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Archive for the ‘likelihood of consumer confusion’ Category

So it seems the gun world is up in arms (that’s right, I went there) about the fact that the Spearmint Rhino chain of strip clubs has sued gun manufacturer Chiappa Firearms for using a confusingly similar mark on its RHINO 40DS model .357 magnum (Spearmint Rhino Companies Worldwide Inc. v. Chiappa Firearms Ltd et al., 2:11-cv-05682-R–MAN, Central District of California).  I’ve seen no comment from the strip club community.  Apparently they have what they regard as better things to focus on.

Let me mention at the outset that a good friend and eminent member of the Michigan bar tipped me off to this, uh, tussle.  I appreciate it very much because a) it provides a great opportunity to talk about an enduring public misconception about trademark infringement, and b) nothing drives traffic to a blog like the phrase “strip club” in a post title.

The Spearmint Rhino and Chiappa trademarks at issue in the law suit.

Here’s a good photo showing a comparison of the marks, courtesy of this article on the GUNS.COM site.  (I couldn’t help smiling at the phrase “PLENTY of VIDEO” in the title – another savvy web marketer at work.  Touche, my friend.)

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to observe that, aside from the rhinos facing in different directions, the marks actually do look quite similar.  Spearmint Rhino has registered its rhino-outline-in-a-circle mark for “T-shirts and hats; lingerie, namely panties, g-strings, brassieres and corsets for semi-nude and erotic dancers; golf clothing, namely golf shirts, jackets, vests and caps.”  Chiappa has registered its rhino-outline-in-a-circle mark for firearms, but not clothing.

If you clicked over to the GUNS.COM article (and I hope you did), you’ll notice that both the article itself and the reader comments express some surprise and doubt that Spearmint Rhino’s suit has any merit.  I believe the phrase “snowball’s chance in hell” shows up prominently.  This line of thinking can perhaps be summed up as: no one would ever confuse pistols for panties.  Or maybe: how can you mix up guns and G-strings?  Or how about: one holds bullets, the other holds boobs – case closed!  (Sorry.  Traffic, you understand.)

So, would anyone really go out to buy a gun and come home with a G-string instead?  Okay, I’ll grant that one can imagine situations where that might happen.  But would it happen because of confusion caused by the trademarks involved?

The answer to that question is, probably not – but it doesn’t matter.  This is where the enduring public misperception comes into play.  Trademark infringement is not limited to situations where customers are confused into buying one party’s product thinking they’re buying another’s.  This is the important take-away from this article.

People often don’t realize that trademark infringement also exists when the nature of the marks and goods could cause the public to believe there is some connection (such as license, for instance) between the two companies, when in fact that connection doesn’t exist.  Again, not the undies.  This is the important part.

Looked at in that light, maybe Spearmint Rhino’s legal claims don’t seem so ridiculous after all. 

First of all, while the frilly underwear may be more fun to focus on, hopefully you noticed that Spearmint Rhino’s trademark registration also covers T-shirts, hats, golf shirts, jackets, vests and caps.  It’s not unusual at all for makers of outdoor lifestyle products to use their marks on that kind of clothing.

-          The famous GLOCK gun trademark is registered for firearms, but also for “clothing, namely, footwear; headgear, namely, caps, baseball caps, earmuffs, headbands, and headcloths; T-shirts; polo shirts; fleece sweaters; wind-resistant jackets; track suits; neckerchiefs; neckties.”  Perhaps it bears mentioning that T-shirts (at least the white ones) are also a type of underwear?

-          The famous REMINGTON mark is registered for guns, but also for similar clothing goods.

-          Heck, for that matter, the famous HARLEY-DAVIDSON MOTOR CYCLES trademark is registered for motorcycles, but also for hats and caps, and even for “T-Shirts, Tank Tops, Halters, [and] Panties.”

Second, how are these kinds of lifestyle trademarks commonly used on clothing?  By licensing the trademark to another company that’s already in the clothing business.  For some reason, people who spend all day boring out gun barrels don’t want to spend their evenings with straight pins in their mouths, basting seams. 

So, when we strip away (sorry) all the rhetoric, what do we have here?  Two marks that are pretty darn similar in appearance.  One is used on guns, and one is used on a line of products that often have famous gun trademarks on them, via trademark license. 

Could anyone see the Spearmint Rhino mark on, say, a baseball cap and mistakenly believe that the mark was licensed by the gun maker Chiappa?  You can draw your own conclusions, but hopefully I’ve given you a better legal framework to think the matter through.

