ProPride). At ProPride, Hensley designed a competing trailer hitch, and to promote it, ProPride created some print advertisements and webpages that talked about “the Jim Hensley Hitch Story,” described Jim Hensley’s history of designing trailer hitches at Hensley Mfg., and touted how he has now designed an even better hitch at ProPride. The ads and webpages all contained a disclaimer that Jim Hensley is no longer affiliated with Hensley Mfg. The complaint attached the ads and print-outs of the webpages.

The district court dismissed the complaint under rule 12(b)(6) finding that the allegations and attachments showed that the fair use defense applied as a matter of law.

The 6th Circuit affirmed. The court held that it need not get into the likelihood of confusion factors because the complaint and its attachments showed, as a matter of law, that the word “Hensley” was not being used as a trademark (i.e., an indicator of source). Examining the attachments closely, the court held that they conclusively demonstrated instead that the name “Hensley” was being used lawfully solely to refer to the individual accomplishments and reputation of Jim Hensley, and the attached ads and webpages did not create a likelihood of confusion as to source.

The 6th Circuit also expressly approved of the district court’s having based the dismissal on the “fair use” defense, even though, by first moving to dismiss the complaint, the defendants hadn’t even pleaded it yet. The 6th Circuit reasoned that there’s nothing wrong with dismissing a complaint where the allegations conclusively establish an affirmative defense as a matter of law.

IMPLICATIONS: One of the lessons here might be to be careful not to plead yourself out of court. Specifically, it might be useful to consider whether the complaint in this case could have been dismissed under rule 12(b)(6) if the plaintiff hadn’t attached copies of the offending ads and webpages. On the other hand, the 6th Circuit referenced at the outset the (arguably heightened) “plausibility” pleading standard in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), although it did not ultimately appear to rest the dismissal in any significant way on the “implausibility” of the factual allegations in the complaint itself. So it may conversely be useful to consider if there is such a thing as a trademark complaint that is too bare-boned. At minimum, however, in any trademark case where a plaintiff is considering unusually detailed factual allegations and/or attaching copies of the allegedly infringing uses to the complaint, the pleader would do well to consider whether the pleading would survive the sort of analysis the 6th Circuit used here.