Tag Archives: trademark

Trademark vs. Mass Exposure: The Sriracha King Takes a Bold Position

Vietnamese immigrant David Tran began selling his Asian chili “sriracha sauce” under the Huy Fong Foods brand in 1980. Recently, that sauce has become a hot property among foodies, with Bon Appetit magazine once naming it the ingredient of the year. The apparent popularity of this ingredient has not gone unnoticed as numerous other food companies have been capitalizing on the sriracha sauce trend by adding it to their products, notably Frito-Lay, Heinz, and Subway.

While most companies with successful products fiercely protect their trademarks, Tran opted to forego seeking trademark protection for the sriracha name, choosing instead to only seek trademark protection for the unique green topped bottle and the rooster logo. To some marketing executives, the choice is a fundamental misstep, but Tran stands behind his decision citing mass exposure and “free advertising” as a key to his brand’s success. The numbers seem to favor Tran’s argument, with sriracha sales increasing from $60 million to $80 million in the last two years.

Either way, the ship appears to have sailed for Tran on the trademark issue, and actually may have in 1990 when Tran’s ‘rooster logo application’ was filed. In that application, the word SRIRACHA was disclaimed, meaning it was found to be a merely descriptive or generic term in relation to the goods identified in the application. While the history of the rooster logo application prior to registration is not accessible online, the fate of this word may have been sealed in that application, which identified the goods as ‘hot chili sauce; namely, Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce’. This description likely provoked the disclaimer requirement, which has been continued in future applications.

Currently, there are over 24 trademark applications for marks that include the term SRIRACHA, most in association with food or food related services. Of the few that have registered, each was required to disclaim the term SRIRACHA, meaning the Trademark Office is of the opinion that the term is merely descriptive or generic in association with identified goods. Assuming the term ‘sriracha’ was protectable at one point in time, had Tran filed a trademark application for “sriracha” earlier, he may have been able to protect it as a brand of chili sauce, thereby giving him the ability to prevent its use by third parties.

Although Tran seems to be benefitting from the current third party use, Tran may have reason to worry. While there are a number of companies currently selling sriracha style sauce, the makers of Tabasco®, sauce giant McIlhenny Co., is entering the sriracha market, with a vast advertising budget and superior distribution outlets. Should McIlhenny flood the market with its own ‘sriracha’ product, Tran may find that his strategy backfired in decreased profits and market shares. For the time being, McIlhenny admits Tran “got an awful big head start.”

If history is any indicator of the future, it is likely that the term “sriracha” will eventually cease to function as any form of advertising for Mr. Tran exclusively, but will instead, likely be viewed simply as a type of delicious chili sauce. The term is likely to go the way of other terms like “escalator” and “aspirin” that have ceased to be associated exclusively with a single company. Indeed, by allowing numerous other companies to create and market a sriracha sauce, Mr. Tran has all but insured that his original sriracha sauce will soon be but one among many in a vast ocean of sriracha sauces. The sad result of Mr. Tran’s failure to protect his brand may be that the substantial competitive advantage he once possessed may soon be thoroughly neutralized and overshadowed by other companies more intent on building and protecting the brands associated with their products.

Ultimately, the test of Tran’s choice will pass to the consumers. Will sriracha customers remain loyal to Tran and his Huy Fong product that invented the flavor profile and caused the sensation, or will they bow to McIlhenny’s accessibility and name recognition?

Anna Vradenburgh is a well-respected, business-minded expert in intellectual property issues. As a patent attorney licensed to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Anna assists clients in patent and trademark prosecution, and represents clients in trademark opposition matters, domain name dispute matters, and patent and trademark litigation. Anna can also assist your company in all manner of intellectual property protection. For more information, visit her website, or contact Anna at (818) 946-2300. This article is for educational purposes only and nothing in this article is intended to be, nor should be considered legal advice.

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TTAB Finds Fraud; Upholds Trademark Opposition to “NATIONSTAR”

Obtaining a federal registration for a trademark is important because it helps to protect a company’s brand.  Due to the importance of receiving a federal registration, the truthfulness of the underlying application for that trademark is paramount.  When filing a trademark application, an applicant must execute a declaration that attests to the truthfulness of the content of the application.  This includes attesting to the fact that the trademark is being used in commerce in connection with the goods or services listed in the application.  If the statements in the declaration are false, any resulting registration can be challenged on the basis of fraud.  If a claim of fraud is brought by a challenger, serious consequences for the registrant can follow.  Such was the case in NationStar Mortgage LLC v. Mujahid Ahmad.

