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.)

Federal Circuit holds HOTELS.COM generic and refuses registration

The Federal Circuit continued what some may consider a stubborn refusal to acknowledge how modern-day business is done over the Internet by holding the mark HOTELS.COM generic and refusing to allow it to be registered as a trademark.

In In re, L.P., No 2008-1429 (Fed. Cir. July 23, 2009), the applicant argued, to no avail, that it was not a hotel, but instead provided travel related information and travel agency services. The Federal Circuit thought that since a large part of those services involved hotels, the services were close enough to the name to be generic. The Federal Circuit also stuck by the PTO’s consistent policy that adding “.com” to a generic name doesn’t make the generic name into a trademark. For evidentiary reasons, the Federal Circuit also discounted several consumer affidavits and a survey for evidentiary showing that 76% of respondents thought HOTELS.COM was a brand.

Some (maybe a lot) may argue that this decision ignores that Internet-savvy consumers may increasingly view designations in the form “product” as brand names for services facilitating commerce in that product category. But the question may not be ripe for reconsideration by the en banc court until presented in a case avoiding the evidentiary shortcomings identified in this one.

11th Circuit decision on corporate domain name renewal policies and "bad faith" element of cybersquatting case

In an interesting decision, the 11th Circuit ruled that 3M did not exhibit bad faith in continuing to renew a domain name that they did not use and which consisted of a trademark they previously abandoned. In Southern Grouts and Mortars, Inc. v. 3M Co., No. 08-15850 (11th Cir. July 23, 2009), the plaintiff really wanted 3M’s “” domain name. Even though it wasn’t using it, 3M refused to sell it to Southern Grouts, so Southern Grouts sued for cybersquatting under the ACPA (15 U.S.C. § 1125(d)).

3M previously acquired the DIAMOND BRITE mark and the domain name from another company, but quickly stopped using the mark, and a short time later stopped displaying content on the “” website. The PTO in due course cancelled 3M's DIAMOND BRITE registrations for failure to show continuing use. 3M kept renewing the domain name, however, for two reasons: (1) it was concerned that someone would pick it up and use it in a manner that could be confused with 3M’s unrelated DIAMOND GRADE mark; and (2) it had a corporate policy of continuing to renew its registered domain names indefinitely unless there was an explicit corporate decision not to.

The 11th Circuit held that on these facts, 3M could not be held to have acted in bad faith, a necessary element of an action under the ACPA.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

11th Circuit decision on ACPA (i.e., cybersquatting) damages

The Eleventh Circuit recently held that statutory damages under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(d) for violations of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d)):

  1. are designed to punish cybersquatters and deter future violations; and, as such
  2. may be ordered in the absence of any actual damages; and
  3. are not duplicative of any actual damages awarded under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a) for infringement or unfair competition.

The case is St. Luke’s Cataract and Laser Institute. P.A. v. Sanderson, No. 08-11848 (11th Cir. July 9, 2009).

9th Circuit TM decision: standards for preliminary injunction ordering product recall

The 9th Circuit recently decided that a preliminary injunction ordering a recall of infringing product should not be ordered based simply on a showing that the four traditional preliminary injunction factors favor an injunction. Rather, the court must in addition consider the following additional factors: (a) whether the infringement was willful or intentional; (b) whether the risk of confusion and injury to the trademark owner outweighs the burden of a recall; and (c) whether there is a substantial danger to the public due to the infringing activity.

Marlyn Nutraceuticals , Inc. v. Mucos Pharma GMBH, No 08-15101 (9th Cir. July 2, 2009), concerned competing sales of an enzyme-based dietary supplement. The district court ordered a recall based only on an assessment of the four traditional preliminary injunction factors: (1) likelihood of success; (2) irreparable harm; (3) balance of harms favoring the movant; and (4) the public interest. But the 9th Circuit held that a preliminary injunction ordering a recall goes beyond preservation of the status quo. Instead, a recall constitutes a “mandatory” injunction, which requires an additional showing. In the context of a trademark infringement case, the 9th Circuit, agreeing with a prior 3d Circuit decision, held that district courts must consider the three additional factors set forth above. In particular, the 9th Circuit noted that if “the district court makes a finding that the infringing product causes a substantial risk of danger to the public, it should order a recall.”

Interestingly, the 9th Circuit also noted that irreparable harm may be presumed from a showing of likelihood of success, a position that other courts have suggested is at odds with the Supreme Court patent injunction decision in eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange, L.L.C., 547 U.S. 388 (2006).