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Trademark deadwood, non-use claims, and “intent to commence use”

The US Patent & Trademark Office’s long-standing and often-restated goal of cutting down on the deadwood in the registry and the Federal Circuit and TTAB’s interpretation of the abandonment standard continue to be at odds. The TTAB recently issued a precedential decision in Wirecard AG v. Striatum Ventures BV, Cancellation No. 92069781 (TTAB Feb. 28, 2020), available at http://ttabvue.uspto.gov/ttabvue/ttabvue-92069781-CAN-21.pdf, a rare decision under the new expedited cancellation pilot program.

The case involved a registration for ZUPR (stylized) for software for checking products in stores, and related services. Reg. No. 4834250. The cancellation action was filed by a later applicant for the mark SUPR related to online shops, Ser. No. 88029940, against which it was cited as a bar to registration. The registration issued in October 2015, and the cancellation action was instituted in October 2018.

The Lanham Act provides helpfully defines abandonment, with the most relevant bits in italics. (Section (2) of the definition deals with abandonment via genericide; that doesn’t concern us.)

A mark shall be deemed to be “abandoned” if either of the following occurs:

(1) When its use has been discontinued with intent not to resume such use. Intent not to resume may be inferred from circumstances. Nonuse for 3 consecutive years shall be prima facie evidence of abandonment. “Use” of a mark means the bona fide use of such mark made in the ordinary course of trade, and not made merely to reserve a right in a mark.

15 U.S.C. § 1127.

The facts were uncontested – the mark was not used in the US, and had never been. The parties disagreed about intent: the registrant presented internal PR / marketing strategy documents and evidence that it employed a US public relations firm.

For registrations issued under Section 66(a), the earliest date on which the three-year period for the statutory presumption of abandonment may begin in this case is the registration date. Dragon Bleu (SARL) v. VENM, LLC, 112 USPQ2d 1925, 1931 (TTAB 2014). Since evidence of nonuse of a mark for three consecutive years constitutes a prima facie showing of abandonment and triggers a rebuttable presumption that a mark was abandoned without intent to resume use, Rivard v. Linville, 133 F.3d 1446, 45 USPQ2d 1374, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 1998). The registrant only had a stub website and a YouTube video describing the “basic concepts” of their service, but nothing more; the rebuttable presumption was met here.

Where the presumption is met, the registrant must show evidence of: (1) use of the mark during or (2) the statutory period of nonuse; or (2) activities reflecting an intent to resume (or commence) use during the non-use period. Wirecard, p. 10.

The registrant nevertheless prevailed on the “intent to begin use” part of the analysis. The evidence that turned the tide and constituted the activities that “a reasonable business with a bona fide intent to use the mark in United State commerce would have undertaken,” id. p. 15:

  • a 2016 meeting at a Portuguese trade conference with a PR agency with “strong ties to the US market” about a market strategy for the US;
  • in 2017, signing a contract with that PR firm for the US market entry;
  • in later 2017, negotiating with an online marketing specialist that had done US work;
  • 2018 statements about an intent to launch in the US in 2019;
  • 2018 agreement with that online marketing specialist to use the ZUPR platform for an Italian clothing firm in the US once ZUPR launched in the US;
  • 2019 statement that the marketing specialist no longer represented the Italian brand, but wanted to have a US furniture retailer use ZUPR.

The TTAB did a fine job applying the relevant legal standings: the combination of some preparation to find US customers and ongoing technical development was consistent with an “intent” to generate use. However, the standard is and has always been exceedingly dumb — it places foreign registrants on wildly different footing than domestic registrants.

The domestic registrant had to make a use claim to get registration, so there is some market recognition out there to justify allowing the registrant’s cessation of use (remember, we’re talking about a three year time period — that’s a lot) when paired with an intent to resume use. A foreign registrant who has made any use in the US should be able to take advantage of the same, relatively lax, standard.

However, a foreign registrant who has never used the mark in the United States should not be able to take advantage of the statutory definition of abandonment, which is pinned to resumption of use. The Federal Circuit and Board have always assumed that a foreign registrant who has never started use should be treated as though the 44(e) registration is a substitute for US use, and dramatically change the “discontinued with intent not to resume” standard by adding the “(or commence)” parenthetical. As a result of this court-added amendment to the statutory definition of “abandonment,” the registrant with no presence amongst US consumers now gets the same benefits that a company whose mark was actually known in the US — and it’s this market recognition that should be the only reason to give an “abandoner” the benefit of the doubt in retaining their federal registration rights.

