Decorative, Ornamental, and Aesthetically Functional – A Cautionary Tale

Decorative, Ornamental, and Aesthetically Functional – A Cautionary Tale

They can be seen everywhere: funny phrases, beautiful works of art, and hip logos adorning hats, shirts, and apparel of all sizes and shapes.  But no matter how cool the design, catchy the slogan, or hilarious the pun, take caution before expending time and money trying to trademark or market your creative trademark.  Unfortunately, trademark law takes the on mantle of the grumpy old man whose yard swallowed many a Frisbee® and baseball of our youth, his catchphrase no longer the classic and effective “Get off my lawn,” but the much dryer “That’s decorative, ornamental, or aesthetically functional!”

The Trademark Office will refuse to register marks that are merely “decorative or ornamental.”  Meaning that if an applied-for mark is not being used as a source or brand identifier, but is rather a flashy design merely adorning the products being sold, such mark is ineligible for trademark registration.  Such objections usually arise if the mark is displayed only on the goods themselves, such as on the front of a tee shirt, and not in a manner that identifies the maker of such goods.  Thus, a decorative or ornamental objection can be overcome, or avoided altogether, if an applicant properly uses the mark in commerce as a source-identifier.  Trademark counsel will be able to advise regarding proper filing strategy for your mark.  However, once a mark is registered, it may still face an aesthetic functionality claim, if not properly utilized.

Aesthetic functionality is a murky area of trademark law that traces its roots to a comment in the 1938 Restatement of Torts: “When goods are bought largely for their aesthetic value, their features may be functional because they definitely contribute to that value and thus aid the performance of an object for which the goods are intended.”  Essentially, a mark is aesthetically functional if consumers are purchasing products for the mark itself, and such mark is not acting as a source-identifier.  This is not to say that a mark cannot act as both the reason a consumer purchases a particular product and a source identifier.  Consider the Nike swoosh.  Consumers buy all manner of goods prominently bearing the iconic swoosh, and we can reasonably infer that at least some of these consumers are buying these goods because of the design.  However, Nike has spent considerable effort in establishing itself as a brand, and consumers are not simply buying products because they like the swoosh design aesthetically, but also because they have brand loyalty to Nike and/or like Nike as a company.

Problems arise when consumers purchase products because of “interest in the specific names, independent of the reputation the companies developed when selling the products” LTTB LLC v. Redbubble, Inc., Case No. 18-cv-00509-RS, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Jul. 12, 2019).  A recent case in California, LTTB LLC v. Redbubble, Inc., highlights this distinction.  In LTTB, plaintiff LTTB brought suit against Redbubble, Inc. regarding numerous products featuring LTTB’s registered trademarks for LETTUCE TURNIP THE BEET (the “Marks”) for sale on Redbubble’s website.  LTTB LLC, at *2.  Redbubble successfully sought summary judgment claiming, in part, that the Marks were aesthetically functional.  Id.  The court held that LTTB was selling the pun, “Lettuce Turnip the Beet,” itself, stating:

The products are simply the vehicle for distributing the claimed “trademark,” rather than the other way around, where a trademark is used to identify the source of the goods. While companies that have already established s famous mark for selling a product—for instance Coca-Cola, Volkswagon, Audi, or Nike—may thereafter be able also to exploit consumer interest in the mark by selling t-shirts or other products emblazoned with such marks, and preclude others from doing so—that simply does not present an equivalent issue.

Id. at *7.

LTTB’s Marks could serve simultaneously as a functional component of a product and a trademark, if the typical consumer not only purchased the goods for its aesthetic appeal, but also inferred from the Marks that the goods were produced, sponsored, or endorsed by LTTB.  LTTB LLC, at *8 (citations omitted).  However, the court held that LTTB presented no evidence that a purchaser of “Lettuce Turnip the Beet” products could infer from the use of the pun that such products were “produced, sponsored, or endorsed by any particular person or entity.”  Id. at *8.  Thus, consumers bought these products not because they originated from a specific producer, but because of the pun itself, which is a clear example of aesthetic functionality.  Additionally, even though LTTB’s marks had achieved “incontestability” on the Federal Trademark Register, statutory incontestability “does not preclude challenges based on arguments that the marks are ‘functional.’”  Id. (citing 15 U.S.C.§ 1115(b)(8)).

