Trademarks, the Psychology of Commercial Symbols

Justice Frankfurter in Mishawaka Rubber & Woolen Mfg. Co. v. S.S. Kresge Co., 316 U.S. 203 (1942) makes the case for protecting your trademark:

“The protection of trade-marks is the law’s recognition of the psychological function of symbols. . . . Whatever the means employed, the aim is the same – to convey through the mark, in the minds of potential customers, the desireablity of the commodity upon which it appears.  Once this is attained, the trademark owner has something of value.”

“Is a trademark lawsuit worth it?”

Trademarks are fickle things. You only have them so long as people know and associate you (and only you) with that trademark. Whether or not you have a registration, your rights exist only exist if that trademark continues to distinguish you from everyone else.

So, if you have found a potential infringer do you have to sue or can you let it slide? The tough answer is that you have to stop them, and here’s why:

If you and your competitor are selling the same or similar goods or services, how will consumers know which is which? Even if your product isn’t exactly the same, consumers might think that you could have expanded your offerings into that area if its not too far off. If someone out there now sells products related to your own with the same name, you have to try to stop them if you want to keep your trademark distinctive.

If the other trademark is a little different, but still sounds the same, means the same, or looks the same as your own trademark and its used on the same product you have to stop them as well. Consider differently spelled trademarks that sound the same. If a customer is telling a friend about your great product, will they be able to hear the difference between “BISCOH Brand Product” and “BIZCO Brand Product,” or “BOSCO Brand Product?” Probably not. The longer those sound a like products are on the market, the less consumers can be expected to consider one the original and the other the knockoff.

Courts have also developed a doctrine called “laches.” That is basically a doctrine considering the fairness of bringing a lawsuit years after you knew or should have known about a legal problem. If you allow your competitor to continue building their market, investing time and money in their own infringing trademark and could have stopped them before they invested all that money, courts aren’t as willing to enforce those trademarks. There is no absolute cutoff point for laches to take effect, but as years go by, the chances you will be able to win your trademark lawsuit get slimmer and slimmer.

A registered trademark gives you a tool to keep competitors at bay, but it wont do it for you. Policing your trademark and occasionally bringing a lawsuit is the only way you can actually keep your trademark. No one is going to stop a competitor from infringing your marks if you don’t. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you will be able to stop them.

F-bomb Trademarks

One of the several reasons your trademark might be refused registration by the USPTO is that your proposed mark is scandalous or immoral. Without too much further explanation you might guess that a certain word starting with “F” and rhyming with “duck” might be problematic as a trademark. You would be right. Trademarks can be refused registration for being scandalous or immoral. Now you might think that this is America and you can say what the F— you want, and you can. But at least for now, you aren’t going to get the US government to help you protect that as a brand name.

But many people do try anyway. In fact, if you search the USPTO for applications for marks containing that word, you will see nothing but refusals (were 0 for 53 so far), probably causing the applicants to shout . . .

Trademarks and Oil Spills

The Twitter account @BPGlobalPR has more followers than the real BP Twitter account. Yes its fake and they use the BP name and logo. The tweets are both biting and funny, at least to people who don’t work at BP. But is it trademark infringement?

If trademark law exists primarily prevent confusion in the marketplace and to let companies control their own reputation, then probably not. Does @BPGlobalPR tarnish BP’s brand? Probably, but it seems as though everyone knows its a parody, and how could you not with tweets like:

“We feel terrible about spilling oil in American waters, we’ll make sure the next spill happens where the terrorists live. #bpcares”

“Please help us with rebranding. We’re not calling it an “oil spill” anymore, now it’s a “Southern Fun Party”. #bpcares”

So, if a decent trademark infringement or dilution claim could be made, BP might ask themselves, “should we?” The answer to that might be “no.” The fallout from a trademark lawsuit now could be worse than the tweets. (See Streisand Effect) It might make it seem like BP is trying harder to plug the word leak than the oil leak.

The value of a trademark is based in large part on the reputation of the company. To BP’s credit, it seems as though their tweeting has been pretty focused on keeping people updated about the oil spill. This might be one time where protecting a trademark might be done best by letting people vent and take a few jabs.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I am pretty sure that this wouldn’t be a good trademark case for BP anyway. It is such a clear parody as well as a non-commercial, non-competing use. However, there have been some inconsistent results in the area of trademark parodies. Sometimes judges as well as brand owners just don’t have a good sense of humor. Thanks to @cathygellis for the reply tweet and comment.

Choosing a Strong Trademark

The art of giving your product or service a name is challenging. Making sure that name can also be protected as a trademark can make things more difficult. But there are a few things you can consider as guides when choosing a name.

What you can’t use as a trademark:
– Offensive or disparaging words.
– Names that are primarily a surname
– Names that sound like, look like or mean the same as another competing trademark.
– Words that merely describe a feature of the product.