Just as bad, partial cancellation under this standard seems almost impossible. A US registrant who has continued to use some products but not others is typically vulnerable to a partial cancellation action; the foreign registrant who never used in the US seems almost immune to even partial cancellation under this “intended to use” standard.

The Federal Circuit and TTAB’s case law on abandonment is actively hindering the USPTO’s goal of cutting down on the amount of deadwood in the trademark registry, and an increasingly crowded registry continues to hinder applicant who get help up based on registrants who aren’t actually using their marks in US commerce.

How is the USPTO Keeping Up?

The US Patent & Trademark Office has been far ahead of most employers in encouraging remote working arrangements – employees with two years at the Office are generally allowed to work remotely, with periodic visits to DC to check in. It’s a great trade off, allowing employees to get the most out of a federal paycheck while steering clear of the expensive DC market.

So, has there been any immediate impact from the COVID-19 quarantines? Surprisingly, yes – the trademark examination branch’s pace of issuing Office Actions was basically identical in February and the first week of March. The second week of March, which just concluded, held up pretty well – the Office was right around the normal production for a week in either 2019 or 2020, pre-virus. Numbers were down a bit from the prior week, but within the normal variance range.

A bigger drop would have been entirely understandable – many of the USPTO’s remote employees work from home, and many USPTO employees have children. Those children are also at home, as schools and daycares and the like close, and that can make a big difference in productivity. We’ll need to see if the USPTO continues to keep up with its workload — or if there will there be a slowdown in new filings that impacts USPTO workloads in several months.

Fire, Ice, and Trademark Protection

With HBO’s hit adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice drawing to a close, Game of Thrones has a trademark portfolio and enforcement budget to match its cultural status.

Trademark Portfolio

We’ll just look at HBO’s US portfolio, headed by in-house counsel Judy McCool. At the time of writing, HBO has just over four hundred and fifty active applications and registrations in its entire portfolio, and more than seventy relate to Game of Thrones – about 15% of HBO’s entire US portfolio.

The title Game of Thrones or variations account for just over half of the total filings, and cover everything from DVDs to spinoff games to slot machines, clothing, action figures, watches, food and booze, and even swords. The rest of the filings are scattered between character-specific marks like KHALEESHI for makeup and HODOR for clothing to plot-driven marks like THE LONG NIGHT and WINTER is coming. There are also a handful of more random filings like HAND OF THE QUEEN for alcoholic beverages and clearly the strangest, MILK OF THE POPPY for clothing and mugs (!).

Enforcement Efforts at the TTAB

HBO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board enforcement team, led by Tamara Carmichael of Olshan, also has its hands full. It has taken extensions of time to oppose or opposed dozens of applications by third parties, most related to the Game of Thrones title itself.

  • 7 ongoing extensions
  • 15 withdrawn applications
  • 10 defaults after opposition (most were unrepresented foreign applicants)
  • 1 registration cancelled
  • 2 amended applications
  • 2 did not oppose

Three of HBO’s applications were also opposed or subject to extensions; filings for GAME OF THRONES went through to registration, while HBO dropped applications for DROGON and THREE EYED RAVEN for alcoholic beverages.