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There’s an old comedy bit where the comic offers to teach you “everything you’re going to remember from college, ten years after graduation.”  The crash course is offered at a hefty price, but much less than four years of actual college tuition.  There’s a little of that in what we’re going to discuss here today, except for the hefty price of course.

Once you absorb all the knowledge in this article, people will come from miles around to meet you and marvel at your Giant Trademark Brain. And the Law of Averages says that some percentage of them will buy your product, too.

In more than 20 years of advising business owners in the area of trademark law, I’ve noticed many little tidbits of knowledge that I find myself passing along to client after client.  These are things that most business owners and marketing people either don’t know at all or have enduring misunderstandings about. 

Each of these nuggets of information, standing by itself, is not very impressive – but knowing all of them will really increase your comprehension of the trademark process.  For that reason, I have decided to present them all in one place.  So gird your loins and get ready for a crash course in trademark knowledge.

Thing 1:  Trademark rights are created by use of the mark on your goods or services.  Registration of your mark is an important way to increase and extend those rights.

Thing 2:  There is no functional difference between “trademarks” and “service marks” – trademarks identify goods (for example, BUDWEISER® for beer) and service marks identify… that’s right, services (e.g., HOLIDAY INN® for hotel services.)  So for the rest of this post, let’s simplify things by calling them all trademarks, or just marks.

Thing 3:  You don’t register a trademark for “everything,” you register it for specifically identified goods and/or services that are spelled out in your application.  The more types of “things” you want to cover, the more you’ll pay in filing fees for the application.

Thing 4:  Give a lot of thought to what goods/services you want to cover before filing your trademark application, because once the application is filed you cannot broaden its coverage (you can only narrow it, by taking things out.)

Thing 5:  New trademark applications literally are filed every minute at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  Once you decide on a mark and goods/services, file your application as soon as possible to minimize the chances that someone else will “beat you to the punch.”

Thing 6:  No, you cannot file a trademark application or keep alive a registration for a mark you have no current intention of using, just to “keep people away from it.”

Thing 7:  The designations TM and SM that you see everywhere really have no official significance.  They are used unofficially, to indicate that the user regards the name as proprietary.

Thing 8:  You may not use the ® symbol with your mark until your mark is actually registered (not just filed.)  After the registration issues, you should always use it at least once on every package, advertisement, marketing piece, etc.

Thing 9:  You should always search a new product name (the earlier the better) before committing to it or using it.  Not doing so is a dare to the Trademark Infringement Gods.

Thing 10:  Because trademark rights arise from use (see Thing 1 above), trademark searching is an art and not a science.  When searching for potential users of conflicting marks in the vast universe of information out there, you have to choose some logical place to stop.  Always remember that, for these reasons, no trademark search is perfect – just the best search reasonably feasible at the time it’s conducted.

Thing 11:  Minor differences in spelling and inventive spellings won’t make an otherwise infringing mark “safe” to use or register.

Thing 12:  In a similar vein, you probably attach a much greater significance to small product differences within your industry than the general public (or a judge) will.  This means that when comparing products to determine whether you infringe someone else’s mark, the judge is not going to be swayed by the argument that “no one could be confused because the products are totally different – theirs is a 6-pin device and ours is an 8-pin device!”

Thing 13:  When choosing a new name, remember that the more closely it describes the product (or some feature or function of it), the more likely you are to have problems with availability and/or protection.  I could give you a half hour on why, but just trust me on this.  You’re much better off picking a name that is not descriptive.

Thing 14:  Word mark registrations are inherently more flexible than logo/design marks, because use of a registered word mark as a part of your logo is covered by the registration.  The reverse is not true.

Thing 15:  Because of Thing 14, when first starting down the registration path (and anytime cost/budget is a large factor), it’s usually advisable to register the word form of your mark first and register the logo version when finances allow.

Thing 16:  It can take many months for an application to mature into a trademark registration, but there’s no reason to hold off on using the mark in the meantime.  Quite the opposite, in fact – usually you’re better off starting use as soon as possible.

Thing 17:  The time to think about whether your new name will actually be available for you to use is as soon as possible.  Yesterday, if possible.  A month ago, better yet.  Leaving that issue until the last minute invites bad decision-making and disaster.

Thing 18:  Most trademark infringement disputes are resolved through negotiation before any suit is filed, usually with the “junior user” being provided some time period to shift over to a new name.  But don’t take this as an excuse to go forward with a name you know is questionable, because the first sentence often doesn’t apply where the infringement appears intentional.  In those cases, the aggrieved party may go straight to court.

Thing 19:  Using or registering your new name as a domain name does not create trademark rights, unless you use that domain name in a trademark-like way on your website. 

