In the latter portion of 2017, announcements from both business and government have drawn renewed attention to the gradually increasing focus being paid by the Chinese government to protection of foreign intellectual property rights. In early August, U.S. sportswear giant Under Armour generated press from a favorable ruling out of a Chinese court in a trademark infringement lawsuit with Uncle Martian, a Chinese company. A few days later, it was reported that the Trump Administration was eyeing another aspect of China’s policies towards intellectual property protection – those requiring joint ventures and other mechanisms to increase the flow of intellectual property from U.S. and other foreign companies into business entities and computer servers on the Chinese mainland. For a non-Chinese company looking to enter the Chinese market, expand an existing presence there, launch R&D facilities in China or otherwise, how should these developments affect those strategy decisions? (more…)
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a new random audit procedure for trademarks aimed at removing deadwood from the Register. (more…)
When filing a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), certain applicants have the option to designate “small entity status” or “micro entity status.” Claiming either small or micro entity status has some benefits, but can also have drawbacks. When faced with that decision, what should the company do? (more…)
The United States Supreme Court’s May decision in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC was widely seen as a limitation on the jurisdictions in which a patent owner can file infringement claims. That decision set off a minor scramble among patent owners to find suitable and accessible alternative forums. More recently, a district court decision has swung the pendulum in the other direction and could potentially preserve the ability of patent owners to choose their own venue, including one so-called “rocket docket” in the Eastern District of Texas. (more…)
On July 1, 2017, an important grace period terminated for Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL), which initially took effect on July 1, 2014. The beginning of this month marked the end of the two-year grace period for entities to rely on “implied consent” as a basis for sending commercial electronic messages to potential customers, donors, clients or the like. Going forward, entities will need to obtain express consent from all email recipients, or expunge “stale” contacts to avoid potential violations of CASL. A private right of action against offenders that was also set to become available on July 1, 2017 has been put on hold indefinitely subject to Canadian government review. (more…)
The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down as unconstitutional the ban on disparaging trademark registrations, but that doesn’t mean a dispensary can get a federal trademark registration. (more…)
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a landmark trademark decision that will pave the way for those with so-called “offensive” or disparaging trademarks to secure federal trademark registration for those marks. To date, the poster child for “disparaging” trademarks has been the Washington Redskins football team, whose name and logo have been the subject of increasingly vocal challenges by Native Americans and others as an offensive stereotype against Native Americans. (Ironically, even the members of the band The Slants, whose lawsuit eventually paved the way for the Redskins to maintain trademark registrations for the team name, were allegedly against the team’s use of the arguably offensive name.) (more…)
Last month, the Federal Circuit issued a decision confirming that a “private” sale of an invention, more than one year before the effective filing date of a patent application for that invention, invalidates the resultant patent. The case, captioned Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., addressed the “on-sale bar” in 35 U.S.C. § 102 and verified that the America Invents Act (AIA) did not change the pre-AIA statutory meaning of “on sale.” (more…)
The United States Supreme Court, in the case Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al., Case No. 15-866, ruled in a 6-2 opinion that two-dimensional designs applied to three-dimensional useful articles, in this case cheerleading uniforms, are entitled to copyright protection. The majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas held that a feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if “the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work — either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression — if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.”
Under Section 101 of the Copyright Act, a “useful article” is an item or object “having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information.” Such utilitarian objects, including the three-dimensional designs of cheerleading uniforms, are not protected under U.S. Copyright Law.
Justice Thomas wrote for the Court that its test for separability starts with Section 101, in which “‘pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features’ of the ‘design of a useful article’ are eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features ‘can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.'” The Court explained that its decision is “not a free-ranging search [f]or the best copyright policy, but rather ‘depends solely on statutory interpretation,'” citing the last Supreme Court opinion to address the issue of separability – the 1952 case of Mazer v. Stein.
The Court described its task in the Varsity case as “to determine whether the arrangements of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes appearing on the surface of [Varsity’s] cheerleading uniforms are eligible for copyright protection as separable features of the design of those cheerleading uniforms.” The Court, applying this test, held that “one can identify the [designs] as features having pictorial, graphic, or sculptural qualities” and can separate the designs from the cheerleading uniforms on which the designs appear. The majority opinion and the concurrence of Justice Ginsburg gave substantial credence to the fact that Varsity had “applied the designs in this case to other media of expression – different types of clothing – without replicating the uniform.”
By affirming the Sixth Circuit’s reversal of the district court, the Supreme Court rejected two of Star’s arguments: (1) Varsity’s designs are not protectable because they are “necessary to two of the uniforms’ ‘inherent, essential, or natural functions’ – identifying the wearer as a cheerleader and enhancing the wearer’s physical appearance;” and (2) that the separability analysis should include objective components asking whether the design elements reflect the designer’s artistic judgment exercised independently of functional influence or are marketable to a “significant segment of the community” if separated from the underlying useful article.
The Court opined that “asking whether some segment of the market would be interested in a given work threatens to prize popular art over other forms, or to substitute judicial aesthetic preferences for the policy choices embodied in the Copyright Act.”
PRO TIP: The Varsity ruling will impact the fashion industry and its approach to copyright protection, but the ruling also supports other businesses that apply artistic elements on useful articles and may want to consider seeking copyright protection by registering copyright protectable designs at the U.S. Copyright Office.
Baker Donelson represented Varsity from the filing of the complaint through oral argument before the Sixth Circuit and briefing of the case before the Supreme Court. Goodwin Procter and Cowan Liebowitz were also involved with the Supreme Court briefing, while Goodwin Procter handled oral argument before the Supreme Court.
Trademark owners applying for “intent to use” applications risk loss of trademark rights if the identification of goods services in the intent to use application is broader than the actual intended use of the mark.
Brand owners generally want to protect a potential trademark as broadly as possible. Often, this leads to specifying as many goods or services in their intent-to-use trademark applications as might possibly be covered by the planned mark. If no proof of bona fide intent can be marshaled, the registration is vulnerable to attack.
A recent case demonstrates that dreaming big in trademark applications is not to be encouraged. While Kelly Services v. Creative Harbor did not result in a punitive cancelation of the mark’s resulting registration, it nonetheless made it clear that goods and services with only potential plans for use with a mark will be cut out of the registration when challenged. See Kelly Services, Inc. v. Creative Harbor, LLC, No. 16-1200 (6th Cir. 2017).
Section 1(b) of the Lanham Act does not define “bona fide intent,” but the Federal Circuit in Kelly Services required that “the applicant’s intent must be demonstrable and more than a mere subjective belief.” That is, the applicant must show more than a mere intention to reserve a right in the mark. Particularly suspicious circumstances that cast doubt on the bona fides of the application include: (1) excessive numbers of intent-to-use applications in relation to the number of products the applicant is likely to introduce; (2) unreasonably vague descriptions of the proposed goods; (3) excessive numbers of intended products; and (4) excessive numbers of desirable trademarks intended for use on a single new product.
To demonstrate the presence of their bona fide intent to use a mark, however, brand owners can do a number of things. For example, the owner can: (1) conduct a trademark availability search on the mark; (2) develop marketing materials for the brand; or (3) produce correspondence or documents mentioning the planned use of the mark, the licensing of the brand, the regulatory approval of the branded line or the business development of the brand.
Such evidence shifts the burden of proof back to the challenger, who must then produce a preponderance of evidence to the contrary – a much more difficult task in light of demonstrated bona fide intent.
PRO TIP: Before filing a statement of use, compare the identification of goods and services in the trademark application to the goods and services currently offered under the brand, then tailor the identification to the goods and services in use under the mark.