Category Archives: Trademarks

Restraining order entered against website that encouraged contacting children of plaintiff’s employees

Plaintiff sued defendant (who was an unhappy customer of plaintiff) under the Lanham Act (for trademark infringement) and for defamation. Defendant had registered a domain name using plaintiff’s company name and had set up a website that, among other things, he used to impersonate plaintiff’s employees and provide information about employees’ family members, some of whom were minors.

Plaintiff moved for a temporary restraining order and the court granted the motion.

The Website

The website was structured and designed in a way that made it appear as though it was affiliated with plaintiff. For example, it included a copyright notice identifying plaintiff as the owner. It also included allegedly false statements about plaintiff. For example, it included the following quotation, which was attributed to plaintiff’s CEO:

Well of course we engage in bad faith tactics like delaying and denying our policy holders [sic] valid claims. How do you think me [sic], my key executive officers, and my board members stay so damn rich. [sic]

The court found that plaintiff had shown a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims.

Lanham Act Claim

It found that defendant used plaintiff’s marks for the purpose of confusing the public by creating a website that looked as though it was a part of plaintiff’s business operations. This was evidenced by, for example, the inclusion of a copyright notice on the website.

Defamation

On the defamation claim, the court found that the nature of the statements about plaintiff, plaintiff’s assertion that they were false, and the allegation that the statements were posted on the internet sufficed to satisfy the first two elements of a defamation claim, namely, that they were false and defamatory statements pertaining to the plaintiff and were unprivileged publications to a third party. The allegations in the complaint were also sufficient to indicate that defendant “negligently disregarded the falsity of the statements.”

Furthermore, the statements on the website concerned the way that plaintiff processed its insurance claims, which related to the business of the company and the profession of plaintiff’s employees who handled the processing of claims. Therefore, the final element was also satisfied.

First Amendment Limitations

The court’s limitation in the TRO is interesting to note. To the extent that plaintiff sought injunctive relief directed at defendant’s speech encouraging others to contact the company and its employees with complaints about the business, whether at the workplace or at home, or at public “ad hominem” comments, the court would not grant the emergency relief that was sought.

The court also would not prohibit defendant from publishing allegations that plaintiff had engaged in fraudulent or improper business practices, or from publishing the personally identifying information of plaintiff’s employees, officers, agents, and directors. Plaintiff’s submission failed to demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction how such injunctive relief would not unlawfully impair defendant’s First Amendment rights.

The did, however, enjoin defendant from encouraging others to contact the children and other family members of employees about plaintiff’s business practices because contact of that nature had the potential to cause irreparable emotional harm to those family members, who have no employment or professional relationship with defendant.

Symetra Life Ins. Co. v. Emerson, 2018 WL 6338723(D. Maine, Dec. 4, 2018)

UDRP Panel found no bad faith, but gave the Complainant additional opportunity to prove its case

[This post originally appeared on UDRP Tracker.]

The Complainant established its business beginning in March 2018 and sought to acquire the disputed domain name <zoyo.com> through communications with the Respondent facilitated by the registrar. After the Respondent demanded $10,000 for the disputed domain name – which was the same amount the Respondent claimed to have paid for the disputed domain name “a few years ago” – the Complainant sought relief from a single-member WIPO Panel under the UDRP.

The Panel denied the Complaint, finding that the Complainant failed to show bad faith use and registration under the UDRP.

The evidence on this point was controverted. The Respondent claimed (not in a formal response but through the above-noted negotiations) that he acquired the disputed domain name years ago, and the WhoIs data showed it was first registered in 2002. But the Complainant – looking to the “last updated” field in the WhoIs data, claimed that the Respondent acquired it in April 2018.

The Panel found that “failed to establish that the Respondent’s statement in response to the Complainant’s enquiry that it acquired the disputed domain name ‘some years ago’ [was] false.”

It further noted that the Complainant stated that it required the disputed domain name for use as part of the expansion and development of its business. The Panel surmised that this could indicate that the Complaint was filed as a part of the Complainant’s business expansion plan and perhaps indicated that the Complainant did not fully understand the nature and purpose of the UDRP.

So the Panel’s decision left open the possibility of further action if the facts would support them. The Panel determined that if the Complainant could prove that the Respondent did not acquire the disputed domain name until April 2018, at a time when there was considerable activity and perhaps publicity in relation to the establishment of the Complainant’s group, that might paint a different picture. Accordingly, on the basis of the evidence before the Panel on the present record, the Panel denied the Complaint but without prejudice to the filing of a new Complaint should evidence become available to support the Complainant’s contentions concerning the Respondent’s identity and acquisition of the disputed domain name.