To avoid claims of aesthetic functionality, trademark owners must ensure their marks act as source identifiers.  In order to best protect your designs and slogans, we always recommend you consult a licensed trademark attorney.  Counsel can help you to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure maximum protection.

 

– Fred Freeman, Esq.

Canadian Trademark Law Changes

Canadian Trademark Law Changes

On June 17, 2019, Canada will enact new regulations aimed to bring Canadian trademark law in line with other companies like the United States.  Below are pertinent changes that will affect how you file and/or maintain your Canadian trademark registrations.

Nice Agreement and Filing Fees:

The Nice Classification, established by the Nice Agreement (1957), is an international classification of goods and services for identifying and registering trademarks.  The Nice Classification system is updated every five years, and the latest version includes 45 classes, with classes 1-34 representing goods and classes 35-45 representing services.  An applicant seeking to register a trademark can choose from these classes as appropriate for its goods/services.  Since the system is recognized in numerous countries, this helps to streamline applying for trademarks internationally.

Under Canada’s previous trademark laws, goods and services descriptions did not require Nice Classifications — applicants needed only to pay a single $250 CAD fee and to describe their goods/services in “ordinary commercial terms.”  One of the significant advantages of the previous Canadian regime was the ability to file with respect to an unlimited range of goods and services, and still only pay a single application fee.  Under the new law, the initial application fee will be $330 CAD for one class and $100 for each additional class in which an applicant wishes to file.

Additionally, for existing Canadian registrations, after June 17, 2019, registrants will need to pay per class for renewed marks as well.  The current renewal fee is $350 CAD, but will increase to $400 CAD, plus $125 for each additional class.

Overall, these changes will make filing for trademark protection in Canada more expensive moving forward.  In order to avoid paying additional fees per class, you may choose to file any new marks and/or renew any existing marks now.

The above changes bring Canadian trademark law in line with many other jurisdictions, including the United States, where applicants are required to separate the descriptions of goods and services according to the Nice Classification system, and to pay a fee for each class claimed in connection with any particular mark.

Shorter Renewal Period:

Previously, registrants were required to renew trademark registrations every 15 years in Canada.  The new revisions will reduce the renewal period to only 10 years.  You may choose to renew your marks in Canada before June 17, 2019 for an additional 15 years of protection.  If you renew a mark in Canada after June 17, 2019, your trademark will be valid for only 10 additional years, after which you must file an additional renewal (essentially losing 5 years of protection for the same cost).

Removal of “Use” as a Requirement for Registration:

Under prior Canadian law, no registration could be issued for a mark until the applicant officially declared use of the trademark in Canada.  Applications based on use in Canada had to contain a date of first use, and applications based on proposed use could not proceed to registration until a Declaration of Use was provided.  The new law removes the use requirement.  After June 17, 2019, an applicant will be able to file and obtain a registration for a mark without ever having used the mark in Canada.  This is similar to intent-to-use applications in the U.S. Under the new system, being the first to file an application will be extremely important, and you may wish to prioritize your Canadian applications in the future.

Madrid Protocol:

Canada’s new law adopts the Madrid Protocol which allows applicants to file an international application within a centrally-administered trademark system.  The applicant may select the member states in which they wish to obtain national protection.  These international applications must be based on a domestic registration or pending application for an identical trademark.  After June 17, 2019, applicants may designate Canada in new International Applications, or as a Subsequent Designation in existing registrations.  We recommend seeking legal counsel prior to filing under the Madrid Protocol, as there are additional considerations and requirements to be taken into account.  Please contact our offices with any questions you may have regarding filing under the Madrid Protocol.

