Showing posts with label descriptiveness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label descriptiveness. Show all posts

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Selfie Trademark: Struggling to Own the New Slang

In the modern world of interactive social media, new words are invented, used and discarded at lightning speed.

Indeed, the lexicon of online social media is replete with an entirely new vocabulary composed of Internet "slang."  There are thousands of examples percolating on the Internet, with dictionaries and even online translators devoted to these emerging linguistic trends.

Some examples of words that started as Internet slang and which are now mainstream are: "cookies" (a small piece of data embedded in an Internet browser), "photoshopped" (referring to the popular software graphics program that allows for visual 'touching up' of digital photographs) and "spam," (those annoying bulk e-mail messages that clog up our inboxes).

But some entrepreneurs are hoping that such slang terms are capable of functioning as trademarks. For example, the word "selfie" means a photograph taken of oneself (usually with a smartphone) that is planned to be uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, Imgur or another social media networking website.

But several brand owners are trying to monopolize this term, even before it fully enters the mainstream lexicon.  

Thinkboks LLC, an Illinois based software development company, has filed a formal trademark application for "SELFIE" in connection with "computer application software for allowing hands free photographs on portable electronic devices."  Thinkboks claims that it first used the term in commerce in 2012.

Screenshot of Thinkboks.com
The Trademark Office was not persuaded and recently denied the application on the basis that “SELFIE” is defined as “a slang term used to describe a photo that is taken of oneself for the purpose of uploading it to social networking sites  and image sharing websites, such as Facebook, Instagram or Imgur”.

To illustrate his point, the Examiner attached screenshots of websites (italicized emphasis added) in which the term was used by third parties descriptively:  “With our face detection and timer modes, you will love taking selfies at home or on the go!” and "It’s simple and easy and it helps with taking selfies! . . .”


The Examiner found that as shown by the Internet evidence, the wording “SELFIE” and/or its inflected forms is used to describe a feature, subject matter, use, and/or the nature of selfie software, i.e., software for taking pictures of oneself.   

Material obtained from the Internet is generally accepted as competent evidence to determine if a mark is being used widely as a descriptive term.  Accordingly, Thinkboks' trademark application was rejected on grounds of descriptiveness under Trademark Act Section 2(e)(1).

In addition to or in the alternative to submitting evidence and arguments in support of registration, Thinkboks can amend the application to seek registration on the Supplemental Register.

However, that approach means that Thinkboks would need to wait as long as five years to renew its attempt to receive a trademark registration, and would need to swear under oath that, during the interim five years, it alone made "substantially exclusive use" of that mark in commerce.

Therefore, if Thinkboks cannot successfully monopolize usage using legal means, it can only succeed by convincing the marketplace generally that "SELFIE" is associated exclusively with it.  And that's likely an uphill endeavor.

In the meantime, others are trying a similar strategy.

Selfie Social, a New Jersey-based company, is seeking to register the trademark for "Selfie Social" in connection with computer applications used for the collection of photographs.  The Examiner rejected this application on the same "descriptiveness" grounds.

Further, an unidentified person or company currently cloaked with privacy protection services has apparently registered the domain name "SELFIE.COM" and is accepting requests for new screen names.

If this isn't Thinkboks' domain name, they may face an even steeper uphill climb than they bargained for.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Is "CHIPOTLE" a Valid Trademark?

Chipotle chilis - meco variety
The word "chipotle" comes from the Nahuatl word chilpoctli meaning "smoked chili pepper," and is a smoke-dried jalape├▒o pepper.  It is a flavorful chili pepper used primarily in Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisines, such as Mexican-American and Tex-Mex.  The word has widely been used generically to describe this type of flavor.


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."


Subsequently in June 2008, the CHIPOTLE trademark application became a registration on the Supplemental Trademark Register.  The Supplemental Register is a purgatory for descriptive or otherwise problematic marks which may (or may not) mature to the Principal Register.A quick search on Google demonstrates that CHIPOTLE has clearly become associated with the Plaintiff's restaurants.  


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.

Understanding Trademark Bullying

Many successful companies seeking to aggressively protect their intellectual property portfolio of valuable brands have been accused of becoming “trademark bullies.”  Their accusers argue that rather than using a reasoned, measured approach to address actual commercial threats, these large brand owners deliberately use the specter of civil litigation to threaten alleged infringers into submission.

Trademark infringement litigation may be brought either in federal court, or can also be commenced by opposing or seeking to cancel trademark applications in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) in a lengthy and byzantine administrative proceeding that can last years and cost the parties thousands of dollars.  Because the cost of litigating trademark disputes can be prohibitive, especially for smaller companies or individuals, many accused infringers choose to settle or otherwise resolve their conflict without the merits of the underlying conflict ever being adjudicated.

Consequently, commentators -- and sometimes even the brands’ own customer base – have vocally accused some brand owners of overzealously enforcing their perceived trademark rights against others in a manner that smacks of bad faith or anticompetitive conduct used to squelch competition or free speech.