Zoyo Capital Limited v. A. Zoyo, WIPO Case No. D2018-2234

Anonymous online trademark infringer can be identified through subpoena to domain registrar

Plaintiff trademark owner noticed that an unknown party was using plaintiff’s mark to sell email templates online without plaintiff’s authorization. After the unknown infringer’s domain name registrar (the case does not say whether it was also the web host) refused to take down the allegedly infringing content, plaintiff filed suit against the “John Doe” defendant. Since it needed to learn the identity of the defendant to move the case forward, plaintiff asked the court for early discovery that would permit plaintiff to send a subpoena to the registrar that would compel the registrar to identify its customer.

The court granted the motion for leave to take early discovery. It applied the standard set out in OpenMind Solutions, Inc. v. Does 1-39, 2011 WL 4715200 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 7, 2011) (citing Columbia Ins. Co. v. seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 578-80 (N.D. Cal. 1999)), which requires that prior to early discovery being permitted, a plaintiff must show:

  • Plaintiff can identify the missing party with sufficient specificity such that the court can determine that defendant is a real person or entity who could be sued in federal court;
  • Plaintiff has identified all previous steps taken to locate the elusive defendant;
  • Plaintiff’s suit against defendant could withstand a motion to dismiss; and
  • Plaintiff has demonstrated that there is a reasonable likelihood of being able to identify defendant through discovery such that service of process would be possible.

On the first factor, plaintiff had alleged that the Doe defendant owned or was using the specified domain name associated with the offending website to sell email templates using plaintiff’s trademark.

As for the second factor, plaintiff had contacted the domain name registrar, and asked that the information be taken down, but the registrar refused to do so. The domain name alone was not sufficient for plaintiff to identify the Doe defendant, and plaintiff had no other means to identify the Doe defendant besides the registrar’s record which it refused to provide without a subpoena.

Regarding the third factor, plaintiff made the required showing by alleging that it holds a valid trademark for its mark that the Doe defendant used to sell products on the offending website.

And concerning the fourth factor, the plaintiff had alleged that the registrar was the registrar for the domain name associated with the offending website and that it had stated it would pass the complaint information on to the website owner. The court found that plaintiff had thus demonstrated that a subpoena to the registrar should reveal the identity of the Doe defendant.

One should note this court’s willingness to permit early discovery as being in contrast to another court’s recent apparent disdain for a copyright troll plaintiff seeking the identity of an anonymous online infringer.

Marketo, Inc. v. Doe, 2018 WL 6046464 (N.D.Cal. Nov. 19, 2018)

Court orders transfer of domain name at preliminary injunction stage of trademark case

Plaintiff sued a competitor under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (15 U.S.C. 1125(d) (“ACPA”)) and brought other trademark-related claims concerning the competitor’s alleged online scam of selling infringing nutritional supplement products. Plaintiff also sued the domain name privacy protection service Namecheap, which the competitor had used to register the domain name. As part of the order granting plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, the court ordered Namecheap to transfer the domain name to plaintiff.

The court noted that a preliminary injunction “is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right,” and that the “traditional purpose of a preliminary injunction is to protect the status quo and to prevent irreparable harm during the pendency of the lawsuit.” Given these parameters, one may be reasonably surprised that the court went so far as to transfer the domain name before the case could be taken all the way through trial. Usually the transfer of the domain name is part of the final remedy awarded in a cybersquatting case, whether under the ACPA or the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy.

The opinion did not address the issue of whether the domain name transfer prior to trial might go further than to “protect the status quo”. It would seem the court could have just as easily protected the status quo by ordering the domain name not be used. The court apparently found the evidence to be drastically in favor of plaintiff. And since the defendant-competitor did not show up for the hearing, plaintiff’s evidence went unrebutted.

Nutramax Laboratories, Inc. v. Nutra Max Labs, Inc., 2017 WL 4707447 (D.S.C. October 20, 2017)

See also:

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

When can you use a competitor’s trademark in a domain name?

The recent case of XPO CNW, Inc. v. R+L Carriers, Inc. coming out of a federal court in Michigan tells the interesting story of one company opportunistically using its competitor’s trademark in a domain name to set up an employee recruiting website. The decision sketches out certain circumstances when this practice passes legal muster.

