A trademark is a word, symbol, or phrase, used to identify a particular manufacturer or seller's products and distinguish them from the products of another. For example, the trademark "Nike," along with the Nike "swoosh," identify the shoes made by Nike and distinguish them from shoes made by other companies (e.g. Reebok or Adidas). Similarly, the trademark "Coca-Cola" distinguishes the brown-colored soda water of one particular manufacturer from the brown-colored soda of another (e.g. Pepsi). When such marks are used to identify services (e.g. "Jiffy Lube") rather than products, they are called service marks, although they are generally treated just the same as trademarks.
Under some circumstances, trademark protection can extend beyond words, symbols, and phrases to include other aspects of a product, such as its color or its packaging. For example, the pink color of Owens-Corning fiberglass insulation or the unique shape of a Coca-Cola bottle might serve as identifying features. Such features fall generally under the term "trade dress," and may be protected if consumers associate that feature with a particular manufacturer rather than the product in general. However, such features will not be protected if they confer any sort of functional or competitive advantage. So, for example, a manufacturer cannot lock up the use of a particular unique bottle shape if that shape confers some sort of functional advantage (e.g. is easier to stack or easier to grip).
Trademarks make it easier for consumers to quickly identify the source of a given good. Instead of reading the fine print on a can of cola, consumers can look for the Coca-Cola trademark. Instead of asking a store clerk who made a certain athletic shoe, consumers can look for particular identifying symbols, such as a swoosh or a unique pattern of stripes. By making goods easier to identify, trademarks also give manufacturers an incentive to invest in the quality of their goods. After all, if a consumer tries a can of Coca-Cola and finds the quality lacking, it will be easy for the consumer to avoid Coca-Cola in the future and instead buy another brand. Trademark law furthers these goals by regulating the proper use of trademarks.
Trademarks are governed by both state and federal law. Originally, state common law provided the main source of protection for trademarks. However, in the late 1800s, the U.S. Congress enacted the first federal trademark law. Since then, federal trademark law has consistently expanded, taking over much of the ground initially covered by state common law. The main federal statute is the Lanham Act, which was enacted in 1946 and most recently amended in 1996. Today, federal law provides the main, and by and large the most extensive, source of trademark protection, although state common law actions are still available. Most of the discussion in this summary focuses on federal law.
In order to serve as a trademark, a mark must be distinctive -- that is, it must be capable of identifying the source of a particular good. In determining whether a mark is distinctive, the courts group marks into four categories, based on the relationship between the mark and the underlying product: (1) arbitrary or fanciful, (2) suggestive, (3) descriptive, or (4) generic. Because the marks in each of these categories vary with respect to their distinctiveness, the requirements for, and degree of, legal protection afforded a particular trademark will depend upon which category it falls within.
An arbitrary or fanciful mark is a mark that bears no logical relationship to the underlying product. For example, the words "Exxon," "Kodak," and "Apple" bear no inherent relationship to their underlying products (respectively, gasoline, cameras, or computers). Similarly, the Nike "swoosh" bears no inherent relationship to athletic shoes. Arbitrary or fanciful marks are inherently distinctive -- i.e. capable of identifying an underlying product -- and are given a high degree of protection.
A suggestive mark is a mark that evokes or suggests a characteristic of the underlying good. For example, the word "Coppertone" is suggestive of sun-tan lotion, but does not specifically describe the underlying product. Some exercise of imagination is needed to associate the word with the underlying product. At the same time, however, the word is not totally unrelated to the underlying product. Like arbitrary or fanciful marks, suggestive marks are inherently distinctive and are given a high degree of protection.
A descriptive mark is a mark that directly describes, rather than suggests, a characteristic or quality of the underlying product (e.g. its color, odor, function, dimensions, or ingredients). For example, "Holiday Inn," "All Bran," and "Vision Center" all describe some aspect of the underlying product or service (respectively, hotel rooms, breakfast cereal, optical services). They tell us something about the product. Unlike arbitrary or suggestive marks, descriptive marks are not inherently distinctive and are protected only if they have acquired "secondary meaning." Descriptive marks must clear this additional hurdle because they are terms that are useful for describing the underlying product, and giving a particular manufacturer the exclusive right to use the term could confer an unfair advantage.
