Trademark law is a nuanced discipline. Word choice matters greatly. The use of a particular word, a certain combination of words, the exact construction of a phrase, and/or the precise arrangement of particular terms – each of these can affect the validity and enforceability of a trademark. It is important.
Last week, I was in the middle of a trademark infringement trial in federal court. Opposing counsel colloquially referred to official certificates of registration as “trademarks” and the underlying applications as “trademark applications.” Each time I had to stand up and object. For one simple, yet legally necessary reason:
There is no such thing as a “trademark application.”
June 5, 2017
Marshall, Texas is a town of less than 25,000 residents in East Texas. It is closer to Shreveport, Louisiana than it is to Dallas or to Houston. Nevertheless, since the late 1990s, Marshall has become the epicenter for a series of high-profile patent litigation cases. In 2015, there were nearly 6,000 patent infringement cases filed in the United States. At least 1,500 of these filings ended up before Judge Rodney Gilstrap, a judge for the Eastern District of Texas, in the Marshall, Texas division. This was no accident.
As of last month, however, this may all be subject to change.
On May 22, 2017, in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, the United States Supreme Court addressed a dispute regarding the patent venue statute and unanimously held that civil actions for patent infringement may only be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business. Prior to TC Heartland, patent owners could choose to file suit in most any state given that most corporations made or sold products nationwide. This allowed certain courts to set up shop as patent “rocket dockets” which encouraged litigators to choose their venue.
This is how one judge in Marshall, Texas came to oversee, on average, nearly a quarter of all patent infringement cases filed in the United States. Now that TC Heartland is the rule of the land, there are three primary issues to address and explore: (1) how did Marshall, Texas become a “rocket docket” for patent cases?; (2) what rule did the Supreme Court actually change?; and (3) what is likely to happen now?
Trademarks and trademark law are a tricky legal property. For one, trademarks are technically “owned” by the individual or entity that uses the mark in association with goods or services in commerce. Yet the underlying purpose of trademarks is to protect the relevant consumer. Trademarks are only valuable (and protectable) to the extent the consumer associates that mark with the source of particular goods and services.
How do you get a trademark? It is not difficult. The exact moment you select a word, logo, slogan, phrase, or design – and “use” it in association with particular goods and services in the stream of commerce, it becomes a legal trademark. While the definition of “use” can be nebulous and imprecise, essentially any sales or marketing efforts that target consumers or customers across interstate lines can be proper trademark “use” that breathes life into a mark. This provides what is known as “common law” trademark rights. These rights are enforceable in a court of law.
The obvious follow-up question then is: if getting a trademark is so easy, why should I bother going through the process of applying for a state or federal trademark registration? What do I get for my money? We have now stumbled across the purpose of this article.
September 30, 2016
On September 29, 2016, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the matter of Lee v. Tam, regarding whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act is facially invalid under the First Amendment, particularly whether it restricts free speech. This is the appeal from the same case I wrote about last December. I am curious to see how the Supreme Court tackles this issue, and what I consider substantive errors in analysis made by the Federal Circuit last fall.
Nevertheless, while the legal issues are heavily nuanced and regard convoluted topics such as “chilling effects,” “government speech” versus “commercial speech,” “disparagement,” and what constitutes “use in commerce,” it appears the layperson is confused by the scope of the case. Particularly, after the news broke yesterday, the common theme was “why is a musical group not allowed to call itself the Slants?” – which is not only wholly irrelevant to the issue but is also a dangerous interpretation of what I consider to be an important trademark matter.
In short, you can name your rock band whatever you want. You can also name your professional football team whatever you want (looking at you, Washington Redskins). No one is going to stop you. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, however, may refuse to grant you a trademark registration for such a name. Not that the name cannot be a trademark – it can be – but “registration” confers additional benefits that may or may not extend to marks that the USPTO considers to be “disparaging” of people or groups. This is the entirety of what the Supreme Court is going to address.