In a precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) issued a finding of fraud in the opposition matter entitled NationStar Mortgage LLC v. Mujahid Ahmad.  While a finding of fraud is rare, it does happen from time to time.   In the case re Bose Corp., 580 F.3d 1240, 91 USPQ2d 1938 (Fed. Cir 2009), the Federal Circuit articulated the current standard for fraud in procuring a trademark registration.  In the words of the Federal Circuit in Bose, “a trademark is obtained fraudulently under the Lanham Act only if the applicant or registrant knowingly makes a false, material representation with intent to deceive the USPTO.”

The NationStar Mortgage matter involved the attempted registration of the trademark “NATIONSTAR” for “mortgage brokerage,” “insurance brokerage,” and other real estate and mortgage related services.  In April of 2005, long prior to filing the trademark application, the applicant, Mujahid Ahmad, a Virginia real estate agent, registered multiple domain names using derivations of nationstar, for example, nationstarmortgage.com and nationstar.org.  On April 11 and April 18, 2006, counsel for opposer, NationStar Mortgage, sent letters to Mr. Ahmad offering to purchase two of the domains.  The offer was rejected, and within a few days of the offer, Mr. Ahmad filed a use based trademark application for “NATIONSTAR” for a number of services, including real estate brokerage services and insurance brokerage services.  By filing the application based on use, Mr. Ahmad declared that the mark was in use for all the identified services at the time of filing the application.

Fraud in the procurement of a trademark registration must be proven via clear and convincing evidence, and here, the facts were the applicant’s undoing.  The opposer, NationStar Mortgage, alleged that Mr. Ahmad never used the NATIONSTAR MORTGAGE mark in connection with the identified services, and that he “submitted a fabricated specimen that was not used in commerce at least as early as the application filing date.”  In fact, Mr. Ahmad admitted during testimony that he was not a real estate broker, not an insurance broker, nor did he offer mortgage insurance.  While Mr. Ahmad claimed he was the owner of a company called NationStar Mortgage Inc. and used the name in connection with his services as a real estate agent, he also testified that he was unaware of any profits for the company and did not have a bank account.  Mr. Ahmad also admitted that all of the materials submitted to the USPTO were created on his own computer, and by a third party printer; however, he could not produce records of professional printing for the supposed business cards and postcards that were sent to clients or otherwise used commercially.

The TTAB noted that it was skeptical of applicant’s testimony and claims, particularly because, although the applicant was not a lawyer with expertise in trademark law, he was a real estate agent and was familiar with the laws surrounding mortgage brokers and insurance brokers, and would have certainly been aware that he was not licensed as a broker of mortgages or insurance.  The TTAB stated that just because Mr. Ahmad filed his own application, it did not afford him “a free pass to disregard the straightforward requirements of a use-based application and the solemnity of the application declaration that he signed subject to criminal penalties.”

The TTAB was also clear that the facts in this case were inconsistent with merely a mistake or misinterpretation of the law by a non-attorney applicant.  In the words of the TTAB, “this record does not support a finding that applicant’s misrepresentation was occasioned by mere inadvertence or reasonable mistake or misunderstanding….While fraud will not lie if a statement, though false, was made with a reasonable and honest belief that it was true, there are limits to what may be claimed in good faith.”

In the end, the TTAB sustained NationStar’s opposition.  In addition to the obvious lessons in regard to avoiding fraudulent filings, this case highlights the importance of using an experienced attorney to prepare trademark applications.

If you have questions about filing a trademark application, you need an experienced trademark attorney.  Anna Vradenburgh is a well-respected, business-minded expert in trademark issues with extensive experience prosecuting domestic and foreign trademarks.  In addition to her prosecution practice, Anna also assists clients in the selection and use of trademarks and represents clients in trademark opposition matters, domain name dispute matters, and before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeals Board.  Anna can also assist your company in licensing matters, including drafting and negotiation of trademark licensing agreements.  For more information, visit her website, or contact Anna at (818) 488-8146.  This article is for educational purposes only and nothing in this article is intended to be, or should be considered to be, legal advice.