A descriptive mark acquires secondary meaning when the consuming public primarily associates that mark with a particular producer, rather than the underlying product. Thus, for example, the term "Holiday Inn" has acquired secondary meaning because the consuming public associates that term with a particular provider of hotel services, and not with hotel services in general. The public need not be able to identify the specific producer; only that the product or service comes from a single producer. When trying to determine whether a given term has acquired secondary meaning, courts will often look to the following factors: (1) the amount and manner of advertising; (2) the volume of sales; (3) the length and manner of the term's use; (4) results of consumer surveys.
Finally, a generic mark is a mark that describes the general category to which the underlying product belongs. For example, the term "Computer" is a generic term for computer equipment. Generic marks are entitled to no protection under trademark law. Thus, a manufacturer selling "Computer" brand computers (or "Apple" brand apples, etc.) would have no exclusive right to use that term with respect to that product. Generic terms are not protected by trademark law because they are simply too useful for identifying a particular product. Giving a single manufacturer control over use of the term would give that manufacturer too great a competitive advantage. Under some circumstances, terms that are not originally generic can become generic over time (a process called "genericity"), and thus become unprotected.
Assuming that a trademark qualifies for protection, rights to a trademark can be acquired in one of two ways: (1) by being the first to use the mark in commerce; or (2) by being the first to register the mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO"). Remember, however, that descriptive marks qualify for protection (and can be registered) only after they have acquired secondary meaning. Thus, for descriptive marks, there may be a period after the initial use of the mark in commerce and before it acquires secondary meaning, during which it is not entitled to trademark protection. Once it has achieved secondary meaning, trademark protection kicks in.
The use of a mark generally means the actual sale of a product to the public with the mark attached. Thus, if I am the first to sell "Lucky" brand bubble-gum to the public, I have acquired priority to use that mark in connection with the sale of bubble-gum (assuming that the mark otherwise qualifies for trademark protection). This priority is limited, however, to the geographic area in which I sell the bubble gum, along with any areas I would be expected to expand into or any areas where the reputation of the mark has been established. So, for example, if I sell pizza in Boston under the name "Broadway Pizza," I will probably be able to prevent late-comers from opening up a "Broadway Pizza" within my geographic market. But I will not be able to prevent someone else from opening a "Broadway Pizza" in Los Angeles.
The other way to acquire priority is to register the mark with the PTO with a bona fide intention to use the mark in commerce. Unlike use of a mark in commerce, registration of a mark with the PTO gives a party the right to use the mark nationwide, even if actual sales are limited to only a limited area. This right is limited, however, to the extent that the mark is already being used by others within a specific geographic area. If that is the case, then the prior user of the mark retains the right to use that mark within that geographic area; the party registering the mark gets the right to use it everywhere else. So, for example, if I register the mark "Broadway" in connection with the sale of pizza, the existing "Broadway Pizza" in Boston retains the right to use the name in Boston, but I get the right to use it everywhere else.
Although registration with the PTO is not required for a trademark to be protected, registration does confer a number of benefits to the registering party. As described above, registration gives a party the right to use the mark nationwide, subject to the limitations noted above. Registration constitutes nationwide constructive notice to others that the trademark is owned by the party. Registration enables a party to bring an infringement suit in federal court. Registration allows a party to potentially recover treble damages, attorneys fees, and other remedies. Finally, registered trademarks can, after five years, become "incontestable," at which point the exclusive right to use the mark is conclusively established.
Applications for registration are subject to approval by the PTO. The PTO may reject a registration on any number of grounds. For example, the PTO will refuse to register generic marks or descriptive marks that have not attained secondary meaning. The PTO can also reject "immoral or scandalous" marks, certain geographic marks, marks that are primarily surnames, and marks that are likely to cause confusion with existing marks. As noted above, rejection of the mark does not necessarily mean that it is not entitled to trademark protection; it means only that the mark is not entitled to the additional benefits listed above.
Some states also have their own registration systems under state trademark law.
The rights to a trademark can be lost through abandonment, improper licensing or assignment, or genericity. A trademark is abandoned when its use is discontinued with an intent not to resume its use. Such intent can be inferred from the circumstances. Moreover, non-use for three consecutive years is prima facie evidence of abandonment. The basic idea is that trademark law only protects marks that are being used, and parties are not entitled to warehouse potentially useful marks. So, for example, a recent case held that the Los Angeles Dodgers had abandoned rights to the Brooklyn Dodgers trademark.
Trademark rights can also be lost through improper licensing or assignment. Where the use of a trademark is licensed (for example, to a franchisee) without adequate quality control or supervision by the trademark owner, that trademark will be canceled. Similarly, where the rights to a trademark are assigned to another party in gross, without the corresponding sale of any assets, the trademark will be canceled. The rationale for these rules is that, under these situations, the trademark no longer serves its purpose of identifying the goods of a particular provider.
