Showing posts with label trademark infringement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label trademark infringement. Show all posts

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Is "Dumb Starbucks" Free Speech or Just a Dumb Ploy Inviting a Lawsuit?

A new coffee shop has opened in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, titling itself "Dumb Starbucks."  The mock coffee shop utilizes a virtually identical logo to Starbucks' logo on all its products and signage, but places the word "Dumb" before everything.

According to news reports, the owners are claiming that their coffee shop is some kind of "pop art" installation intended to mock the massive Starbucks corporation.  They apparently claim that they are shielded from liability for trademark infringement or dilution by the First Amendment, and that their lawyers are fully in control of the situation.

Notably, the news reports also claim that their coffee is not for sale, but is handed out free of charge, which would tend be garner some sympathy for the argument that the whole excursion is a non-commercial artistic endeavor. However, the "FAQ" disclosed by the owners seems to suggest that the coffee is very much for sale.  It states, in relevant part:

"Although we are a fully functioning coffee shop, for legal reasons Dumb Starbucks needs to be categorized as a work of parody art. So, in the eyes of the law, our "coffee shop" is actually an art gallery and the "coffee" you're buying is actually the art. But that's for our lawyers to worry about. All you need to do is enjoy our delicious coffee!"

But what does that matter?  Under the federal Lanham Act, there is a requirement that the unauthorized use be "in commerce" to be considered an infringement. The Federal Trademark Dilution Act does not expressly contain such a commercial use requirement, but it would certainly be relevant to a court's consideration if the whole stunt has no commercial element.

Rather, here, it would appear the entire endeavor is a publicity stunt essentially inviting the Starbucks' chain to file a lawsuit. Even if Starbucks won, it might lose in the court of public opinion, for looking like it has no sense of humor. So the owners may be taking an expensive gamble.

That being said, Starbucks Corporation is inevitably going to be forced to sue this particular coffee shop, and the odds are that it will likely prevail in shutting it down in very short order. Perhaps that is the reason that news reports that there is a several hour wait to enter the shop.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Preliminary Injunction Against MAXIM Deodorant Denied, Court Finds "Insufficient" Harm to the Brand From Unlicensed Use

In a startling decision, a federal court refused to grant a court order against the continued unauthorized use the trademark "MAXIM" to sell antiperspirant, on the basis that the likely consumer confusion and harm to the brand was not sufficiently "irreparable" to justify a preliminary order halting the infringement.

Maxim magazine is a popular mens' "lifestyle" magazine with a circulation of over two million. Maxim magazine's publishers, Alpha Media Group, intend to license the "MAXIM" trademark to a line of body sprays, perfumes and colognes.

Corad Healthcare, Inc. manufactures antiperspirants to treat hyperhidrosis, a medical condition which causes excessive sweating. Corad has used the term MAXIM since 2001, but historically used clinical-looking packaging  on "prescription-strength" medication.

More recently, Corad began to use colorful packaging with "lifestyle" graphics, such as pictograms denoting golf and exercise. Further, Corad's "Maxim" name on its antiperspirant wipes started to look a lot more like Maxim's logo.  Consequently, upon learning of the new packaging, Alpha Media sued Corad, and sought a preliminary injunction.
The Accused Products

The court rejected the plaintiff's application for a preliminary injunction.  In its decision denying Alpha's motion, the District Court essentially agreed that there was the potential for Maxim's publishers to lose the ability to control its brand through Corad's unlicensed third party use. However, the Court then found that the publishers did not put forth evidence that such a result "will, in fact, occur."

The problem with the court's decision is that it requires a brand owner to prove the impossible until after the damage is already done.

Furthermore, a simple economic analysis demonstrates the flaw in the Court's logic.

It used to be the law that a preliminary injunction should usually issue when the use of a mark creates a likelihood of confusion in the consumers' minds as to the ownership or sponsorship of a product, because a high probability of confusion as to sponsorship almost inevitably establishes irreparable harm.

However, in 2010, in Salinger v. Colting, Judge Calabresi sitting in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, penned a copyright decision finding that "a court deciding whether to issue an injunction must not adopt 'categorical' or 'general' rules or presume that a party has met an element of the injunction standard.

In plain English, Judge Calabresi effectively required that intellectual property owners factually "prove" the impossible, before it occurs:  that they are likely to be harmed by unlicensed third parties abusing their rights.

The reason such factual proof is impossible is not because it is untrue. It is because there is no simple way to measure the harm to a brand before such harm actually occurs. And once that harm occurs, it cannot be recovered. Judge Calabresi is a renowned law and economics scholar who should fully understand this point.

Here is an example:  Suppose Maxim's publishers seek to market and expand their brand to sell antiperspirants.  They set up a meeting with an established company that manufactures and distributes such products (such as Procter and Gamble).

In this hypothetical scenario, P&G would decline to market the Maxim-branded products on the basis that the trademark is already registered and used by Corad.

There is no way to ever calculate with precision the economic "harm" wrought on Alpha by the continued existence of Corad's unlicensed product in the marketplace.  

However, the economic opportunity cost to Alpha is significant:  It cannot meaningfully market a product that was its right to do so until after trial, which could be four years away.