Yr Mark Ser. No. or
TTAB No.
Company Outcome
2019 H & HODOR 87622127 Shang Hai Fei Win Wu Liu You Xian Gong Si New extension
2019 DINNER IS COMING 88020149 Mohammad Said New extension
2019 GAME OF CONES 88101606 Beauty Bakerie Cosmetics
Brand, Inc.
New extension
2019 QUEEN OF THRONES 91246195 Sanas Health Practice Ltd. Amended to Queen of the Thrones
2019 PETER COUTURE 88027937 Peter Couture New extension
2019 GAME OF PWNS 88149316 and 88149338 Daniel Alotta New extension
2018 GAME OF KINGS 91244837 IGG Singapore Pte. Ltd. Consented extensions
2018 KALESIAH 87957584 Kaleesiah LLC Second extension
2018 KELISI 88086223 QKZ Design Did not oppose
2018 GAME OF THORNS 91244050 The Trustees of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Withdrawal of applications
2018 DRACARYS 92069511 Hangzhou Wanray Imp. &Exp. Co. Ltd. Registration cancelled
2018 HOLDOOR 87783126 Foshan Handu Technology Co., Ltd. Did not oppose
2018 DRACARYS 91242953 Ultra Pro International, LLC Suspended
2018 WINTER IS COMING 91242291 Purple Wine Company Default
2018 CON OF THRONES 91241541 Mischief Management, LLC Withdrawal of application
2018 NIGHTKING 91240578 Yiwu Chuangyue E-commerce Co., Ltd. Default
2018 GAME OF ROOMS 91240453 Andrew Ma Amended to A Game of Rooms
2018 SLOT OF THRONES 91240418 Huuuge Global Limited Default
2018 GAME OF SEASONS 91239948 Nikki Wooldridge dba Game of Seasons Withdrawal of application
2018 NIGHTKING   91239295 Shenzhen Dakang Shengshi Technology Co., Ltd. Default
2018 GAME OF STEAM   87578468 and 87578871 SmartCreo, Inc. Registered
2017 GAME OF DRONES 87287627 Scott Billups Withdrawal of application
2017 PURGE OF THRONES 91234829 Conglomerate Media LLC Withdrawal of application
2017 GAME OF HOMES 91233917 Kevin Kemble Default
2017 GAME OF TONES 91232701 Rare Earth Dynamics, Inc. Default
2016 GAME OF STONERS 91230051 Game of Stoners dba Paper Street Capital LLC Default
2016 GAME OF CLONES   86936627 David Persing Withdrawal of application
2016 GAME OF DRONES   91228977 Kismet Media Group Default
2016 GAME OF CRAYONS   86875064 Scott Severance Registered
2016 GAME OF POND   86849459 Steven Crosby, Jr. Withdrawal of application
2016 GAME OF MONARCHS   91227362 B&B Biz Corp. Opposition withdrawn; no SOU filed
2016 GAME OF TROLLS   91227002 Dreamworks Animation L.L.C. Default
2016 GAMETHRONE   91226315 Steiger Dynamics LLC Withdrawal of application
2016 GAME OF PHONES 86691920 Game of Phones, LLC Withdrawal of application
2015 LEAGUE OF THRONES 91223921 Zachary Capp and Jonathan Goldsmith Withdrawal of application
2015 GAME OF STONES 86594692 Andrew Howarth Withdrawal of application
2015 GAME OF WAR 86521836 Machine Zone, Inc. Registered
2015 GAME OF DRONES 91222199 Ballistic UAV, Inc. Withdrawal of application
2015 THREE-EYED RAVEN 91221878 Opposed by Franciscan Vineyards, Inc. (vs. HBO) Withdrawal of application by HBO
2015 GAME OF THRONES 86500697 and 86309080 Extensions by Fantasy Flight Publishing, Inc. (vs. HBO) Registered by HBO
2015 GAME OF HOMES 86287086 Scripps Networks, LLC Withdrawal of application
2015 ERA OF THRONES 86345522 Ravcorp Limited Withdrawal of application
2014 GAME OF ARMS   86253454 AMC Film Holdings LLC Withdrawal of application
2014 CLASH OF THRONES   91215210 337 Technology Limited Default
2013 DROGON 85936732 Desnoes & Deddes Limited (vs. HBO) Withdrawal of application by HBO
2012      
2011      

Office Action Analysis feature update – GS tooltips

TM TKO has added a bit of additional visibility into filing details in the Office Action Analysis tools’ list of Similar Acceptances (acceptances for similar marks facing the same issue) and Examiner Acceptances (recent acceptances from your Examiner for filings facing the same issue). Now, when you mouse over a class, you’ll see additional details on the goods or services for that application. Keep on the lookout for more updates!

A Small Step Towards Examination Consistency?

A statement that your current Examining Attorney “is not bound by the prior decisions” of other Examining Attorneys is an invariable source of frustration to applicants and their counsel. Building off a long line of cases, most recently, In re Nett Designs, Inc., 236 F. 3d 1339, 57 USPQ2d 1564, 1566 (Fed. Cir. 2001), Examining Attorneys and the TTAB have a wide scope of discretion to ignore the prior examination decisions on highly similar facts but not quite identical records.