Thing 20:  Similarly, merely registering your corporate name with your state’s secretary of state does not create any trademark rights or constitute any type of government approval for you to use the name as a trademark.

Thing 21:  In the trademark world, as elsewhere, what goes around comes around.  Don’t try to nestle up to a competitor by using a similar mark.  You wouldn’t want anyone doing that to you.  Don’t make me be your mom on this – Golden Rule, and all that.

This is not, of course, intended as a complete list.  Hopefully it is helpful, though.  If I get good response on this article, I’ll think up some more bits of important knowledge.  And then, dear reader, together we can venture down the uncertain path of the sequel.

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The alleged infringing "Hell's Four Finger" Ring marketed by Alexander McQueen Trading Limited.

Someone didn’t do their homework, and it’s going to be a costly and embarrassing lesson.

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club has sued the Alexander McQueen fashion house for trademark infringement.  The suit was filed October 25, 2010 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.  The club also named the Saks retail chain and Internet retailer Zappos.com as defendants for their roles in selling the allegedly infringing products. 

In its complaint, the Hells Angels club requests findings that the defendants infringed its trademarks and committed unfair competition and trademark dilution.  The club seeks an injunction preventing additional sales of the alleged infringing products as well as a recall of the alleged infringing inventory.  The Hells Angels ask that the inventory be delivered to a third party for destruction.  Finally, the club seeks money damages which it asks be multiplied because of the blatant and “exemplary” nature of the infringement, along with the club’s attorney fees for the action.

The alleged infringing "Hell's Knuckle Duster" Clutch marketed by Alexander McQueen Trading Limited.

The motorcycle club claims that Alexander McQueen Trading Limited, the fashion house founded by designer Alexander McQueen (who committed suicide earlier this year), infringed its winged skull design mark by using it in a multi-finger “Hell’s Four Finger” ring and “Hell’s Knuckle Duster” clutch handbag (see pictures.)  The suit also claims that the defendants infringed by marketing a jacquard dress and a pashmina scarf using the word mark HELLS ANGELS, without authorization by the club.

The Hells Angels club registered a winged skull design (which the club calls the “HAMC Death Head design”) in 2009 as U.S. Trademark Registration No. 3666916 for goods including “jewelry, jewelry pins, clocks and watches, earrings, key rings made of precious metal, badges made of precious metal, and chains made of precious metal.”  An image of the registered design appears at right, below.  In its complaint, the club claims use of the design since 1948.

An image of the "HAMC Death Head design" mark registered for various goods, including jewelry, by the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.

The same design is registered separately (U.S. Reg. No. 3311550, issued in 2007) for “clocks; pins being jewelry; rings being jewelry.” In that registration the Hells Angels claim use of the mark on those goods since 1966.

What Happened Here?

This is, by all appearances, a tremendous blunder by Alexander McQueen Trading Limited, as well as Saks and Zappos.com.  You’re welcome to judge for yourself, of course, but to this observer the designs used by the defendants unquestionably are confusingly similar with the design registered by the Hells Angels.  The use of the words “HELL’S” and “HELL’S ANGELS” merely completed the effect, making it a virtual certainty that consumers would perceive some connection with the infamous motorcycle club.

Here, boys and girls, we have a perfect example of why marketers should always consult an experienced trademark practitioner well in advance of introducing a new product line.  It frankly seems hard to believe that marketers as savvy as those at the House of McQueen, Saks and Zappos.com could have failed to recognize the potential trademark implications of their actions here.  Perhaps they did. 

In any event, it’s highly unlikely that these product ideas would have survived a review by an attorney experienced in trademark law.  Right about now, it probably seems to the good people at the House of McQueen, Saks and Zappos that a review by their trademark attorneys would have been money well spent.

RING AND HANDBAG IMAGES COURTESY OF STYLITE.COM.

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Gwen Stefani isn't going to screw up and step on someone's toes in the rag trade. You, on the other hand, might.

In the preceding post in this series, I mentioned some reasons why it’s a good idea to hire an attorney with experience in trademark law to handle the application to register your band name.  There are other reasons why hiring an attorney for this process is a good idea, though.  For instance, your attorney will have the experience to know whether existing trademarks covering peripheral “merch” goods categories are problematic.

What do I mean by that?  Well, when you put your band name/trademark on goods like clothing, you are wading into an industry not directly related to music or entertainment.  The apparel industry has its own brands and, unless you’re Gwen Stefani, as a musician you may be unaware of another identical or highly similar brand name in that industry. 

