Earlier this month, the Lanham Act saw its 75th Anniversary. On July 5th, 1947, the Lanham Act, also known as the Trademark Act, went into effect after being signed by President Harry S. Truman the year prior. The Lanham Act created the modern day national trademark registration system and enforced federal protections for trademark holders. Expanded upon throughout the decades, it has been a critical piece of trademark legislation for the last seventy-five years.
Trademarks are around us every day – they present themselves on the toothpaste we use in the morning to the garbage bags we take out at night. The idea of trademarks dates back to before the common era, wherein manufacturers of goods would leave identifying symbols on their products. Artifacts from Rome have been found with engraved marks of initials and names of what are presumed to be the makers. Historians note that blacksmiths who made swords for the Roman Empire were the first to use trademarks.
Prior to the Lanham Act, federally enforced trademark legislation was somewhat ineffective and state statutes held most of the burden. In addition, trademarks did not expire, regardless of their use. Once the Lanham Act was enacted, it provided the procedures for federally registering trademarks and maintaining those registrations. The Lanham Act also gives trademark holders federal jurisdiction in enforcing their rights to the mark against infringers, including unregistered trademark infringement. In addition, the Lanham Act provides a cause of action for trademark dilution, cybersquatting, unfair competition and false advertising. An example of the use of the Lanham Act in enforcing rights against false advertising claims is seen in General Mills, Inc. v. Chobani, LLC, 158 F. Supp. 3d 106 (N.D.N.Y. 2016); Chobani, LLC v. Dannon Company, Inc., 157 F. Supp. 3d 190 (N.D.N.Y. 2016). In 2016, yogurt makers Dannon and General Mills (Yoplait) sued their yogurt competitor Chobani for violations under the Lanham Act for commercials that featured products from the brands in poor light. The ads mentioned ingredients such as sucralose being used in Dannon Light & Fit Greek yogurt and potassium sorbate in Yoplait Greek 100 and implied both were not safe for consumptions; and the court ordered Chobani to pull the ads containing the false message.
The Lanham Act is an important piece of legislation in the world of trademarks. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) celebrates the anniversary today with a webinar featuring guest speakers such as Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, Representative Ted Deutch of Florida and more.
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.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court ruling that the artists of the 2013 “Blurred Lines” best-selling single infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”.
In 2013, the family of the late Marvin Gaye sued musicians Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and T.I. (Clifford Harris, Jr.), and related recording companies, for copyright infringement. “Blurred Lines” was the best-selling single in the world that year and the Gaye family believed it to be similar in composition to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”. In 2015, the trial jury agreed. After three years of an appeal process brought by the musician defendants, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the infringement ruling (Williams, et al. v. Gaye, et al. Case No. 15-56880)(March 21, 2018).
The decision was not unanimous. Judge Nguyen wrote a dissenting opinion stating that the songs “differ in melody, harmony, and rhythm.” She also noted that it can be “challenging for judges untrained in music to parse two pieces of sheet music for extrinsic similarity. But however difficult this exercise, we cannot simply defer to the conclusions of experts about the ultimate finding of substantial similarity. […] Judges must still decide whether, as a matter of law, these elements collectively support a finding of substantial similarity.” This ruling ultimately changes the music industry landscape moving forward, as it is arguable that the decision improperly protects an artist’s form of musical style. The majority opinion written by Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr., however, focused mostly on the technicalities of the case and the grounds for appeal, determining that the trial court erred only in finding Interscope Records and T.I. liable.
The Gaye family is entitled to approximately a $5.3 million-dollar judgement and running royalties of 50% on future songwriter and publishing revenues. The damages breakdown consisted of: $3,188,528 in actual damages, plus profits of $1,768,192 against Thicke and $357,631 against Williams (and companies collecting royalties on William’s behalf). TI and his associated recording company were cleared of any infringement.
