For today’s blog post, we’ll take a look at 2(c) refusals. Section 2(c) of the Lanham Act provides that registration should be barred where a mark:
Consists of or comprises a name, portrait, or signature identifying a particular living individual except by his written consent, or the name, signature, or portrait of a deceased President of the United States during the life of his widow, if any, except by the written consent of the widow.
Looking at just US-based applicants, 2(c) refusals apply in about 2% of outgoing Office Actions. Still, given the large numbers of applications in 2021, that’s almost 4,000 2(c) refusals to date. Roughly 100 of those are for Presidentially-related marks, in a roughly even mix of Biden-Harris-related and Trump-related filings, and a smattering of Obama-related ones still percolating around from the especially stubborn. As a group, these have to be some of the lowest-quality applications that the USPTO has to slog through. Most of these arguably don’t function as marks anyway and/or would get refused on “failure to function” grounds or under 2(a) anyway, even if 2(c) was not a part of the statute.
That still leaves us with quite a number of 2(c) refusals. We reviewed all of them, and roughly 70% are “traditional” sorts of 2(c) refusals — the actual name of or a mark incorporating the actual name of a person (BROCK LESNAR or GLORIA SERVICES or GILLIE CHESTER’S NASHVILLE HOT!), or their name-like pseudonym or nickname (ZØ MARIE or STEWIE). A few are a bit further afield from being name-like, like PRINCE OF BLUE or ALKALINE VEGGIE MOMMIE. (Occasionally, the Examiners have to be careful about their phrasing to avoid theological discussions about whether 2(c) should apply to IAMGAWD, a DJ.) Refusals based on the picture element alone are pretty uncommon, but do happen occasionally, especially for more lifelike portraits where a face is more clearly identifiable, as in this application for LATINX POP LAB, where the Examiner did a Google search for the applicant, noted the likeness, and asked for a consent statement.
Plenty of marks generate 2(c) inquiries where the Examiner just can’t tell, like TALDE, or that sound name-like but the applicant says do not identify a specific living individual, like LINGLEE.
Class 41 entertainment-related content (live events, etc.) and associated goods like musical recordings, etc. are far more represented in 2(c) refusals than the general application pool. Over one quarter of 2(c) refusals are in Class 41.
If you ever need to research 2(c) refusals or effective responses, you can use TM TKO’s Office Action research to dive deep into the issue, and find effective responses on similar facts, or that have convinced your Examiner, or both!
We like to take a look at interesting 2(d) refusals. They present interesting fact patterns, and they can help us show you how to make the best use of some of TM TKO’s tools.
Today, we are looking at an application filed by Anheuser-Busch for the mark UNQUESTIONABLY GOOD for hard seltzer. It ran into a 2(d) refusal based on a registration for the mark UNQUESTIONABLY ORIGINAL, disclaiming “original,” for beer and beer garden services, owned by District 9 Brewing Company.
A-B argued at length that UNQUESTIONABLY is laudatory, and supports the second words in each mark — and that GOOD and ORIGINAL are quite different. Even though our knockout algorithms emphasize UNQUESTIONABLY quite a lot as a part of the mark, and score UNQUESTIONABLY ORIGINAL as one of the top couple of results, I’m actually very sympathetic to this argument. Because of the differences between the marks, I agree with A-B the consumers wouldn’t confuse the two marks.
The UNQUESTIONABLY ORIGINAL mark is a slogan used by the registrant — a secondary mark paired with its D9 Brewing house mark.
A-B’s real-world use of the mark is also secondary, although not as clear-cut. A-B is using the mark in plain text on their website, e.g. “…, and is filtered five times for an unquestionably good taste.” That’s not even a trademark use, but might cause problems under 2(e)(1) or “failure to function” grounds during specimen examination. The company is also using it with a video series called a “Flavor Journal,” where the “Thirsty Bartenders” vloggers and a guest come up with “Unquestionably Good” food/beverage pairings using Bud Light Seltzer. That’s probably not going to cut it as a specimen of use with the USPTO either.
