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Posts Tagged ‘dilution’

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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My last article discussed cybersquatting, and the remedies available in U.S. federal court under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, or ACPA.  Here, we will consider what you must be able to demonstrate in order to win a case brought under the ACPA. 

Be ready to make these points when you get to court. And don't wear that blouse.

In the previous article I pointed out that the ACPA defines cybersquatting (which the statute, a part of the Lanham Act, refers to as “cyberpiracy”) as “registering, trafficking in, or using” a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to another party’s distinctive trademark, “with a bad faith intent to profit from that mark.”  If the complaining party’s trademark is deemed a “famous” mark under the law, cybersquatting also occurs where the domain name would “dilute” the famous mark by tarnishing or blurring the public’s perception it. 

So if you believe your trademark is being cybersquatted, this definition sets up several hurdles for you to clear in order to show an ACPA violation.  Let’s think through them, in order of importance.

Bad Faith Intent

 Most importantly, you must be able show that the defendant acted with “a bad faith intent to profit” from your mark.  But how do you demonstrate that the defendant had such a bad faith intent?  As you might guess, cybersquatters rarely cooperate by admitting that fact.  

The ACPA, anticipating this, provides a number of circumstances that will be taken as evidence of a bad faith intent: 

Ÿ  Where the domain has not been used for a bona fide offering of goods or services, and the defendant offers to sell it to the trademark owner for a profit.  (Many cybersquatters try to avoid this by setting up a site under the domain that features some relatively generic content or links.) 

Ÿ  Where the defendant provided false contact information when registering the domain, or thereafter has failed to maintain correct contact information with the registrar. 

Ÿ  Where the defendant has registered a number of domain names that are identical or confusingly similar to the marks of other parties.  Or, 

Ÿ  Where the defendant intended to divert consumers from the trademark owner’s website to a site that harms the good will represented by the mark (whether for commercial gain, or in order to tarnish or disparage the mark.) 

This demonstration that the defendant operated under a bad faith intent to profit from your trademark is critical.  You won’t win an ACPA case unless you can make that showing.

 Distinctive Trademark

 The next important showing you must make as an ACPA plaintiff (admittedly, some might say it is most important) is that your trademark is distinctive.  The ACPA says that your mark must be “distinctive at the time of registration of the [offending] domain name.”  It specifically includes personal names, provided they are distinctive of your goods. 

Distinctiveness, in trademark terms, means that the mark is capable of identifying your goods or services, and enables consumers to distinguish them from those of your competitors.  If your mark is highly descriptive of your products, or if it is a surname, or if it is used by others in your field, then it probably will not pass the distinctiveness test. 

Bear in mind that your mark need not necessarily be registered to be protected under the ACPA.  Unregistered marks will be protected, as long as they are distinctive.

In addition to being an important threshold requirement in and of itself, the distinctiveness of your mark also is a factor in the “bad faith intent” determination.  The ACPA also provides some factors, all of which bear upon the distinctiveness of the plaintiff’s mark, that tend to show an absence of bad faith intent: 

Ÿ  Where the defendant has trademark rights of her own in the mark; and 

Ÿ  Where the trademark is the personal name of the defendant, or a name commonly used to identify him. 

(The ACPA also makes special provisions to prevent the dilution of so-called “famous” trademarks by cybersquatters.  For the sake of brevity here, I will leave consideration of that aspect for a later article on the topic of trademark dilution.) 

Registering, Trafficking In, or Using

 It should be a fairly straightforward matter to demonstrate that the defendant has registered, trafficked in, or used the domain name in question.  The important thing to remember here is that the bad faith intent mentioned above needn’t have been present at the time the defendant registered the domain name.  It can arise later, at any point when he is using the domain in connection with a website, or when she is “trafficking in” (i.e., offering to sell) the domain. 

So even if you originally registered the domain in good faith, you can become a cybersquatter if your later use or your attempt to sell the domain crosses the boundary into bad faith intent to profit.  The same is true if your use of the domain later crosses that boundary. 

The ACPA also carefully defines “trafficking in” as including (without limitation) transactions such as “sales, purchases, loans, pledges, licenses, exchanges of currency, and any other transfer for consideration or receipt in exchange for consideration.” 

As discussed in the previous article, the ACPA provides a wide range of remedies.  Unless you can satisfy these three requirements, however – bad faith intent, distinctiveness of your mark, and registering/trafficking/using – your defendant will not satisfy the ACPA definition of a cybersquatter, and your law suit will fail.  The proofs necessary to elicit actual or statutory damages are a separate aspect of the suit, not considered here but good fodder for another article if anyone expresses interest.

My next article will cover a popular alternative to the ACPA approach: proceeding through arbitration under what are called the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy, commonly referred to as the “UDRP” approach.  Stay tuned!

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

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So, you’re ready to take your business onto the Internet, and the most sensible way to do that is to register your well-known trademark as a domain name.  You try to do so, but learn that another party already has registered your trademark as a domain name.  Your brand may have been cybersquatted.  What are your options?

Jolly Roger

By the time you see the flags, it may be too late - cyberpirates have already made off with your valuable trademark.

“Cybersquatting” is a term that was coined to describe the bad faith registration and use of another party’s trademark as a domain name, with the intent to profit somehow from the good will of that trademark.  The term harkens back to the practice of illegal tenants “squatting” in derelict or condemned buildings.

A party injured by cybersquatting can sue under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, or ACPA.  The ACPA became a part of the U.S. trademark statute, also known as the Lanham Act.

(I should point out here that trademark owners injured by cybersquatting also can proceed through arbitration under what are called the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy, commonly referred to as the “UDRP” approach.  I will be discussing the UDRP approach in an upcoming related article.  This approach can be quicker and significantly less expensive than proceeding under the ACPA, though it also offers a narrower range of remedies.)