Trademark rights can also be lost through genericity. Sometimes, trademarks that are originally distinctive can become generic over time, thereby losing its trademark protection. A word will be considered generic when, in the minds of a substantial majority of the public, the word denotes a broad genus or type of product and not a specific source or manufacturer. So, for example, the term "thermos" has become a generic term and is no longer entitled to trademark protection. Although it once denoted a specific manufacturer, the term now stands for the general type of product. Similarly, both "aspirin" and "cellophane" have been held to be generic. In deciding whether a term is generic, courts will often look to dictionary definitions, the use of the term in newspapers and magazines, and any evidence of attempts by the trademark owner to police its mark.
If a party owns the rights to a particular trademark, that party can sue subsequent parties for trademark infringement. The standard is "likelihood of confusion." To be more specific, the use of a trademark in connection with the sale of a good constitutes infringement if it is likely to cause consumer confusion as to the source of those goods or as to the sponsorship or approval of such goods. In deciding whether consumers are likely to be confused, the courts will typically look to a number of factors, including: (1) the strength of the mark; (2) the proximity of the goods; (3) the similarity of the marks; (4) evidence of actual confusion; (5) the similarity of marketing channels used; (6) the degree of caution exercised by the typical purchaser; (7) the defendant's intent.
So, for example, the use of an identical mark on the same product would clearly constitute infringement. If I manufacture and sell computers using the mark "Apple," my use of that mark will likely cause confusion among consumers, since they may be misled into thinking that the computers are made by Apple Computer, Inc. Using a very similar mark on the same product may also give rise to a claim of infringement, if the marks are close enough in sound, appearance, or meaning so as to cause confusion. So, for example, "Applet" computers may be off-limits; perhaps also "Apricot." On the other end of the spectrum, using the same term on a completely unrelated product will not likely give rise to an infringement claim. Thus, Apple Computer and Apple Records can peacefully co-exist, since consumers are not likely to think that the computers are being made by the record company, or vice versa.
Between the two ends of the spectrum lie many close cases, in which the courts will apply the factors listed above. So, for example, where the marks are similar and the products are also similar, it will be difficult to determine whether consumer confusion is likely. In one case, the owners of the mark "Slickcraft" used the mark in connection with the sale of boats used for general family recreation. They brought an infringement action against a company that used the mark "Sleekcraft" in connection with the sale of high-speed performance boats. Because the two types of boats served substantially different markets, the court concluded that the products were related but not identical. However, after examining many of the factors listed above, the court concluded that the use of Sleekcraft was likely to cause confusion among consumers.
In addition to bringing an action for infringement, owners of trademarks can also bring an action for trademark dilution under either federal or state law. Under federal law, a dilution claim can be brought only if the mark is "famous." In deciding whether a mark is famous, the courts will look to the following factors: (1) the degree of inherent or acquired distinctiveness; (2) the duration and extent of use; (3) the amount of advertising and publicity; (4) the geographic extent of the market; (5) the channels of trade; (6) the degree of recognition in trading areas; (7) any use of similar marks by third parties; (8) whether the mark is registered. Kodak, Exxon, and Xerox are all examples of famous marks. Under state law, a mark need not be famous in order to give rise to a dilution claim. Instead, dilution is available if: (1) the mark has "selling power" or, in other words, a distinctive quality; and (2) the two marks are substantially similar.
Once the prerequisites for a dilution claim are satisfied, the owner of a mark can bring an action against any use of that mark that dilutes the distinctive quality of that mark, either through "blurring" or "tarnishment" of that mark; unlike an infringement claim, likelihood of confusion is not necessary. Blurring occurs when the power of the mark is weakened through its identification with dissimilar goods. For example, Kodak brand bicycles or Xerox brand cigarettes. Although neither example is likely to cause confusion among consumers, each dilutes the distinctive quality of the mark. Tarnishment occurs when the mark is cast in an unflattering light, typically through its association with inferior or unseemly products or services. So, for example, in a recent case, ToysRUs successfully brought a tarnishment claim against adultsrus.com, a pornographic web-site.