Nevertheless, it seems to support the idea that neither mark is “primary” on the minds of customers — those are the BUD LIGHT and D9 BREWING marks, or possibly a secondary, beer-specific mark on the D9 side. Alas, the USPTO doesn’t consider this — perhaps examination outcomes would be more consistent and more closely matched with reality if the Office could consider the real-world centrality (or lack thereof) of a mark in its commercial context in the context of considering 2(d) refusals. It makes sense why it doesn’t — a registrant could claim secondary use in prosecution and later expand it — but it still seems like something can be done to improve results.
We took a quick look, via ThorCheck’s Term Coexistence search, at otherwise similar marks that differ in this way — one has ORIGINAL, the other GOOD. There were slim pickings in the beverage classes — SINFULLY GOOD SPIRITS! vs. ORIGINAL SIN was the best we found. Term coexistence examples like this are always a bit chance-based, since two companies have to happen to pick names that differ in exactly this way.
Differences Between the Goods?
A-B is pushing uphill here — the Examining Attorney emphasized evidence that various products use the same mark for both beer and hard seltzer, including A-B’s own Bud Light brand, Michelob Ultra, Corona, and more. Perhaps because of this, A-B did not contest the relationships of the goods in the first Office Action Response. Perhaps, also, A-B did not wish to go on record arguing that two products are not closely related — it wouldn’t want to have that quoted back to it during a later enforcement effort.
We used ThorCheck to do a comparison between “beer” and “hard seltzer.” While there are certainly examples of the same companies providing both under the same or similar marks (more on that shortly), there are also a lot of examples of similar marks co-existing.
Summit Brewing Company
SUMMIT BREWING COMPANY Disclaims: “BREWING COMPANY” Reg: 3061467 Serial: 76383607 Registered And Renewed Reg: 02/28/2006 Filed: 03/13/2002
We also took a quick look at overlap — where the same company used the same mark for both beer and hard seltzer, just to assess the strength of the argument. Large brewers make up a lot of the results – A-B has several marks (BUD LIGHT, NATURAL LIGHT, ALOHA BEACHES), ; several smaller brewers also have registrations for both, like Great Divide (WHITEWATER), Craft Brew Alliance (OMISSION), Spruce Street (TWO ROBBERS), Detroit Rivertown (ATWATER), Montauk Bewing (MOUNTAUK). Interestingly, Kahu ‘Ohnana, mentioned above, owns registrations for MAUI BREWING CO. and MAUI HARD SELTZER that co-exist with the MAUI EXPRESS registration noted above.
We also took a look at prosecution histories to attempt to find filings for “hard seltzer” that overcame prior registrations for “beer.” Here is the search to do so, for TM TKO users. This yields a few good examples, including the aforementioned ASHLAND HARD SELTZER vs. ASHLAND AMBER (arguments, including statistically-driven arguments that most beer makers do not make hard seltzer and vice versa*). Also, the search finds some really interesting non-refusals: an A-B registration for SOCIAL CLUB did not receive a citation to some prior registrations for SOCIAL for goods including beer, notwithstanding a Letter of Protest seeking as much. SPYK’D (for hard seltzer) “ran into” a similar non-issued Office Action vs. SPIKE (for beer and booze) — a Letter of Protest was accepted but didn’t generate refusal.
* ThorCheck helps with this type of argument — its charts show that there are over 18,000 active, use-based registrations for beer vs. under 200 for hard seltzer, and only ~10 show overlap in production. Unsurprisingly, the Ashland arguments focused on the percentage of beer producers vs. the percentage of cider producers!
The USPTO has dramatically increased its use of the “failure to function” refusal in recent years. Total “failure to function” refusals jumped from under 400 in 2001 to under 1,300 in 2010 to over 3,600 in 2020.