At the conclusion of the lawsuit, a jury might award damages to Alpha Media based upon Corad Healthcare's infringement.

However, as this chart shows, the recovery of Corad's profits does not equal the opportunity cost to Maxim's publishers.  In other words, Alpha loses out on more than Corad actually gains:

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has ignored this reality, and effectively would require that intellectual property owners suffer these losses.

The problem is that Corad will never be able to adequately compensate the publishers for the harm it causes to the brand owner.  Such "irreparable injury" is precisely why preliminary injunctions were commonplace when a brand owner could prove a high likelihood of confusion.

Under the new, "non-categorical" standard in the Second Circuit, brand owners must suffer these losses due to no fault of their own.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Canada Goose Sues Sears For Selling "Knockoff" Parkas

Canada Goose, maker of high quality and fashionable parkas, has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in a Toronto federal court against Sears Canada, Inc., accusing the department store of selling a 'lower-end' misleading 'knockoff' jacket that is causing consumer confusion.

The Canada Goose design at issue is three quarters length, with a genuine coyote fur-trimmed hood called the "Kensington Parka" that sells for $695.00.  Canadian news reports that the accused Sears jacket sells for $199.00.

Last year, Canada Goose launched a similar trademark infringement lawsuit against Toronto-based International Clothiers, Inc. The parties settled that suit on undisclosed terms. Both disputes center around the of a logo in a circle.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Use of Square Bottle Sparks Trade Dress Lawsuit With Jack Daniel's

Fox News is reporting on a newly-filed trademark lawsuit pending between Jack Daniel's Properties, Inc., a subsidiary of Brown-Forman, the makers of Jack Daniel's whiskey and Defendants J&M Concepts, and Popcorn Sutton Distilling, LLC, a small distiller.

Photo Courtesy of Ann Richardson
Sutton's whiskey is packaged in a very similar square bottle, with angular proportions and dimensions that are clearly reminiscent of the classic Jack Daniels' whiskey bottle.

Sutton's alcoholic beverage is named after a famous moonshiner Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton.  Sutton, known for his long gray beard and overalls, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 2009 rather than go to prison for violating alcohol manufacturing laws.  According to Wikipedia, Sutton received his "Popcorn" nickname after damaging a bar's faulty popcorn vending machine with a pool cue in the 1960's.

Jack Daniel's, produced in Lynchburg, Tennessee, filed the suit in federal district court in Nashville, alleging that the Defendants' use of a square bottle is likely to cause confusion among consumers.

The Complaint further alleges that the Jack Daniel's square bottle has been "a consistent commercial impression" for decades. That packaging is part of "one of the oldest, longest-selling and most iconic consumer products" in U.S. history, the Complaint alleges.

Jack Daniel's specifically describes its claimed "Trade Dress" as a "combination of a square-shaped bottle with angled shoulders that house a raised signature on four sides, and beveled corners, and labeling with a white on black color scheme and filigree designs."

While Jack Daniel's does not own a federally registered trademark on the square bottle shape standing alone, it does own a trademark for the labeling elements of its claimed "Trade Dress."  

The Defendants' website which had been advertising the accused whiskey appears to have been shut down, possibly in response to the filing of the lawsuit.

Trade dress lawsuits involving alcohol bottle shapes are rare, but not unheard of. For example, in 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's dismissal of a case involving a skull-shaped vodka bottle.  In that case, the Court noted that the shape of a skull for a bottle was purely ornamental, served no functional purpose whatsoever and may have garnered sufficient secondary meaning among the consuming public to be identified with its producer.  Further, the Appeals Court noted the availability of many alternative designs to competitors.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Van Halen Sues Drummer's Ex-Wife for Commercializing Her Married Name

Van Halen was formed in California in 1972, and named after lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen. Other members of the band have included Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie's son) on bass guitar, as well as David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony.

In 1984, drummer Alex Van Halen married Kelly Carter, who legally changed her name to Kelly Van Halen. Twelve years later, the couple divorced, but Kelly kept her married name.

More recently, Kelly started a construction and interior design company under her married name. Kelly applied for several federal trademark registrations for "KELLY VAN HALEN" on products such as chairs, children's blankets, bathing suits, building construction and interior design.

ELVH, Inc., the holding company that owns the band's intellectual property, has now sued her in federal district court in California, alleging that her use of the name "VAN HALEN" as a trade name is likely to cause confusion, dilute the fame of the VAN HALEN trademarks, and unfairly compete with the band.

It also alleges that Kelly Van Halen's use of the trade name is on goods and services that are "either identical to or closely related to the goods sold by" the band.  (It is unclear when the band ever sold furniture or offered any form of construction or interior design services, but I suspect that they have not and this is only a matter of posturing).

The Hollywood Reporter notes correctly that the legal question here is whether senior family name users like Eddie and Alex can permanently enjoin junior family name users like Kelly from using "Van Halen" in a commercial enterprise. 

Courts are often reluctant to enjoin individuals from using their own legal names to identify themselves in trade or commerce, unless the use was clearly likely to cause confusion, or if the junior family member had previously agreed to cease such use.