Reservation of Trademark Rights Requires A Bona Fide Intent to Use

While many countries issue trademark registrations with a broad description of goods and services, and without evidence of use of the mark on any of the identified goods and services, to obtain a trademark registration in the United States, an applicant must ultimately provide evidence of use of the trademark in association with the goods and services identified in the applicant’s trademark application.

Although the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) requires that trademark applicants provide evidence of use of the mark on the goods and services identified in the application, the USPTO allows applicants to file a trademark application based either on actual and current use in interstate commerce, or upon a declaration that the applicant has a bona fide intent to use the trademark in interstate commerce in association with the identified goods and services.  This latter type of application is known as an intent-to-use (ITU) application.

Because an ITU application is not based on use of a mark, applicants tend to include broad descriptions of goods and services in the initial filing.  While doing so is not improper per se, it is important for applicants to remember that they must actually have a bona fide intent to use the mark on the identified goods and services at the time of filing.

While the USPTO may not typically question an applicant’s declared intent to use a mark with specified goods and services, third parties may not be so willing to believe the applicant’s declaration of a bona fide intent to use the mark in association with the listed goods or services.  Indeed, a recent opinion from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) demonstrates that this declaration, alone, may not be sufficient to overcome a challenge from a third party that the applicant lacked a bona fide intent to use the mark on the goods and services at the time of filing.   In Lincoln National Corp v. Anderson, 100 USPQ2d 1271 (TTAB 2014), the TTAB sustained two oppositions to register the mark FUTURE, finding that the applicant lacked a bona fide intent to use the mark for specific services.

In this case, applicant Kent G. Anderson, a colorful trademark applicant, filed two ITU applications to register the mark “FUTURE.”  Between the applications, Mr. Anderson listed goods and services in 19 different classes for literally hundreds of varying and somewhat unrelated goods and services, including, for example, insurance agency brokerages, electronic credit card transactions, leasing shopping mall space, and for goods ranging from candy to electronic consumer products to shoes.   An opposition against each of Mr. Anderson’s applications was filed by the plaintiff, Lincoln National, collectively challenging his Class 35 services, for in part, shopping malls, franchising, and data processing services, and the Class 36 services, which included banking, insurance and financial services.  Lincoln National based its challenges on the claim that the applicant did not have a bona fide intent to use the mark on the services in these classes at the time of filing the applications.

Trademark Act Section 1(b)(1) (“Section 1(b)”) provides, in pertinent part, that “[a] person who has a bona fide intention, under circumstances showing the good faith of such person, to use a trademark in commerce may request registration of its trademark on the principal register….” In its discussion, the Board reiterated the standard for bona fide intention to use a mark, namely, “the determination of whether an applicant has a bona fide intention to use the mark in commerce is to be a fair, objective determination based upon all of the circumstances.”  The Board then noted that the requirement that an applicant have a bona fide intent to use the mark must be read in conjunction with the definition of ‘use in commerce’, wherein ‘use in commerce’ is defined as use “in the ordinary course of trade, and not made merely to reserve a right in a mark.”

In evaluating Mr. Anderson’s intent to use the mark with respect to the challenged services, the TTAB noted that while the applicant had “idealistic hopes for forming a futuristic company,” had created a website that described his plans for the future, and had produced letters he had written to a variety of companies, including Ferrari, Proctor & Gamble, and Kellogg’s, outlining his visions for the future, these actions alone were insufficient to demonstrate intent to use the mark in connection with the described services.  For example, none of the letters actually identified any of the services, and each were merely discussions about general ideas and hopes for a FUTURE project.  The Board noted that Mr. Anderson was a sole proprietor without any knowledge of many of the areas included in his trademark applications, and specifically admitted in depositions that he lacked the funding, connections, know how, and even the desire to undertake business ventures associated with the challenged services identified in the trademark applications.

As a result of its findings, the TTAB found that the applicant failed to demonstrate a bona fide intent to use the “FUTURE” mark, sustaining oppositions to register the mark for the challenged services, stating that the applications were void ab initio as to Classes 35 and 361.  In other words, the TTAB held that bona fide intent to use must be based on tangible evidence-capital, business plans, distribution contracts, concrete partnerships-and may not exist merely in the head of the applicant.