We took a look at marks that have at least two words with a filing date September 1, 2019 and March 1, 2020 and got a failure to function refusal. Overall, the failure to function refusal is “holding up” with frequently. Overall, 75% of applications that received a failure to function refusal and have a “final” decision (abandoned / registered) went abandoned. Represented applicants did relatively better, but still only had a 32% registration rate vs. a woeful 15% for unrepresented applicants. Class 25 applicants fared especially badly, with only 12% getting through to registration. Lots of these marks had a “bumper sticker saying on a t-shirt” aire about them — applications for marks like GOD IS THE DESIGNER, MY 1ST CHRISTMAS, FAMILY DINNER SURVIVOR, STOP THE SPREAD, and DON’T TALK TO ME all foundered on the rocks of the failure to function refusal.
The failure to function refusal can be frustrating for applicants and their counsel, because it’s one of the least “defined” (either statutarily or via the TMEP). It’s never a good sign when the “statutory support” is as ill-defined as “Section 1, 2 and 45,” as is the failure to function refusal! The Trademark Office could help reduce this anxiety by better clarifying the line between an “informational message” or an “expressive statement” that doesn’t function as a source indicator vs. a slogan that does.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the failure to function refusal is serving an important purpose. It’s clearly keeping a lot of “marks” that are primarily informative or expressive rather than source-indicating off the trademark registry. In the long run, that’s a good thing, since it provides more room for the rest of society to engage in expressive speech without running into trademark claims.
This post will provide a few examples of how TM TKO’s tools can help address a real-world 2(d) refusal. For this example, we looked at an application for SURFSIDE SHRIMP for food and retail services. The application went abandoned in mid-September 2020, after getting 2(d) refusals citing several prior marks: a registration for SURFSIDE for restaurant services, a now-abandoned application for SURFSIDE 6 for restaurant services, and a registration for JSC SURFSIDE SEAFOOD (disclaiming SEAFOOD) for a variety of seafood products.
Let’s start with the SURFSIDE registration for restaurant services. One argument we’ll definitely want to make is the differences between food products and restaurant services. The case-law is mixed, with the Office holding that there is no per se rule that food and beverages are related to restaurants, but with the Office also accepting evidence of overlap of two sets of products and services focused on famous brands like DUNKIN DONUTS and THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY rather than on the norms for those industries.
A good place to start here is by finding some examples of identical or very similar marks co-existing, one for seafood products and the other for restaurant services. This is a textbook ThorCheck research project.
Go to the G/S Similarity variant of ThorCheck. Put in a few restaurant-related services as the First Party services and fish and seafood-related products in the Second Party goods. There are two sets of arguments you can glean from the ThorCheck report.
First, you can analyze the extent of overlap. There is some overlap here — 57 registrations that cover both sets of goods and services (the “intersection” section) and another 12 or so in multiple registration certificates (the “similarity” section). These are a very small percentage of the overall restaurant marks (34k+) and seafood marks (2.9k+).
Second, you can find counter-examples under the Dissimilarity column: marks with identical literal portions (26 Exact) and with some substantial, non-disclaimed terms in common (348). These examples help counter the Examiner’s assertions about overlap under the second DuPont factor, bringing that factor closer to neutral or even favorable.
You’d want to tag your favorite examples, export them to Word to integrate the summary chart into your Office Action Response draft, and hit the “TSDR” export button to get status and title copies to attach as an appendix to your response. (Ah, for the day the USPTO would take notice of its own records! Until then… the TSDR Export feature is here for you.) Representative examples follow — there are many, many more high-quality examples in the report.
Our blog software doesn’t love having images inside of tables, so just imagine that 20% of the records above have logos embedded in the mark or some light textual stylization.
It would be better if the Office considered normal trends instead of just cherry-picking examples, but the case law is what it is, and ThorCheck empowers you to find examples that help you make the case that confusion is unlikely.