Although likelihood of confusion and dilution are the two main trademark-related causes of action, there exist a number of additional state-law causes of action under state unfair competition law: passing off, contributory passing off, reverse passing off, and misappropriation. Passing off occurs when the defendant tries to pass off its product as the plaintiff's product. So, for example, manufacturing computers and claiming that they are made by Apple Computer, Inc. Contributory passing off occurs when the defendant assists or induces another (typically a retailer) to pass of its product as the plaintiff's product. So, for example, inducing a computer store to represent that the computers are made by Apple, when in fact they are not. Reverse passing off occurs when the defendant tries to pass off the plaintiff's product as its own. So, for example, taking a computer made by Apple, removing the label, and putting on a different label. Finally, misappropriation is a highly unstable, but potentially fruitful source of additional trademark-related claims.
Defendants in a trademark infringement or dilution claim can assert basically two types of affirmative defense: fair use or parody. Fair use occurs when a descriptive mark is used in good faith for its primary, rather than secondary, meaning, and no consumer confusion is likely to result. So, for example, a cereal manufacturer may be able to describe its cereal as consisting of "all bran," without infringing upon Kelloggs' rights in the mark "All Bran." Such a use is purely descriptive, and does not invoke the secondary meaning of the mark. Similarly, in one case, a court held that the defendant's use of "fish fry" to describe a batter coating for fish was fair use and did not infringe upon the plaintiff's mark "Fish-Fri." Such uses are privileged because they use the terms only in their purely descriptive sense.
Some courts have recognized a somewhat different, but closely-related, fair-use defense, called nominative use. Nominative use occurs when use of a term is necessary for purposes of identifying another producer's product, not the user's own product. For example, in a recent case, the newspaper USA Today ran a telephone poll, asking its readers to vote for their favorite member of the music group New Kids on the Block. The New Kids on the Block sued USA Today for trademark infringement. The court held that the use of the trademark "New Kids on the Block" was a privileged nominative use because: (1) the group was not readily identifiable without using the mark; (2) USA Today used only so much of the mark as reasonably necessary to identify it; and (3) there was no suggestion of endorsement or sponsorship by the group. The basic idea is that use of a trademark is sometimes necessary to identify and talk about another party's products and services. When the above conditions are met, such a use will be privileged.
Finally, certain parodies of trademarks may be permissible if they are not too directly tied to commercial use. The basic idea here is that artistic and editorial parodies of trademarks serve a valuable critical function, and that this critical function is entitled to some degree of First Amendment protection. The courts have adopted different ways of incorporating such First Amendment interests into the analysis. For example, some courts have applied the general "likelihood of confusion" analysis, using the First Amendment as a factor in the analysis. Other courts have expressly balanced First Amendment considerations against the degree of likely confusion. Still other courts have held that the First Amendment effectively trumps trademark law, under certain circumstances. In general, however, the courts appear to be more sympathetic to the extent that parodies are less commercial, and less sympathetic to the extent that parodies involve commercial use of the mark.
So, for example, a risqué parody of an L.L. Bean magazine advertisement was found not to constitute infringement. Similarly, the use of a pig-like character named "Spa'am" in a Muppet movie was found not to violate Hormel's rights in the trademark "Spam." On the other hand, "Gucchie Goo" diaper bags were found not to be protected under the parody defense. Similarly, posters bearing the logo "Enjoy Cocaine" were found to violate the rights of Coca-Cola in the slogan "Enjoy Coca-Cola.” Thus, although the courts recognize a parody defense, the precise contours of such a defense are difficult to outline with any precision.
Successful plaintiffs are entitled to a wide range of remedies under federal law. Such plaintiffs are routinely awarded injunctions against further infringing or diluting use of the trademark. In trademark infringement suits, monetary relief may also be available, including: (1) defendant's profits, (2) damages sustained by the plaintiff, and (3) the costs of the action. Damages may be trebled upon showing of bad faith. In trademark dilution suits, however, damages are available only if the defendant willfully traded on the plaintiff's goodwill in using the mark. Otherwise, plaintiffs in a dilution action are limited to injunctive relief.
Retained by 115+ law firms, Ms. Rhonda Harper is courtroom proven in virtually every Circuit as well as JAMS and TTAB. Ms. Harper's 30+ year career includes serving as a Fortune 100 Chief Marketing Officer and an Adjunct MBA Marketing Professor. In addition to providing litigation consulting and research in the areas of business, licensing, marketing, advertising, in-store merchandising, and strategy, Ms. Harper is routinely retained to formulate expert surveys, conduct rebuttal critiques, or construct rebuttal surveys to show the potential difference in results with properly designed and executed surveys. She has extensive experience and a deep understanding of survey design, sampling, question construction, data analysis, and methodological pitfalls that introduce bias or systematic error.