For example, in 2007, design house Paul Frank Industries, Inc. had sued its namesake and former designer Paul Frank Sunich after he had left the company and began to use his full name to sell competing products.

In that case, the court held that "under trademark law, there is no absolute right to use one's own personal name where that use would be confusingly similar to an established use of a famous mark that the public has come to associate with another source...Mr. Sunich...has no absolute right to make use of his name in a manner that would be confusingly similar..."

However, the Court went on to clarify that "Mr. Sunich, however, is entitled under trademark law to use his name in other contexts, commercial and otherwise, to identify himself 
and inform others about his work.  [There is] no right to prevent Mr. Sunich and the other Defendants from using Mr. Sunich's full name in contexts were such use will not result in any confusion with PFI's use of the Paul Frank mark."

In that case, Sunich's websites had prominently displayed disclaimers informing customers that the products were not affiliated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by PFI.  However, his further sale of T-shirts was prohibited by the Court.

Courts are therefore often willing to draw difficult lines in order to be fair to both parties, and will put the burden on the trademark owner to actually prove that there is a likelihood of consumer confusion.  If confusion can be demonstrated, the accused may be held in contempt of Court for violating the Court's order.

Further, the Hollywood Reporter astutely notes that "the outcome might depend on whether it can be shown that Kelly had intent to trade upon the goodwill or reputation of the famous band's moniker."

While that fact would not be dispositive, if it can be show that Kelly was deliberately attempting to benefit from the band's fame, that could present a problem for her continued use.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pinterest Sues Travel Planning Startup PinTrips

Social media service Pinterest has filed a federal trademark infringement lawsuit in California against travel startup PinTrips.

Pinterest is a pinboard-style photo-sharing website that allows users to create and manage theme-based image collections such as events, interests, and hobbies.  

Users can browse other pinboards for images, "re-pin" images to their own pinboards, or "like" photos.  The popular site was founded by Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra, and Evan Sharp.  It is managed by Cold Brew Labs and funded by a small group of entrepreneurs and investors.

Founded in 2011, is a Santa Clara, California-based startup.  PinTrips claims that it turns the tedious task of planning and coordinating travel into a seamless experience by allowing a user to "bookmark" specific flights from all travel sites you already use, track and compare results on a main dashboard, and collaborate with others.

According to Pinterest, the startup was faced with a challenging business environment, so it deliberately adopted a name to cause confusion with its popular service.  Further, Pinterest alleges that PinTrips deliberately uses a "Pin" button that Pinterest alleges is a knockoff of its "Pin It" button.

The full Complaint is embedded below:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Despite Legal Threat, Rights to MUMBO Sauce Trademark Stay in Chicago

Argia B. Collins' Chicago Area Restaurant

"Mumbo sauce" is sometimes used as the colloquial name for a tangy sauce served in Washington, D.C. restaurants and local eateries. However, a legal challenge to the validity of the name as a unique trademark appears to have been resolved in favor of the Windy City as the owner's locale.

The Washington Post describes the D.C. sauce's flavor as somewhere between barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauce.  The sauce is also sometimes called "Mambo sauce."  It is a versatile condiment that can be used for anything from fried rice to ribs or wings.

The Chicago Tribune reported in 2007 that Argia B. Collins, who died in 2005, and who had been one of Chicago's premier African American restauranteurs, first coined the term in the 1950's.  Collins' heirs ultimately transferred the rights to the name to Select Brands, LLC.

According to the Select Brands' website:  "A perfectionist when it came to his restaurants, Argia B. was not satisfied with the bland, watered-downed sauces served in other establishments or the tart, over-powering national brands sold by restaurant supply houses....Drawing on his southern roots, he wanted to create a sauce with the savory flavors reminiscent of the homemade Sunday dinners that he had enjoyed on his family's farm."

An image displayed on the Select Brands' website documents Collins' use of "Mumbo Bar-B-Q Sauce" in 3 flavors.

Capital City's Mumbo Sauce
In the 1990's, Select Brands LLC filed for a federal trademark on "MUMBO" for barbecue sauce in International Class 36, and it was granted.

Subsequently, a petition to cancel this trademark on the basis that it had become the "generic" name for a type of sauce was filed by Capital City, LLC, the makers of Capital City Mumbo Sauce, a D.C.-based company.

The petition cited printed materials taken from several different websites that showed a variety of sauces described as unauthorized "Mumbo sauces."

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was not persuaded, however, finding that while this evidence showed "some generic use of the term 'Mumbo' in connection with sauces," that evidence consisted of printouts from only a few websites, and was not an overwhelming evidence of widespread generic usage.

Further, the Board seemed persuaded that Collins' heirs had undertaken serious efforts to police what they deemed as improper use of the trademark, and did not find the level of widespread and unrestricted usage necessary to deem a registered mark totally unworthy of protection.  The Board refused to cancel Select Brands' trademark.

The federally registered Mumbo trademark will therefore remain owned by Select Brands LLC.

However, in the event that Select sues Capital or the other unauthorized Mumbo sauce users for trademark infringement, the jury and judge would get the final say in the matter, as genericness as well as lack of likely confusion can be used as complete defenses in an infringement case in court.