The ACPA defines cybersquatting (which the statute refers to as “cyberpiracy”) as “registering, trafficking in, or using” a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to another party’s distinctive trademark, “with a bad faith intent to profit from that mark.”  If the complaining party’s trademark is deemed a “famous” mark under the law, cybersquatting also occurs where the domain name would “dilute” the famous mark by tarnishing or blurring the public’s perception it.

Bear in mind that the domain name used by the cybersquatter need not be (and in fact, often is not) identical to the trademark at issue.  One practice that domain pirates quickly adopted is “typosquatting,” which involves registering common misspellings of a trademark as domain names.  When an unwary web-user accidentally types the misspelled trademark, he or she is taken to the pirate’s site.  The ACPA is broad enough to cover this practice, provided it can be shown that the misspelled domain name is confusingly similar to the plaintiff’s trademark.

The ACPA’s definition of cybersquatting creates several issues of proof for the would-be plaintiff, which I will discuss in an upcoming article.  For now, let’s examine the remedies that the ACPA provides for those injured by cybersquatting.

If a violation of the ACPA is found, the court can order the forfeiture or cancellation of the offending domain name, or its transfer to the trademark owner. The trademark owner also can recover up to three times his or her actual damages.  Actual damages include any profits the cybersquatter made through his use of the domain, along with any losses sustained by the trademark owner through the cybersquatters activities (such as lost sales or harm to the mark’s reputation.)

The trademark owner also has the option of foregoing actual damages and instead taking statutory damages (similar in nature to the copyright statutory damages I discussed in an earlier post) in the amount of $1,000 to $100,000 per domain name.  The statutory damages amount is left to the court’s discretion – presumably, the more odious the cybersquatter’s actions, the higher the award.

Finally, in suitable cases a successful plaintiff can get an injunction prohibiting further cybersquatting by the defendant, and in “exceptional cases,” can also recover attorney’s fees from the cybersquatter.

Where the cybersquatter is offshore and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, a provision of the ACPA allows the injured party to proceed “in rem,” or directly against the domain name itself.  In these cases the only remedy is that the domain will be awarded to the plaintiff.

If your trademark has been cybersquatted, the ACPA provides a range of legal options you can use against against the pirate.  My next article will discuss what your law suit must show, in order to get an award of the remedies provided by the ACPA.  Another related upcoming article will discuss the UDRP approach and evaluate the respective benefits of ACPA vs. UDRP.  Stay tuned for more discussion!

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR USER REITVELD, 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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When selecting a new brand name, some marketers mistakenly believe they cannot use any mark that anyone else uses.  That is not correct.  It usually is not a requirement that no one else uses the mark, for any product or service.  With some exceptions for “famous” marks, a party’s trademark rights generally are limited to the goods or services on which that party uses the mark, as well as products and services that are so similar that consumers would assume a connection between the uses.

So, for instance, two companies probably could coexist in using the mark CREST if one used it for toothpaste and one used it for windbreaker jackets.  This is because the respective goods are so different that no one would be likely to assume the uses are connected in some way.  The two brands could coexist in the marketplace without any consumer confusion.

Flossing

"This CHEVROLET brand dental floss is great stuff!"

On the other hand, you would not be well advised to adopt the mark CREST for dental floss, in the face of an existing use of the mark for toothpaste.  In this case, the goods are similar enough that consumers are reasonably likely to mistakenly assume a connection between the goods – either that both products are marketed by the same company, or that the well-known CREST toothpaste brand has licensed or otherwise approved the use of CREST on dental floss.  The case might be less clear if the uses were somewhat less directly related – a CREST cosmetic dentistry office or a CREST body wash product, for instance.

You should take these concepts into account when considering new brand names.  If you have fallen in love with a proposed name, don’t necessarily cross it off your list just because someone else is using the mark on unrelated goods.  Instead, consider whether the other party’s goods are similar enough to your own to cause a likelihood of consumer confusion. 

At the same time, remember that those enmeshed in an industry may have a distorted view of what goods are related or unrelated.  A former colleague of mine once had an opponent in the computer industry assert something to the effect of, “there’s no way consumers would be confused, the products are completely unrelated – yours is a sixteen-pin device and ours is a seventeen-pin device.” 

Try to bear in mind that a court probably will consider the issue from the perspective of a consumer far less aware than yourself of the subtle divisions within your industry.  Hopefully you have hired a seasoned trademark attorney to help you down the brand selection path – this is a very good time to pay close attention to his or her advice.

Earlier I mentioned special treatment for famous marks.  A brand that is “famous” (a legal determination), is given a sort of super-protection under the trademark law, which forbids the use of that mark even for unrelated goods or services.  This is to prevent the dilution of the single meaning of the mark in the minds of the public, by “blurring” that association.  Dilution is a broad enough topic to deserve a separate discussion at a later date.  Suffice it to say, however, that it probably would be a bad idea to choose COCA-COLA as your brand name for any type of goods or services.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR USER D SHARON PRUITT, UNDER THIS CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE.

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Hello and welcome to the IP Registration and Enforcement Blog!  This blog is brought to you by Jeffrey Davidson, a partner in the suburban Chicago law firm of Davidson & Davidson LLC.

Here we will be discussing issues of trademark, copyright, unfair competition, dilution, false advertising and trade secret law, as well as related issues in entertainment law, all with a focus on the registration and enforcement of intellectual property.  We’ll examine recent developments in the law and offer tips to assist those charged with registering and enforcing intellectual property.

Please check back often to see what unusual topics we’ve covered since your last visit.  We look forward to a long and fruitful discussion within the IP and entertainment law community!

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