Instead, here I will try to address the distinction between free speech, trademarks, and trademark registrations in general terms.
June 29, 2016
On June 22, 2016, South Texas College of Law announced that it was changing the name of the school to “Houston College of Law.” The school also introduced a new color scheme on its website that is predominantly red and white, with shades of gray. As a bookend to the public announcement, it appears the school also filed a trademark application for the word and design mark HOUSTON COLLEGE OF LAW EST. 1923, with a filing date of May 12, 2016. The trademark application also asserts a date of first use of April 6, 2016.
Name changes can be a good thing. Typically. A rebranding can assist in drawing attention to a stale mark or product. It can attract new customers. It can introduce a product or service into a previously under-represented industry. In essence, this is what trademarks are for: to assist the consuming public in identifying the source of goods and services. The only problem is that “Houston College of Law” looks and sounds like “University of Houston Law Center,” which has been in existence in the same geographical area since approximately 1947. The University of Houston has also embraced a red-and-white color scheme since the late 1930s.
As you can imagine, this name change and color scheme did not sit well with the other local law school. On Monday, June 27, 2016, the Board of Regents of the University of Houston System filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division against South Texas College of Law. The Complaint asserts causes of action for trademark infringement, unfair competition and false designation of origin, false advertising, dilution by blurring or tarnishment, and related state and common law claims.
Now that this matter is in the court system, what can be expected and how should this play out?
On Sunday, February 7, 2016, the Carolina Panthers® and Denver Broncos® will take the field for the kickoff of Super Bowl® 50. This is the annual showcase game for the National Football League®. In the interim time, the NFL® has assembled an army of lawyers that are ready, willing and able to send a bevy of cease-and-desist letters to any individual or entity that has the audacity to use certain terms or phrases that the league perceives might dilute or infringe famous trademarks that belong to the NFL.
The Super Bowl is practically an American institution, now in its fiftieth year. Many groups contend that the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday. In fact, a formal petition was once initiated for that very purpose. As a result, you will see and hear numerous advertisements leading up to the Super Bowl promoting numerous goods and services. It is kind of a big deal. What you are unlikely to hear in these advertisements, however, is quite noteworthy. You will rarely hear any advertisement use the term SUPER BOWL.
Why are we reduced to using nebulous terms like “The Big Game” or “The Pro Football Championship” to identify and describe a game? Why is the NFL so trigger-happy in seeking to stop all uses of “Super Bowl” that are not made by direct sponsors of the league or the television broadcast? What is the legal basis for the NFL’s position on this matter? Is it possible that the NFL is wrong? (Spoiler alert: YES!)
On January 12, 2016, the National Football League approved by near unanimous vote the re-location of the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Los Angeles has not been home to an NFL team since the Rams and the Raiders both left after the 1994 season. In addition to the Rams, the San Diego Chargers also have the option to move to Los Angeles before the 2017 season, which seems likely. The Los Angeles Rams are back in business. NFL Hall of Fame running back (and fellow SMU Mustang!) Eric Dickerson seems pleased with the news:
Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Rams Football Company, by way of the St. Louis Rams LLC, has already taken steps to ensure that the LOS ANGELES RAMS trademark rights are active and the federal registration has been renewed. But there remain other trademark issues that arise from this news of relocation.
Two trademark applications have recently caught my attention. Both involve NFL players and their offhand comments that have become accidental catchphrases. I highlight these two as a means of underscoring the recent trend among athletes to seek to register trademarks of all kinds. Most of these marks, unfortunately, have limited commercial value and a short lifespan for relevance among the consuming public. While I am a champion for protecting your trademark rights, these two particular applications strike me as nothing short of absurd.
Please allow me to explain…
On December 22, 2015, The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed decades of legal precedent and held that the United States Patent and Trademark Office cannot refuse to grant federal registrations for trademarks on the basis of the mark being “disparaging.” This standard of refusing registrations for “disparaging” marks is derived from Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the federal statute that governs U.S. trademark law.