To support its conclusion, the Board looked to the legislative history of Section 1(b), 15 U.S.C. Section 1051(b) et seq., and noted that included in the objective circumstances which may cast doubt or even disprove the bona fide nature of the intent was “an excessive number of intent to use applications in relation to the number of products that the applicant…[was actually] likely to introduce under the applied for marks during the pendency of the applications.”  Accordingly, the Board concluded that Mr. Anderson, “in filing the application, was merely attempting to reserve a general right in the [FUTURE] mark for potential use on some undetermined goods or services at some indefinite time in the future.”

This case is a reminder that, although the Trademark Office allows a liberal filing of goods and services based upon the intent to use a mark, that intent must be demonstrable, if challenged.  Thus, as a practical matter, although it is acceptable to list many unrelated and disparate goods and services in an ITU application, it might be more prudent to limit the goods and services to those that are reasonably likely to be transformed from merely an intent to use, to actual use in commerce.

If you have questions about filing a trademark application, you need an experienced trademark attorney.  Anna Vradenburgh is a well-respected, business-minded expert in trademark issues with extensive experience prosecuting domestic and foreign trademarks.  In addition to her prosecution practice, Anna also assists clients in the selection and use of trademarks and represents clients in trademark opposition matters, domain name dispute matters, and before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeals Board.  Anna can also assist your company in licensing maters, including drafting and negotiation of trademark licensing agreements.  For more information visit the Eclipse Law Group website, or contact Anna directly at (818) 488-8146.

1This decision did not affect any of the remaining goods and services.  Thus, the entire applications were not void ab initio, only the applications as to Classes 35 and 36.

Water Bottler Thirsty for Justice in Trademark Dispute

Maine Springs LLC v. Nestlé Waters, U.S. District Court for District of Maine, 2:14-cv-00321 (2014), Filed August 11, 2014

One Maine water bottler is thirsty for justice in a federal unfair competition dispute.  Maine Springs LLC, a local water company in Maine, has filed a suit against Nestlé Waters NA in U.S. District Court for the District of Maine alleging false and misleading advertising, and tortious interference with business.  More specifically, Maine Springs alleges that labels on Nestlé’s bottled water products bearing the Poland Spring® mark contain false and/or misleading statements as to the sources of the water in violation of the federal Lanham Act, and that because of its assertion of its trademark rights in the Poland Spring® mark against Maine Springs, Nestlé has effectively interfered with Maine Springs’s attempts to sell its bulk water to other third party bottling companies.

This suit is one of the first to follow a recent ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in a similar labeling dispute between Coca-Cola and Pom Wonderful, LLC (discussed in more detail below).  In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that a Lanham Act claim could be brought against a competitor challenging the competitor’s food and beverage label, even though the food and beverage label was subject to Food and Drug Administration labeling regulations.

The dispute between Maine Springs and Nestlé arises from Maine Springs allegations that the Poland Spring, a natural water source in Maine, has not been in use for more than 30 years, and thus, accordingly the complaint, was not in use in 1994, when Nestlé began bottling and selling water under the Poland Spring® brand.  Thus, any statements made by Nestlé that the water is sourced from the Poland Spring are false and misleading.  Further, according to the complaint, Nestlé’s label indicates that the water is 100% spring water.  Maine Springs contends that this too is false, and states that Nestlé utilizes water from other springs and non-spring water sources, from other places in the region.

According to Nestlé, the Poland Spring® brand is famous and has been marketed for decades.  Indeed, Nestlé owns numerous U.S. federal trademark registrations that include the words POLAND SPRING for spring water.  Based on its rights in these registrations, Nestlé sent Maine Springs a cease and desist letter threatening litigation in response to Maine Springs’ attempt to bottle and market a bottled water product after securing permits to extract water from underground spring water sources in Maine, wherein the label on the bottled water product identified the source of the water as Poland Spring, Maine.  Nestlé contended that this would create confusion with Nestlé’s Poland Spring® bottled water product.