***To investigate or consider copyright protection for music, lyrics, or other works of art, or for more information, please contact Pamela K. Riewerts, Esq., partner at Oliver & Grimsley, LLC. Pamela may be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In The Hebrew University of Jerusalem V. General Motors, LLC, CV10-03790 AHM (JCx) (U.S. D. Ca March 16, 2012) the court refused to grant summary judgment on a claim that GM’s otherwise licensed use of an image of Albert Einstein violated the rights holder’s post mortem publicity right.
On January 10, 2013, the United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division entered a permanent injunction against a patent-infringing defendant in BROCADE COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS, INC. v. A10 NETWORKS, INC., Dist. Court, ND California 2013 – Google Scholar. The ruling restrained the defendant and parties in active concert with it from “making, using, selling, or offering to sell in the United States, or importing into the United States any AX series application delivery controller that includes features that infringe claim 25 from U.S. Patent No. 7,454,500, claims 13 and 24 of U.S. Patent No. 7,581,009, or claim 1 of U.S. Patent No. 7,558,195.”
While this result would not have seemed odd before May of 2006, Brocade is now one of the few cases where permanent injunctions have been issued since the decision in eBay, Inc. v. Mercexchange, LLC, 547 U.S. 388 (2006). While the Supreme Court was careful to make it clear that permanent injunctions remained a viable remedy in patent cases, the eBay case changed somewhat well established case law that a prevailing patent infringement plaintiff was virtually always entitled to a permanent injunction.
A successful patent plaintiff must meet its “burden of showing that the four traditional equitable factors support entry of a permanent injunction: (1) that the plaintiff has suffered irreparable harm; (2) that “remedies available at law are inadequate to compensate for that injury”; (3) that “considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted”; and (4) that “the public interest would not be `disserved’ by a permanent injunction.”
While those factors might seem easy to meet, in practice, it is often very hard to show that legal remedies (damages) are inadequate. In Brocade, the court found that Brocade “practices its patent, that [the defendant] is its direct competitor, and that Brocade does not license its patents,” and therefore that “Brocade has shown that it suffers the type of irreparable harm that a permanent injunction is intended to remedy” (emphasis added).
For more information on patent licensing contact Mike Oliver.
Brocade is a district court case and may be subject to an appeal, but it now stands as one of the relatively few cases post eBay in which a permanent injunction was issued.
One take-away from this ruling for licensing transactions, is that a patent holder must consider whether this type of remedy will be sought before engaging in licensing, particularly come one come all or non exclusive types of licenses. That was one of the three key factors the court pointed to in finding irreparable harm and lack of an adequate remedy at law.
In AKAMAI TECHNOLOGIES, INC. v. LIMELIGHT NETWORKS, INC. (Fed Cir. August 31, 2012) the en banc court held that a person can be liable for inducement to infringe even if the direct infringement is only found by combining the acts of more than one other person. You can read all 103 pages of the case here: Akamai v Limelight
What? In English: If you are aware of a patent (inducement requires specific intent to induce, so it requires knowledge of the patent) and you either perform one step in the method and induce one or more other persons to perform the remaining steps, or if you induce two or more other persons to engage in steps that together infringe, you are liable for inducement to infringe.
This is a major change in the law. This case overruled a recent prior case that had held that inducement requires inducing a single other party to engage in the acts that constitute direct infringement.
What does this mean? It means that if you are a business that say, provides a load balanced server farm for your clients, and you make that server farm available to your clients, who use it to manage their web content, and Akamai informs you of their patent that covers this technology, you will be liable for inducement to infringe even though the mere operation of a server farm does not practice every element in the claims of the patent. It means that businesses that are made aware of patents will have to consider every conceivable set of steps, whether done by their clients or others (inducement does not require any agency between the inducer and the person engaging in direct infringement) because the patent holder can “aggregate” all of the users it needs to meet the requirement of showing infringement.
There were numerous dissenting opinions, and it is somewhat probable that the Supreme Court will take this case.