Wednesday, March 30, 2011

D.C. Circuit holds that 1998 law bars renewal of Cuba-owned trademarks

Yesterday the D.C. Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that the Cuban government-owned company Cubaexport could not renew its HAVANA CLUB trademark for rum. In Empresa Cubano Exportadora de Alimentos y Productos Varios v. United States Dep't of Treasury, No. 09-5196 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 29, 2011), the majority held that a provision in a 1998 appropriations act which prohibited transactions or payments to the PTO under 31 CFR § 515.527 (which at the time referred to registrations and renewals as “transactions”), was not impermissibly retroactive as to Cubaexport. Noting that a “vested right” was required to invoke the presumption against retroactivity, the majority held that Cubaexport did not have a “vested right” in renewal because the Cuban trademark regulations at issue also contained an express reservation allowing them to be amended or modified at any time. The dissent argued that the Supreme Court’s retroactivity jurisprudence makes clear that a statute that impairs an existing “substantive right” is impermissibly retroactive, and that the majority was reading “vested right” to mean something more than substantive rights, thus “driv[ing] a large hole in the presumption against retroactivity.” The dissenting judge noted that Cubaexport had a substantive, existing right to renew its registration, notwithstanding the theoretical possibility that hypothetical future regulations could have eliminated that right.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Federal Circuit: "Capital City Bank" marks not confusingly similar to CITIBANK

The Federal Circuit today handed Citigroup a loss in its opposition proceeding pitting its CITIBANK marks against several marks containing the words “CAPITAL CITY BANK.” Although the decision in Citigroup Inc. v. Capital City Bank Group, Inc., No. 2010-1369 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 28, 2011) was fairly fact-specific, a couple of legal points stood out. First, the Federal Circuit rejected the TTAB’s practice of considering only “reasonable” manners of depicting word (standard character) marks. The court stopped short of re-defining exactly what range of depictions should be considered, however, leaving ambiguity as to exactly what the precise broadening effect of this holding will be. Second, the court noted that “pervasive” use of the phrase “City Bank” in other financial service marks (both registered marks and those found used on various bank websites) “limits the protection afforded to the CITIBANK mark." Interestingly, on appeal, Citigroup waived its arguments as to dilution.

Monday, March 21, 2011

8th Circuit "Church Fight" Trademark Decision

In Community of Christ Copyright Corp. v. Devon Park Restoration Branch of Jesus Christ’s Church, No. 10-1707 (8th Cir. Mar. 21, 2011), the Eighth Circuit addressed several issues:

● whether the mark REORGANIZED CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER DAY SAINTS is generic (no, in part because of lack of proof of what the public thought and in part based on precedent that church names generally are considered descriptive, not generic);

● whether the use of a church’s trademark by an unauthorized congregation can constitute trademark infringement (yes, it can, and, in this case, did);

● whether the plaintiff was entitled to a permanent injunction (yes, because it prevailed on the merits and irreparable harm is presumed in trademark cases – no mention of the possible impact of eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange, L.L.C., 547 U.S. 388 (2006)); and

● whether it was an abuse of discretion to whack a small independent congregation with a $348,000 attorneys fees award (no, because there was “willful infringement” in that the defendant ignored the plaintiff’s cease-and-desist letter – which seems like a pretty flimsy reason given the defenses in this unique case resulted in a published opinion).

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

9th Cir.: Purchase of Competitors' Trademark for Google AdWords Listing is "Use in Commerce"; Court Clarifies Confusion Analysis in Internet Setting

Yesterday the 9th Circuit decided that a company’s purchase of a Google AdWords listing using a competitor’s trademark is a “use in commerce” potentially subjecting the purchaser to liability for trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. In NetWork Automation, Inc. v. Advanced Sys. Corp., No. 10-55840 (Mar. 8, 2011), the 9th Circuit also tried to clarify how to use its version of the well-known multi-factor likelihood of confusion test in this specific Internet setting. The court then vacated the district court’s preliminary injunction. It isn't clear to me whether the 9th Circuit wanted, or even was permitting, the district court to re-assess whether a preliminary injunction was warranted under the newly-clarified confusion analysis.

At the threshold, the 9th Circuit agreed with the 2d Circuit’s decision in Rescuecom Corp. v. Google Inc., 562 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 2009) that Google’s sale of a trademark as a trigger for an AdWords listing qualifies as a “use in commerce.”

In probably the most significant aspect of its attempt to clarify how to apply the Sleekcraft confusion factors in this setting, the 9th Circuit indicated that when assessing the “similarity” of the parties’ marks, the courts must pay attention to the “labeling and appearance” of the purchased advertisement, including whether it identifies the alleged infringer’s business. The court also noted that the graphics and text that the Internet service provider (here, Google) uses to distinguish the purchased ads from the search results also plays into the confusion calculus, as does the degree of care exercised by typical searchers.