Further, Maine Springs was in the process of securing contracts to sell bulk water to other small and mid-sized bottlers, including Niagara Bottling Company, and Crystal Rock.  Maine Springs alleges that because of a cease and desist letter from Nestlé threatening trademark infringement against Maine Springs for labeling that indicated that the water source was Poland Spring, its potential business partners rejected Maine Springs’ proposals for fear of threatened litigation by Nestlé.  Although there are no allegations that Nestlé ever directly contacted any of the bottlers, Maine Springs alleges that Nestlé’s actions constituted tortious interference with prospective business advantage.

This is the third lawsuit that Nestlé has defended regarding the label on its bottled water.  The company settled two prior consumer class action suits for fraud in Illinois and Connecticut, by parties who claimed that Nestlé used municipal water to fill its bottles, despite product labels that represented the product was 100% natural spring water.

Whether Nestlé’s statements on the labels are false and misleading remains to be seen, as does whether threatening litigation against Maine Springs constitutes tortious interference of business with parties in negotiation with Maine Springs.  However, based on its registrations, Nestlé has the right to object to product labels that attempt to utilize its brand Poland Spring® as a source identifier of the product.  Competitors, however, are entitled to identify the geographic location Poland Spring.  Thus, the resolution of this issue will likely depend upon the manner in which the identification of the geographic location, Poland Spring, is presented on the label, as it is not likely that Nestlé’s registration rights will allow them the ability to prevent truthful statements regarding the geographic location of the water being sold to be included on the product.

If you have questions about trademarks, or have received a cease and desist letter from a competitor, you need an experienced trademark attorney.  Anna Vradenburgh is a well-respected, business-mind expert in trademark issues with extensive experience prosecuting domestic and foreign trademarks.  In addition to her prosecution practice, Anna also assists clients in the selection and use of trademarks and represents clients in trademark opposition matters, domain name dispute matters, and before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeals Board.  Anna can also assist your company in licensing maters, including drafting and negotiation of trademark licensing agreements.  For more information visit the Eclipse Law Group website, or contact Anna at (818) 488-8146.

Business Tips for Trademarks

There has been a lot of media coverage regarding the case before the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB) that resulted in the cancellation of the federally issued trademarks owned by National Football League’s Washington Redskins containing the word “REDSKINS” on the ground that the term is disparaging to Native Americans. With the Redskins case in the news in the last few weeks, many businesses are looking at their own trademark portfolios with an understandable degree of concern as to whether they too may own trademark registrations that might also be potentially challenged and cancelled on similar grounds.

Judging from the discussions I have had in the wake of the news regarding the cancellation of the Redskins federal trademark registrations, I think many business owners are wondering how a famous trademark, like REDSKINS, that has been federally registered since September 1967 (almost 45 years) could be subject to cancellation. Above and beyond simple curiosity, there is justifiable concern regarding the protectability of trademark rights when those rights appear to be subject to termination by judicial fiat. It is not unreasonable, in my opinion, in the wake of the Redskins decision for businesses to wonder whether their investment of capital and effort in a protectable brand is as safe or prudent a use of their resources today as it was prior to the Redskins decision.   One might reasonably wonder, for example, if the owners of the Redskins football team had been asked, years ago, to invest millions of dollars to develop the REDSKINS brand and to properly protect the brand via federal trademark registration, with the caveat, that despite the investment of an enormous amount of time and money, the brand would be subject to challenge, and the corresponding trademark registration subject to cancellation, decades later, by persons, not yet born, who would not be competitors or even associated with football, my guess is that the answer would have been a resounding ‘NO’.

So, just how did the Washington Redskins and the NFL come to find themselves in this position? Well, let’s start with the selection of the trademark.

Trademarks are typically categorized as fanciful or coined, arbitrary, suggestive, and merely descriptive. There is one more category, generic. However, technically any term that falls into this category can never be a trademark for reasons discussed below.

To create a strong brand, it is best if the mark is ‘fanciful’ or ‘coined’. These are terms that are completely made-up, that is, the term has no meaning other than as a trademark. A classic example is XEROX for photocopiers.   These are some of the strongest marks assuming they are properly used and protected.

‘Arbitrary’ marks are those marks which comprise a word that is a common word, but the meaning of the word has no relation to the goods or services associated with the mark. APPLE for computers is one such example. These too, start as very strong marks.

