On June 30, 2020, the United States Supreme Court rendered its opinion in the landmark trademark case United States Patent and Trademark Office, et al. v. Booking .com.591 U.S. (2020). This decision may be helpful for those who wish to seek a federal trademark registration where the primary mark includes a top level domain (TLD) identifier, such as “.com” and where the domain name itself may be generic or highly descriptive of the service offered at that domain. Prior to this decision the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) had taken the position that such marks would not be eligible for registration because of the generic nature of the term(s) preceding the TLD portion of the domain (the portion preceding .com). However, certain issues, such as the issue of “consumer perception,” as discussed below, will most certainly be the subject of debate and dispute between these trademark applicants and the PTO.
In this case the online travel agency Booking.com sought to register the trademark BOOKING.COM related to its website for lodging reservations and related services and was denied registration by the PTO. The PTO determined that BOOKING.COM was a generic term not entitled to federal trademark registration. Generic terms can never be registered because they merely identify the class of service or product being offered and not the source of that product or service. Accordingly, it was the PTO’s position that BOOKING merely identified the class of service of making or “booking” a lodging reservation and .COM referred to a website.
Booking.com appealed the PTO’s decision to the District Court which ruled in Booking.com’s favor. The PTO then appealed this decision to the Court of Appeals which also ruled in Booking.com’s favor. The PTO made its final appeal to the Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case.
Affirming both the District Court and Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, held that “[a] term styled “generic.com” is a generic name for a class of goods or services only if [emphasis added] the term has that meaning to consumers.” Thus, if it is determined that consumers do not find “generic.com” to be generic to a class of goods or services, but rather unique to goods or services of the entity seeking the trademark, the mark is eligible for registration. In this case, it was determined by the lower courts and uncontested by the PTO before the Supreme Court that consumers did not think BOOKING.COM referred to online hotel-registrations as a class, but rather specifically to the online travel agency Booking.com. Thus, BOOKING.COM, for online lodging registration services, is entitled to federal trademark protection on the principal trademark registry.
As a result of this Supreme Court decision, consumer perception will determine whether a “generic.com” mark can be a registered trademark. The question that will be asked with every such trademark application is “what do consumers think ‘generic.com’ means?” This begs the question, “how do we determine what consumers think something means?” The Supreme Court gives us some insight into this issue by stating that “[e]vidence…can include not only consumer surveys, but also dictionaries, usage by consumers and competitors, and any other source of evidence bearing on how consumers perceive a term’s meaning.” The Supreme Court does offer a word of caution with regard to surveys. “Surveys can be helpful evidence of consumer perception but require care in their design and interpretation.”
There will now likely be a flurry of trademark applications for “generic.com” marks in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. While the ruling is certainly favorable to trademark applicants, consumer perception and the method(s) used to try and determine what consumers think something means should be carefully considered beforehand.