Music and fashion tend to track similar trends, attitudes and tastes, however.  Both emphasize youth, rebellion and counterculture style.  This makes it understandable that similar or identical names might arise in both the music and fashion industries.  So, as an example, it would’t be surprising for a band named “RAGE OF ANGELS” to bump into an existing clothing brand also called “RAGE OF ANGELS.”

Is this a problem?  Well, if the brands are identical as in the above example, and if you hope to use and register your band name for clothing, the answer is almost certainly yes.  That’s a relatively easy call for anyone to make.  But what if the names are not identical but merely similar to a greater or lesser extent?  Now it becomes a judgment call.  And this is by far the more common occurrence, by the way.

This is no small issue.  Many bands rely heavily on the money they make from sales of “merch” goods, and tee shirts and other clothing items form a dominant part of those sales.  All the more reason to have an experienced attorney search the name for these goods at the outset, in order to avoid these problems.

An attorney with experience in trademark law is better equipped to make that judgment call.  It probably would be more than worth the cost of a bit of attorney’s time to avoid wasting $275 – $325 in filing fees (for a clothing category), not to mention whatever problems and costs may come with a challenge or opposition by the clothing brand.

You want to focus on rockin’ the joint up, not on cease and desist letters from fashionistas.  Save yourself the headaches and work with an attorney who knows how to spot a potential issue in this arena and can help you avoid problems.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR USER BRAYAN E., UNDER THIS CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE.

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 My last post discussed the issue of brand proximity, by which I mean the co-existence of other identical or similar brand names for other goods or services.  I mentioned that it is not necessary that there be no other users of your name whatsoever.  Rather, there should be no other users of the mark for goods or services so similar to your own that consumers will believe there is a connection between the two products – either that they are made by the same company, or that there is some other connection such as licensing or approval of one use by the other user.

Figure of Justice

Don't be misled - in real life, she takes off the blindfold and examines your mark and your motives.

This (mistaken) belief that some connection exists between two trademarks is the key to a court’s determination of the issue of trademark infringement.  If the two trademark uses at issue are similar enough that it is reasonably likely that consumers will make such a mistake (a circumstance that is called “a likelihood of consumer confusion” in trademark jargon), then the court will find trademark infringement.  In that case, the court almost always will issue an injunction, ordering the later (or “junior”) trademark user to stop using its mark.  In some cases, the court also will order the infringing later user to pay damages to the earlier (or “senior”) user.

How does the court make this determination?  Does it try to project itself into the minds of the public?  Of course, judges cannot read the minds of the purchasing public and formulate a collective viewpoint.   Instead, the judge considers a list of factors formulated by courts in prior decisions.  The list of factors may vary slightly depending on which U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rendered the decision applicable in your area, but the similarities greatly outnumber the minor differences.

Generally, the court will consider these factors:

Ÿ  the strength of the senior user’s mark (if the plaintiff’s mark is generic, highly descriptive, or widely used by unrelated parties, the law suit will fail);

Ÿ  the similarity of the marks themselves (often the uses are not identical – so how similar are they?);

Ÿ  the similarity of the respective goods and the trade channels through which they are advertised and sold (e.g., are both products sold through sporting goods stores?);

Ÿ  whether consumers have evidenced any actual confusion between the two uses (“Dear Sony – I bought your SONNY brand HDTV and it’s a piece of junk!  I’ll never buy anything from you again!”); and

Ÿ  what level of care the public is likely to use in buying such goods (generally speaking, cheap goods = little care, while expensive goods = greater care.) 

For obvious reasons, the court will first satisfy itself that the plaintiff’s mark is strong.  The next thing the judge will assess is the degree of similarity of the marks and the goods or services.  If they are not reasonably similar, the court will not look any further. 

Beyond these initial considerations, the most decisive of these factors probably is that of whether any actual consumer confusion has occurred.  Since the test for infringement is whether a likelihood of consumer confusion exists, a court obviously will not need to see much actual confusion before deciding that such a likelihood exists.

Another “super factor” that the court may consider is the defendant/junior user’s intention in selecting the mark.  If the evidence suggests that the defendant chose the mark with the intention that confusion occur (to provide a competitive boost, for instance, by riding on the plaintiff’s brand good will), then in some jurisdictions the court will go as far as to assume that the junior user succeeded in that effort, and find infringement.

Of course, other factors may come into play, and these factors are all indirect ways for the judge to assess the likely consumer reaction to the two brands at issue.  Usually, attorneys on both sides of the law suit will also conduct consumer surveys to try to get a direct read on purchaser understanding.  If properly conducted to avoid leading those surveyed, these surveys can be a potent tool in proving or disproving infringement.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR USER MIRA66, UNDER THIS CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE.

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