A ‘suggestive’ mark is one that suggests some attribute or characteristic of the goods or services, but does not describe them.   An example of a suggestive mark is AIRBUS for airplanes.

Finally, a ‘descriptive’ mark is one that merely describes the goods or services. These types of marks can ultimately be registered on the Principal (or primary) Register, but only after proving they are capable of being a source identifier, that is, consumers believe the goods or services emanate from a common source. These marks are near the weaker end of the spectrum, but can be protected.

Terms that are generic, that is, they are the common term for the goods or services can never be registered. The selection of a generic term as a brand does not offer protection for the brand name and allows third parties to use the term freely.

The REDSKINS mark is considered an arbitrary mark, and therefore a choice that, from a trademark protection perspective, was a good choice for a strong mark. Why then, was it subject to challenge?

In addition to the considerations of the type of mark to select (fanciful, arbitrary, etc.), persons seeking federal registration of trademarks must also consider other important issues. For example, consideration must be given regarding whether the mark is a surname or a geographical location, whether the mark is misdescriptive of the goods or services with which it is to be associated, whether the mark is protected indicia, or whether the proposed trademark is immoral or scandalous, or may disparage, for example, persons (living or dead), beliefs, or symbols. This last consideration, i.e., whether the mark would be considered disparaging, is the one at the heart of the REDSKINS cancellation proceeding.

There is no published information to my knowledge regarding whether the issue of disparagement toward Native Americans was considered in the selection of the REDSKINS mark. The evidence in the case presumably showed that the sentiment that the trademark was disparaging existed at the time the trademark was selected. The NFL has maintained throughout the dispute that it has always acted honorably and respectfully towards Native Americans. While this may be true, with respect to the action brought by Native Americans before the TTAB, the NFL’s intent is irrelevant.

The TTAB ruling suggests that Native Americans may have been objecting to the use of this mark for quite some time. But the first cancellation proceeding brought by the petitioners in the REDSKINS case was not filed until 1992, fully twenty-five years after the mark’s initial federal registration. One might ask if a substantial composite of Native Americans found the term “redskins” to be disparaging at the time of the registrations of these successively filed marks, why the offended parties did not institute proceedings years ago? While there may be an answer to that question, it does not appear in the record of the case. Moreover, the issue of the lack of objection by Native Americans to the use of the name for decades did not apparently factor into the TTAB’s decision.   Many believe this is unfortunate or even unfair as the NFL heavily invested in the REDSKINS brand relying on what might well have been a reasonable belief that use of the brand in association with a highly successful and much beloved football team was not offensive to a substantial composite of Native Americans.

The cancellation of the REDSKINS federal trademark registration has sent shock waves throughout the legal and business communities.  The ruling will act as established precedent for future cancellation proceedings.   It is a ruling that has provoked questions about vulnerability of trademark rights to attack by individuals or groups that might be able to demonstrate that they are somehow offended by a mark.   But more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the case has raised, and will continue to raise, questions of fundamental fairness. Specifically, the fairness of basing the cancellation of a famous trademark comprising an enormously successful brand for which the owner has made a huge monetary investment over literally decades on the ground that the trademark was disparaging at the time of its registration and offends a group that failed to timely pursue its rights.

The NFL has indicated that it will appeal the ruling. Accordingly, the fate of these registrations is yet to be seen.

trademark

If you need assistance with trademark registrations, searches, or trademark licensing, Anna Vradenburgh is a well-respected, business-mind expert in trademark issues with extensive experience prosecuting domestic and foreign trademarks. In addition to her prosecution practice, Anna also assists clients in the selection and use of trademarks and represents clients in trademark opposition matters, domain name dispute matters, and before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeals Board. Anna can also assist your company in licensing maters, including drafting and negotiation of trademark licensing agreements. For more information visit the Eclipse Law Group website, or contact Anna at (818) 488-8146.

Washington Redskins Trademark Follow Up

All eyes have been on the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB), following the recent order to cancel six trademark registrations owned by National Football League’s Washington Redskins, each containing the word REDSKINS. Although a divided TTAB granted the Native American’s petition to cancel federal registration of the team’s mark, the decision will not prevent the Washington Redskins from using the trademark in its name, uniforms, and the like.