Distinctiveness:

The new Canadian law empowers Canadian trademark examiners to object to a trademark application on the basis that the applied-for mark is not distinctive.  Previously, examiners’ review process was more limited.  After June 17, 2019, new applications may be rejected if an examiner’s “preliminary view is that the trademark is not inherently distinctive,” which will likely lead to more substantive objections during the examination process than in the past.

You May Wish to Consider:

  • Filing new applications, particularly Multi-Class Applications, before June 17, 2019
    • Canada’s filing fee is $250 now, but will increase to $330 (plus $100 for each additional class) on June 17.
  • Renewing Canadian registrations before June 17, 2019
    • You may want to renew before June 17, 2019 regardless of when renewal is due to reduce costs — the current renewal fee is $350, but it will increase to $400 on or after June 17 (plus $125 for each additional class).
  • Filing immediately to protect key brands in Canada. Trolls will be active and may try to acquire rights in your marks due to the lack of a use requirement in pending and new applications as of June 17, 2019.
    • Employing watch services for key brands in Canada.
  • Designating Canada in new Madrid Protocol international applications, or in existing registrations as a Subsequent Designation, starting June 17, 2019.
  • The impact of the new law on any pending Canadian applications you may have.

 

Please feel free to contact us with any questions.  – Rina Van Orden, Esq.

 

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, & Trademark Law

GLO readers, did you take advantage of any Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals? Millions shop, billions have been spent, and businesses may be thinking of ways to use “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” to promote the sales that their companies will have on these days. The question is – When it comes to trademarks and potential infringement, should companies be worried about using these terms in their marketing?

Using catchy phrases and slogans can create a lasting image with customers and allows companies to create brand recognition and increase the potential for sales. Acquiring trademarks for a business’s intellectual property protects a business from copycats and provides legal remedies. Companies (some more than others) diligently patrol the use of their trademarks and pursue infringement not just for monetary damages, but so that they do not lose their trademark or its marketing power.

The short answer to whether companies should be worried about receiving a cease and desist letter or otherwise for using “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” in their marketing is: probably not. However, it is worthwhile to understand why this is, and when businesses do need to worry.

Why are “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” okay for businesses?

If a business had to avoid using “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” the way they evade using “Super Bowl” and “March Madness” in their advertisements, no one would be able to refer to their sale as the “Black Friday Sale”, or “Black Friday Deals”. However, it turns out that no one has control of these terms in the same broad way that other companies have over trademarks.

A search for “Black Friday” on the U.S. Trademark Database reveals 38 “Black Friday” trademarks or marks using “Black Friday” with another word or term (ex: Black Friday Store). The live marks for “Black Friday” include one for a beer, a computer game, and an individual in Cleveland, Ohio for advertising and marketing services.

These examples help demonstrate an important principle of trademark law— trademarks only cover the registered use of a specific good or service – meaning that unless someone uses Black Friday to market a beer, computer program, or advertising services, they are likely not going to run into any problems. A search for “Cyber Monday” turns up no trademark for the exact phrase, though there are several variations (ex: TGI Cyber Monday).

So, why has no one else registered Black Friday or Cyber Monday as a trademark?

Depending on who you ask, many say that “Black Friday” originated in Philadelphia as a phrase used to describe post-Thanksgiving traffic.  Over time, it developed into a colloquialism for retail services the day after Thanksgiving. It may seem like a great idea to register a trademark for “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” for everything you can think of so you have a monopoly on the terms. However, you cannot register any phrase you want as a trademark – there are specific rules you must follow.

The USPTO does not allow the registration of generic words or phrases. For instance, a company that makes computers cannot trademark the word “computer” to sell its goods. It is considered generic, and too likely to be used in the course of daily business for many businesses in the same industry. A business can use a generic term if it does not fall within the industry, though. For example, Apple Inc. is allowed to use “Apple” and the apple logo to sell computers because the word is not generic for the sale of computers. The word apple makes you think of the brand that sells computers instead of just the fruit, or instead of just computers.