We can also do research in Office Actions to find examples of fish/seafood marks overcoming refusals for restaurant services, using a search like this:
This finds some great examples of co-existing registrations, like YOUR FISH! (stylized) for seafood overcoming a prior reg for OUR FISHERMAN, YOUR FISH for restaurant services, ROUNDABOUT for seafood meals overcoming a prior registration for ROUNDABOUT BREWERY for brewpub services, DEEP LOUISIANA FLAVOR for seafood overcoming FLAVORS OF LOUISIANA for restaurant services, BLUE ISLE for seafood overcoming BLUE ISLAND and BLUE ISLAND OYSTER BAR, SKIPPER’S BEST for seafood overcoming prior registrations for SKIPPER’S for restaurants, and many more. These are great for two reasons. First, you can use them like litigators use briefs — to build your best argument on the shoulders of the successes that came before you. Second, you can provide these examples of withdrawn 2(d) refusals to your Examining Attorney to help provide them comfort that they can do as you ask without incurring the wrath of the internal publication review process.
Need more examples? Click on the drop-down by New Search and select Invert Criteria, and see restaurant marks that overcame prior registrations in the seafood space — these are conceptually very similar, and also provide you strong examples.
There are several types of research we can do on the mark front.
First, we can use TM TKO’s Office Action analysis tool to do automated research for similar marks that overcame 2(d) refusals. It finds that the SURFSIDE registrant in the restaurant space made extensive arguments about co-existence of other SURFSIDE marks in the restaurant space, in trying to argue around prior registrations for SURFSIDE 5 and SURFSIDE 6. The prior registrations were eventually cancelled. While there is no formal prosecution history estoppel doctrine, it certainly doesn’t hurt to point out that the cited registrant thinks that SURFSIDE won’t be confused with other SURFSIDE marks in the restaurant space, much less for packaged seafood!
The Office Action Analysis tool also finds a set of arguments for a still-pending application for Asian-themed seafood meals that has argued against the JSC SURFSIDE SEAFOOD mark, here. These can be a helpful starting point in planning and drafting a response.
Second, we can use ThorCheck to focus on mark-related differences. For JSC SURFSIDE SEAFOOD, the goods are more similar, and the similarity of the marks is the main issue. (This is also a tougher refusal overall.) We’ll want to start with a Term Difference search, and search for “shrimp” with the “Dissimilarity (different owners)” option selected. This will find marks that are otherwise identical or at least share key terms; one has SHRIMP and one doesn’t. This finds example of co-existence like the marks below, where the presence of the generic word “shrimp” nevertheless helps differentiate two marks.
029 raw shrimp featuring no pesticides, no antibiotics and no chemical additives, grown in self-contained recirculating bio-secure saltwater environment
You client makes lasagna that it sells under the mark TONY’S PASTA, and their application gets a 2(d) citation to a prior registration for a TONY’S RONI for restaurant services. (The application is imaginary; the registration is real – Reg. No. 3502458). Let’s use TM TKO to do some research to help you find good arguments and evidence to support your Office Action Response, and secondarily marvel at how amazingly inconsistent examination outcomes from the USPTO can be. Onward!
Find Successful Arguments on These Facts
Let’s start by going to the Office Action search page, and searching for recent instances where applicants for food products in Class 29 overcame prior registrations in Class 43. We’ll limit the results to active, published applications where the prior registration is still active first — that will exclude some useful results, but also bypass any situations where the prior registration was “overcome” simply because it was cancelled or expired. It’s a complex-looking search, but conceptually pretty straightforward.
This search finds 336 Office Actions in Class 29 (that didn’t include Class 43) that overcame registrations in Class 43 (that didn’t include Class 29). We can limit even more by restricting it to just pasta – click New Search then Same Criteria, then add a rule to limit our results to just those that have pasta or lasagna in the description of goods.