The TTAB decision comes after twenty years of efforts by Native American petitioners who allege that the ‘REDSKINS’ marks disparage Native Americans. The TTAB first reviewed Native American petitions to cancel the trademarks in 1992, although that case, Pro Football, Inc. v. Harjo, 90 USPQ2d 1993 (D.C. Cir. 2009), was ultimately dismissed by the D.C. Circuit, not on the merits, but for procedural reasons.

In the recent matter, because all of the challenged registrations had been registered for more than five (5) years, the TTAB had a very narrow legal question to answer, namely, whether the evidence made of record, established “that the term ‘redskins’ was disparaging to a substantial composite of Native Americans at the time each of the challenged registrations issued.”  (emphasis added)  That is, during the time period from 1967-1990 (registrations issued in 1967, 1974, 1978, and 1990).  To answer this question, the TTAB applied a two-part test, which (1) looked at the meaning of REDSKINS as it appears in the trademarks, including how those marks were used in connection with the goods and services identified in the registration; and (2) whether that meaning may disparage Native Americans.

In considering the first part of the test, the TTAB found that the Washington Redskins and the NFL “made continuous efforts to associate its football services with Native American imagery.”  Because of the maintained association with Native Americans, the TTAB found that the marks retained their connotation and meaning with respect to Native Americans.

With regard to the second part of the test, the TTAB stated that the determination of disparagement must be made within the context of the goods or services, wherein the context could: (a) make an innocuous term offensive; (b) remove the disparaging meaning from an otherwise disparaging term; or (c) have a no effect on a term’s disparaging meaning.

Although the NFL argued that its use of the mark removed the disparaging meaning of the term and that it had honorable intent in its use of the marks, the TTAB ultimately agreed with the petitioners that the NFL’s use had no effect on the disparaging meaning of the term.  The finding that the term was disparaging during the relevant period was based, in part, on a determination that a substantial composite of Native Americans, approximately 30%, found the meaning of the term REDSKINS to be disparaging during the relevant time periods.  Although the NFL produced contradictory evidence from Native Americans, the evidence did not negate the negative opinion of the substantial composite.  In making its finding, the TTAB stated “[t]he ultimate decision is based on whether the evidence shows that a substantial composite of the Native American population found the term “Redskins” to be disparaging when the respective registrations issued.  Heeb Media LLC, 89 USPQ2d at 1077.  Therefore, once a substantial composite has been found, the mere existence of differing opinions cannot change the conclusion.”  In addressing the NFL’s contentions regarding its honorable intent in the use of the marks, the TTAB stated the “alleged honorable intent and manner of use of the term do not contribute to the determination of whether a substantial composite of the referenced group found REDSKINS to be a disparaging term in the context of respondent’s services during the time period 1967-1990, because the services have not removed the Native American meaning from the term and intent does not affect the second prong.” Because the term was determined to be disparaging during the relevant time period, the TTAB concluded that that the marks should be cancelled.

The Washington Redskins have announced plans to appeal the TTAB decision.  The trademark registrations remain in effect while the appeal is pending, and as stated above, this decision has no legal effect on the team’s ability to use the term REDSKINS or the marks.

Beyond potential financial losses to the NFL, the implications of this TTAB decision are unclear at this time.  However, there are many trademarks that could be affected by this ruling.

While other companies have successfully defended their marks before the TTAB against petitions to cancel from Native American groups, notably SQUAW VALLEY marks in connection with ski goods and services, 80 USPQ2d 1264, 1267 (TTAB 2006), the Redskins matter may represent a new reality for owners of Native American themed marks.

If you have questions about the implications of the TTAB Redskins ruling or your company owns a Native American themed trademark, you need an experienced trademark attorney.  Anna Vradenburgh is a well-respected, business-mind expert in trademark issues with extensive experience prosecuting domestic and foreign trademarks.  In addition to her prosecution practice, Anna also assists clients in the selection and use of trademarks and represents clients in trademark opposition matters, domain name dispute matters, and before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeals Board.  Anna can also assist your company in licensing maters, including drafting and negotiation of trademark licensing agreements.  For more information visit the Eclipse Law Group website, or contact Anna at (818) 488-8146.