We ran some numbers to quantify the impact. (Sample search strategies are below, at note 1.) Compared to the all applications, applications where the Examining Attorney says he or she “is not bound by” prior examination outcomes are about 5-6% more likely to have “bad” prosecution outcomes for the applicant. Abandonment rates pre-publication and pre-registration for 2(d) refusals were 5% higher, as were abandonments for 2(e)(1)-(4) refusals. Rates of acceptance on the Principal Register or with a 2(f) claim were also down 5-6% each.

This is highly counter-intuitive – the “is not bound by” language basically only arises in second or final Office Actions, and only comes up in situations where the applicant believes that a prior examination result (often for the same or similar mark owned by the applicant) should dictate the result of examination here. If anything, if the Office was aiming for consistency, we would expect more favorable results for applicants on this type of fact pattern.

  2(d) “not bound” 2(d) – all Difference
Registered or Published 39% 44% 5%
Dropped Pre-Pub or Pre-Registration 61% 56% 5%
  2(e)(1), (2), (3), or
(4) “not bound”
2(e)(1), (2),
(3), or (4) – all
Diff.
Registered or Published – Principal 10% 15% 5%
Registered or Published – 2(f) claim or claim in part 5% 11% 6%
Registered – Supplemental 24% 19% 5%
Dropped Pre-Pub or Pre-Registration 60% 55% 5%

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recently provided a tiny glimmer of hope amongst this entirely unnecessary fog – In re The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, Ser. Nos. 87245967, 87245971, 87245973, and 87245975 (TTAB Feb. 15, 2019), available at http://ttabvue.uspto.gov/ttabvue/ttabvue-87245967-EXA-13.pdf (non-precedential). It is non-precedential, as are far too many TTAB decisions. The Board overturned a “merely informational” refusal, essentially because the applicant had nearly a dozen registrations for its RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS mark. The Board critically held that evidence that “random acts of kindness” has lots of non-trademark uses was “previously available” even if it was not part of the formal record in prior examinations, and the Office failed to provide a “reason for its inconsistent treatment” of the present applications from the prior registrations. The Office didn’t even manage to provide a coherent reason for refusing the four applications in the appeal while letting five others that were filed on the same day go through to registration with no issues.

Some of the specific facts, like the number of registrations, are unique to the Random Acts case, but the general principle that an Examining Attorney or the Board needs to show that the sort of evidence on which they are relying for the refusal was not available as of the prior examination would, if adopted more widely, significantly shifts the burden towards encouraging more consistent examination.

It is too early to tell if the decision will have a substantial impact, but the very earliest signs are encouraging – only two attorneys, Paul Reidl in arguing against a specimen-driven 2(e)(1) refusal for PLANT POWERED for pet food and Julie Hopkins in arguing against a 2(d) refusal of SEV1TECH & Design based on two prior registrations for SEVONE (suggesting that since a prior application for the same mark could have been refused on the basis of those registrations was not, a refusal for the newer application would be inappropriate), have cited to Random Acts, and it’s too early to tell the outcome of either.

—-

1 Sample TM TKO search strategy to find filings that were either published or registered with a 2(f) or 2(f)-in-part claim despite getting a 2(e)(1)-(4) refusal and an Office Action with the “is not bound by” language:

Update – CSV Exports from All Tools!

TM TKO has allowed direct exports of CSV files from watch via email for several months. By popular request, we have expanded that feature across our toolset.

You can now export results from CSV for: knockout results, manual search results, watch results, and Office Action research results. Just look to your usual “Export” selection list in the top right of your results.

csv_export

We hope you enjoy this added flexibility.

Dev Blog – Tech Upgrades and New Features

TM TKO has recently rolled out a significant upgrade to its back end platform. The changes should significantly speed up certain types of searches, especially certain types of manual searches and watches. The new back-end also opens up a lot of options for us from a development perspective.

The first “front-end” upgrade available as a result of these back-end changes is the ability to sort the results of all new manual searches, including via relevance, mark, mark length, mark word count, filing, publication, registration, abandonment, and status dates, attorney, correspondent firm, owner, Examiner, and law office. Find this under “Sort by” in the upper-right corner of your manual search results table. This should be a nice quality-of-life enhancement for your day-to-day searching and diligence projects!

sort

We’re looking forward to all the new enhancements and tools that we can now develop more easily with these back-end upgrades.