In my experience, the last two are the source of the most frequent problems. A different spelling or adding one more word to a trademark that already exists is still too close. The USPTO wants to help you register your trademark, but they also want to make sure there isn’t confusion in the marketplace. Foreign translations of trademarks are also a problem “Pomme Ordinatuer” doesn’t look like or sound like “Apple Computer” but it means the same thing. Descriptive words are helpful for telling consumers what your product does, but can’t be registered trademarks.

So what works? I am not an ad wizard but I have noticed a few things that are both clever and capable of being registered.

– Words that are associated with good qualities, but don’t literally describe the product. (e.g. EVEREADY)
– Words or images that are symbols for values that are important to your company. (e.g. FIDELITY, APPLE)
– Puns. Especially if you have a fun product (e.g. GARDEN OF EATIN)
– Just make up a word that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything. (e.g. KODAK)

A large part of a brand’s success has to do with how consumers feel about the products and not so much to do with having chosen the perfect name. I have no idea what “kodak” means (apparently nothing), but I do recognize the name and associate it with quality photography equipment. In the long run, so long as you keep you customers happy, and they know how to identify you, any name might work.

USPTO Director David Kappos at William Mitchell College of Law

David Kappos at William Mitchell College of Law

I was only able to attend the first 45 minutes of this event. Thank you to William Mitchell College of Law for making the whole program available online so I could see the rest. Director Kappos seems to be exactly the kind of person we should want to be heading up the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Gimme an iMark

Apple Loeses Battle for Control of the Letter I

The offending trademark was DOPi which is iPod spelled backwards, but otherwise doesn’t really sound like or look like Apple’s IPOD trademark. Interesting to note that Apple wasn’t the first or only user of the names “iPhone” or “iPad” either. As I type this on my MacBook, I wonder what was wrong with the iBook name?

Dot Anything?

Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) are .com, .edu, .org and so forth. There have been proposals before ICANN for a few years now to allow new gTLDs to be just about anything people want, such as .godfread. There are of course trademark and other intellectual property concerns and its not entirely clear how ICANN will address resolving the disputes that might arise when two parties both claim rights in a new gTLD. Nevertheless, it seems as though sometime in the not to distant future, we may see a whole new universe of domain names.
ICANN New gTLD Information Page

HT to Martin Schwimmer at the Trademark Blog

Don’t Confuse Your Attorney With A Paper Dispenser

There are a number of sources of free legal documents and free or cheap legal document generators online. This is overall good news and should not in any way be a real threat to attorneys. But people often confuse a document for a solution to a legal problem. In order for the document to be useful, it has to say what you want it to say. You have to know what it is you want to accomplish with this document. Knowing when a document works requires a skill that a document generator cannot provide.

Software programmers would not insert any old code to try to accomplish a specific task. It takes a fair amount of skill to determine if source code can be reused from one program in another without causing problems. Blindly copying legal documents is not any different. If the document doesn’t do exactly what you want it to do, you might be in a worse situation. But like programmers, attorneys do reuse “code” and free and readily available documents help to do that. The “code” is on legal documents is English (sometimes barely recognizable). But the danger for the do-it-yourselfer is not knowing or not caring what the legal code on that document means.

For example, Legalzoom offers incorporation and trademark registration services. But Legalzoom doesn’t offer any advice on what kind of application to file, whether its necessary to file, how to get value from that piece of paper or how to make sure your newly formed company actually complies with state law. They basically guide you through the form and check spelling, which at any price is pretty expensive. A better value would be to buy a book by Nolo Press (which are for the most part really good) and gain enough understanding to do it yourself; or save up your money and hire an attorney. For both corporations and trademarks, obtaining the piece of paper is only a small fraction of the work. If you ignore the rest (compliance, usage etc.), the paper is worthless. Paper is cheap. Know-how costs extra.

Nevertheless, there are things that make sense to do yourself and not hire an attorney. For my own clients, if there are things that are routine, I may offer to advise them on a strategy and propose a form or policy that they can reuse. I also might suggest having them draft a document and then simply have me review it for potential problems. I would rather see them save some money on legal fees now and still be in business years later to hire me for matters that might demand more attention. The value in hiring an attorney is not to have access to a paper dispenser, but to have access to advice.

Searching for Trademarks

Thanks to Google you can find just about every existing name or trademark that exists with one little tool. . . right? Well, almost. It is possible to use Google and the Patent & Trademark Office’s own database to see if your brand idea is free to use, but there are a number of risks you take by relying on only those tools. Its tempting because the search is free. By all means, use free tools. Use them because they can give a quick “no” answer if there are obvious conflicts. But anyone building a new brand should consider what they might miss and what problems will arise with what they do miss.