Why would savvy and well-represented companies sometimes risk going too far and potentially alienating their own customer base?  While every case is different, under existing U.S. Intellectual Property law, an established brand may very well face a Hobson’s choice:  risk the ire of an angry mob, or face ongoing brand erosion and even extinction in a world of ever-expanding fakes and imitators.  A few examples of alleged "trademark bullying" warrant mentioning:

  • Chick-Fil-A sells more than $4B of sandwiches each year.  The company’s humorous “EAT MOR CHIKIN” trademarked slogan held up by aggrieved cattle (see right), became an instant hit for the company’s efforts at marketing and promotion.  When a small local farmer named Mr. Muller-Moore sought to federally register the “EAT MORE KALE” slogan in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the corporation opposed his application on the grounds that his mark was likely to cause confusion with their slogan.


  • Hansen Beverage Company, maker of the popular “MONSTER ENERGY DRINK” sent Rock Art Brewery a letter demanding that Rock Art cease and desist its use of “VERMONSTER” as a trademark for beer.  Ultimately, after a public outcry on Twitter, the parties settled their dispute outside of court, with Rock Art permitted to keep selling their brew.

  • Non-profit Susan G. Komen for the Cure opposes dozens of trademark applications for wording that includes “FOR A CURE” or “FOR THE CURE.”  When the charity opposed an application for “MUSH FOR THE CURE” sought by a local non-profit, it became national news. 

So what do each of these four examples have in common? Each circumstance may seem like an example of brand protection gone awry, and perhaps they are.

However, Difficult Legal Lines Must Inevitably Be Drawn

It is worth reminding their critics that if each of these brand owners had not acted to draw a line in the sand, they would undoubtedly face the prospect of closer and closer copyists, and eventually encounter even more widespread infringement.  Where any specific line between infringer and innocent victim is drawn in each case is another matter, but it is clear that a legal line still must be drawn somewhere, and the clear incentive for brand owners under current law is to be zealously protective of their investment in their brands.

One legal reason for brand owners to be zealous is that in the event of a brand owner’s complete failure to act, their targets may be entitled to legally rely on the affirmative defense that their delay has been inexcusable.  This potentially crippling defense is known as “estoppel by laches” or “laches” for short.  The laches defense is also sometimes described as "estoppel by acquiescence."

Similar to an undefined statute of limitations, laches may be available as a defense when an infringer was actually known about by the Plaintiff, or even should have been known about under the circumstances, and the delay in bringing suit was inexcusable.

An essential element of laches is the requirement that the party invoking the doctrine has somehow changed its position as a result of the delay.  In other words, the defendant is now in a worse position than at the time the claim should have been brought.  For example, the delay in asserting the claim may have caused the defendant to open up more stores, hire more employees and build up its own reputation in reliance on the brand owner’s unfair inaction.

Even worse yet, if a brand owner fails to act against numerous infringers in the marketplace, it may very well face the dire prospect of losing its trademark altogether under a doctrine known as “genericide.”  

Some words that started out as brand names and “killed” by such widespread genericide are: aspirin, bundt cake, cellophane, dry ice, escalator,
 granola, kerosene, linoleum, minibike, nylon,
 pogostick, tarmac, thermos, touch-tone, trampoline,
 yo-yo and zipper.

In each of these cases, the brand owner failed to act to sufficiently police the marketplace to stop widespread third-party unauthorized uses.  Ultimately, these erstwhile brands passed into the netherworld of “dead” trademarks, devoid of legal protection altogether.

But Are These Extreme Historical Examples of Genericide that Can’t Recur Today?

Harris Interactive released a list of products ranked by brand equity, a measure of the brand's popularity with U.S. consumers.  Among the top 10 are Ziploc food bags, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Candy Bars, Kleenex Facial Tissues, Clorox Bleach, WD-40 Spray Lubricant, Heinz Ketchup, Windex Glass Cleaner and Campbell’s Soups.  In other words, some of the most valuable and well-known trademarks in the world.

It is clear from this list alone that success in today's marketplace can be a double-edged sword.  The companies who manufacture these products have done an incredible job in advertising and marketing them, so successful in some cases that the brand name is in danger of becoming a genericized trademark.  If the companies on this list aren't zealous, they could end up losing the trademark for the products that they have worked so hard to market successfully.

Ultimately, trademark law is intended to protect consumers and companies from confusion with established brands.  Quality control and brand reputation are crucial in today's marketplace, and zealous trademark protections are a perfectly logical and legal way to protect customers from fraud, and to give companies the tools they need to protect their valuable investment.  In conclusion, in this age of rampant counterfeiting and infringement, it is important to fully understand why in their zeal to protect their valuable brands, aggressive tactics can seem like a viable option for brand owners, even if sometimes they risk going too far.