Previously inventive terms can also become generic. If due to its popularity or significance, the brand’s trademark has become the generic name for, or synonymous with, a general class of product or service (usually against the intentions of the trademark’s holder) then the company may lose its trademark. Examples of companies that are constantly facing this issue are “Xerox”, “Band-Aid”, and “Kleenex”. The mark BLACK FRIDAY as registered in connection with beer avoids this issue because it is not a generic term for beer. “Black Friday” has become the generic term used for the day for sales after Thanksgiving, and “Cyber Monday” for online sales the following Monday. Therefore, companies may use these terms to promote their own sales on those days with little risk of trademark infringement – no one owns trademarks for that type of use, and likely no one can register the terms due to them being generic promotional terms.

Black Friday – not just in the United States

While we think of Thanksgiving as a holiday unique to the United States and Canada, it has spread globally, as has the awareness of Black Friday and Black Friday deals. Picking up on this, Hong Kong-based company Super Union Holdings Ltd. (“Super Union”) registered the trademark “Black Friday” in Germany for almost all goods and services. Super Union, not unlike the NFL and NCAA, diligently patrolled the use of its mark, and even more diligently enforced it. When other businesses used “Black Friday”, Super Union sent warnings, and several injunctions to stop using the term were issued. Eventually, companies filed cancellation requests against the registration. PayPal, itself not the target of any enforcement measures, decided to join the cancellation proceedings specifically to take a stand for the rights and interests of retail. One company that filed a complaint stated that “Black Friday” was a purely promotional term in widespread use around the world and well-known in Germany, and that its registration as a trademark was illegitimate in the first place.

In April 2018, the German Patent and Trademark Office (DPMA) finally declared the term free for all to use in commerce, signaling the end of Super Union’s trademark monopoly on “Black Friday” in Germany. DPMA considered that lack of distinctiveness, being that the term was generic, was enough to cancel the mark.

Conclusion

If this all makes you nervous about whether or not a word or term is a registered trademark or not, here is some advice: if you see the ® for a registered trademark or a ™ for a trademark in the process of being registered, you are being notified that you must not use this trademarked phrase without permission in any other business. The best place to be sure of the status of a phrase or name is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website, which anyone can access for free. As always, you should contact an attorney before you use a trademarked word or phrase in commerce to avoid any issues stemming from potential trademark infringement.

Happy shopping!

The Intersection of Trademarks and Art

Written by: Mari Kat Gavin

Art and intellectual property law intersect in many obvious ways—intellectual property is, after all, the protection of human creation. However, copyright normally gets a lot of the spotlight. There is art in trademark law, don’t get me wrong. Andy Warhol’s series on consumer products are some of the most well-known works of art incorporating brands, and additionally commenting on them. However, I find that I less often find incorporation of trademarks in art that aren’t a commentary on consumerist culture.

This month, I was fortunate enough to encounter such a piece at the VCU Institute of Contemporary Art. In the Declaration Exhibit, I found the piece Edifice and Mortar by Sonya Clark. Clark used the unusual mediums of brick, hair donated by local Richmond barbers, and a blue glass mirror. She created a rectangular shape out of bricks and then incorporated the blue mirror so as to represent a subverted American flag. She then imprinted a portion of the Declaration of Independence on the front and TRADEMARKS on the back.

Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. The words imprinted onto the back of the “flag” was not what you would consider a modern day trademark. However, trademarks are the oldest form of intellectual property, some say back to Roman times. Artisans would stamp their “mark” into goods that they had a hand in producing. Consumers could see these branded goods and be sure of the quality of the good that they would receive, because trademarks are, at their essence, an indicator of source. The twist here, is that the bricks reveal stamps that say “El Schiavo”, Italian for “Slave”.

This piece successfully integrates the concept of trademark law and consumer protection into a beautiful commentary on society, which often ignores the monumental part that slaves played in building our nation. This is especially poignant in Richmond, the second largest slave importation city in the nation during the time of slavery. Looking back to the mediums used, the hair donated by local Richmond barbers is very likely hair from descendants of slaves. Kudos to Clark for creating such a thought-provoking piece.