|Chipotle chilis - meco variety|
Enter Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., a chain of restaurants located in the United States, UK and Canada, specializing in delicious burritos and tacos, and known for its fresh, natural ingredients and “assembly-line” production method.
Despite its enormous success and popularity (as long lines of customers can attest), the company continues to face an uphill battle in legally capturing the word “CHIPOTLE” as a trademark. When the restaurant chain applied for the word trademark in 2003, the US Trademark Examiner initially refused to register it, finding that it was "highly descriptive of the goods and/or services."
However, the Examiner went on to invite the company to offer specific evidence of distinctiveness, including dollar sales under the mark, advertising figures, samples of advertising, consumer or dealer statements of recognition of the mark, and any other evidence that establishes the distinctiveness of the mark as an indicator of source. The Examiner reminded the company that "the [Trademark] Office will decide each case on its own merits."
But can the CHIPOTLE word ever qualify to become a legally protectable trademark in its own right? It may depend on whether CHIPOTLE is deemed "generic" or "descriptive" by a court. The distinction is subtle, but meaningful. A generic mark can NEVER become a trademark. Examples of generic words are CHICKEN, RESTAURANT and GRILL. However, a mark that is descriptive CAN become a trademark, if sufficient "distinctiveness is acquired" by a single company. Here, generic/descriptive use by unauthorized third parties create a chicken-and-egg problem for the restaurant chain, which is stuck with creating "distinctiveness in the making."
Can such a brand owner who is still trying to establish trademark rights meaningfully assert a viable legal claim? For example, Subway sandwich shops offer a product called CHIPOTLE CHICKEN. This usage does not appear to be licensed, and has apparently not drawn a lawsuit (yet). However, when the Kroger Company launched a product called CHIPOTLE CHICKEN in supermarkets, it was summarily sued and chose to settle. Such outcomes can help a Plaintiff demonstrate good faith efforts to police the marketplace, but they do not in and of themselves resolve the ultimate linguistic -- and legal -- matter. If larger and more visible third parties (such as Subway) continue to use the word in a generic or descriptive (i.e., non-trademark) manner, CHIPOTLE may be confined to those marks that never escape their perpetual sentence in trademark purgatory. Only time will tell.