Now we’re down to 42 results, like TUSCAN MARKET for pasta and retail stores overcoming a registration for TUSCAN KITCHEN for restaurant services and LIFE IS DELICIOUS. SIMPLY ENJOY overcoming a prior registration for LIFE IS DELICIOUS… TAKE A BITE for restaurant services, MARCELLA for pasta sauce overcoming a prior registration for MARCELLA’S for restaurant services, NEXT LEVEL MEALS for food overcoming a prior registration for NEXT LEVEL BURGER for restaurants, and more. Just click on the Citations button for details on the cited marks, and click on the magnifying glass to dive into the file histories. These are great resources to see how other attorneys overcame directly comparable refusals – how they used the case law, how they provided evidentiary support, how they chipped away at the Examining Attorneys’ evidence – so you can take do better work and maximize your own chances of success.
If you want to see the opposite fact pattern – applications for restaurant services overcoming prior registrations for foods – just use the “invert criteria” search. This finds sixty-plus examples, including AMY’S ICE CREAMS overcoming a variety of AMY’s marks, GRILL FRESH vs FRESH GRILL, TOPPERS vs VEGGIE TOPPERS, WAFFLEJACK vs HUNGRY JACK, BUFFBURGER vs BUFFBURGER, and more.
If you still needed more examples, you could remove the “Active” constraint — this will pull in more good examples, but also more instances where the cited mark was “overcome” only because the prior application went abandoned or the prior registration was cancelled or expired.
Find Evidence to Support the Argument
There are a few ways we might want to push back: providing some evidence that pasta and restaurant services aren’t closely related, and providing evidence that TONY is pretty diluted even as to restaurant services, and thus isn’t likely to cause confusion with food products.
A. Using ThorCheck® to Find Goods/Services Relationship Evidence
We’ll use ThorCheck to find evidence of identical or very similar marks, used for pasta or lasagna on the one hand and for restaurant services on the other. The evidence goes both ways. There are lots of examples of the same mark being registered for both, but there are also dozens examples of this sort of co-existence; even focusing on personal names, we have examples like GIULIA and RAO’S and BUDDY’s and BLAKE’S and AMY’S and lots of examples like PASTA MAMA’S vs MAMA’S PIZZA and ANTONIO’s vs ANTONIO’S PIZZA. ThorCheck makes it simple to find these examples. It’s a matter of a single click to export a Word chart to add to your Office Action Response and one more to pull TSDR status and title copies into an evidence stack to attach to your response.
B. Find Evidence of the Dilution of TONY in the Restaurant Field
This sort of evidence is commonplace in the successful responses we just searched for moments ago. A manual search (or even a knockout search) is the way to go. Run the search, flag the fifty-three coexisting TONY registrations for some sort of restaurant-ish services in Class 43, export the chart to Word to integrate into your draft Office Action Response, and then hit the TSDR export button to get your evidence stack ready to go in one click.
How’s the Trademark Office Doing?
The case law requires that “something more” that a mere possibility of overlap in order to find a likelihood of confusion, e.g. that both the food product and the restaurant are similar types of food. See, e.g.,In re Azteca Rest. Enters., Inc., 50 USPQ2d 1209 (TTAB 1999) (finding likely confusion between AZTECA MEXICAN RESTAURANT for restaurant services, and actually used for a Mexican restaurant, and AZTECA (with and without design) for Mexican food items).
How’s the trademark office doing in applying these standards? The “something more” language only makes it into about 1/5 of the outgoing Office Actions that have issued citations on similar facts. Where an Office Action is issued, the rate of overcoming it is far lower when the Examiner does use the “something more” language — from around 42% of applicants that get through to publication or registration for the refusals overall to just 26% that overcome the “something more” refusals. The Office is also, as ThorCheck finds, generating pretty inconsistent outcomes — sometimes an application will get refused, sometimes it will skate through and end up co-existing. The inconsistency is frustrating for applicants and their counsel, and rightfully so. I’m not sure what the solution would be, though; a per-se rule would make registration even more difficult.