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The parties to the dispute are major trucking lines. If you have driven on any highways in the United States, you have no doubt seen 18-wheelers bearing the trademarks of the parties involved in this case. In late 2015, plaintiff XPO acquired Con-Way Freight. Shortly thereafter, defendant R+L launched a website targeting Con-Way’s employees using the domain name conwaylayoff.com. The website included the following statement:

Were you laid off from Con-way? Don’t worry about the XPO Logistics acquisition, when one door closes another opens. R+L Carriers is hiring today….Turn your valuable years of knowledge and experience into a new career with R+L Carriers, which was named a Top National/Multiregional LRL Carrier in Logistics Management magazine’s 2015 Quest for Quality Awards. R+L Carriers launched Conwaylayoff.com to inform those employees that may have been affected by the recent acquisition of Con-way Freight, of similar opportunities that we have where they may be able to put their skills to work.

Plaintiff sued for trademark infringement and for cybersquatting under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (“ACPA”). Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings. The court granted the motion.

The court found there to be no sufficient allegations of trademark infringement because the documents before the court showed there was no likelihood of confusion as to the origin of defendant’s services. The language on the website (quoted above) contradicted plaintiff’s assertions of likely confusion.

On the ACPA claim, the court found there was no evidence that defendant used the domain name with a bad faith intent to profit.

The court compared this situation with the one in the case of Lucas Nursery and Landscaping, Inc. v. Grosse, 359 F.3d 806 (6th Cir. 2004). In Lucas Nursery, there was no evidence that defendant intended to divert consumers from the plaintiff’s online location. Nor was there evidence that defendant ever sought to mislead consumers with regard to the site’s sponsorship. The site explicitly stated that it was established for the purposes of relaying defendant’s experience with the plaintiff’s nursery. Moreover, there was no offer to sell the site to plaintiff, and no other indicators of bad faith existed, such as providing misleading contact information or acquiring batches of additional domain names.

In this case, it was undisputed that defendant set up a web site and used plaintiff’s trademark in the domain name. But this was insufficient to establish that defendant operated in bad faith. Plaintiff did not allege that defendant ever offered to sell the domain name to plaintiff. Nor did it allege that defendant acquired other suspect domain names. Instead, plaintiff offered the court a barebones recital of the statutory language, stating that defendant registered and has used the domain name without plaintiff’s authorization and with bad faith, to profit from plaintiff’s trademark, and that the infringing domain name directed or redirected to a website controlled by defendant, who profited from its use. The court found this to be insufficient to survive the relevant pleading standard. Accordingly the court granted the motion for partial judgment on the pleadings concerning this claim.

XPO CNW, Inc. v. R+L Carriers, Inc., No. 16-10391, 2016 WL 4801283 (E.D. Mich. September 14, 2016)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jean-Pierre Magnan under this Creative Commons license.

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Six things business owners should know about trademarks

#1 – Trademark law protects your brand.

shield

Trademarks are intellectual property. The different categories of intellectual property can be confusing, and as you are identifying and evaluating the different legal issues your business faces, you should seek to understand the role that each category plays. That way you can determine where you should focus your resources to cover the company’s greatest needs. Every business has trademark needs. Trademark law gives exclusive rights to providers of goods and services to use the company’s distinctive marks in connection with the company’s goods and services. A trademark (or a service mark, collectively “marks”) identify the source of goods and services. So while the company is the one that may claim rights in the trademark, it is useful to remember that the ultimate reason for trademark protection is to keep members of the consuming public from being confused about where the goods or services come from.

#2 – Registration is not necessary, but it is a good idea.

seal

At least in the U.S., trademark rights arise from using the mark in commerce. This means a couple of different things. For one, the law will provide your company with exclusive rights to use a certain mark in connection with certain goods or services by virtue of your having used the mark in commerce in connection with those goods or services. But there are limits to this protection — you can only claim that exclusivity in the geographic area in which you’ve actually used the mark. Getting a registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office helps you in this area. Once the USPTO awards your company a registration certificate for the mark, you are the presumed owner of the exclusive rights to that mark in connection with those goods and services anywhere in the United States, regardless of where you have actually done business. A registration carries with it other benefits as well — you can use the “circle R” designation with the mark, and your registration serves to help give notice to (i.e., warn) other companies who might consider adopting the same or similar mark.

#3 – Descriptive words and phrases generally cannot be trademarks.

descriptive

Trademark law does not allow a company to claim exclusive rights on words or phrases that merely describe the product or some characteristic of it. This is a common issue that companies face when deciding on a mark for adoption and registration. Descriptive terms are good in that they convey to the consuming public what the product is all about. But descriptive terms are to be avoided in that they are not distinctive. Unless a mark is distinctive, the trademark laws do not recognize it as a trademark or service mark. A mark can be “inherently distinctive” in a number of ways. It may be a made up word (e.g., Kodak), “arbitrary” in that the original meaning of the word does not correspond with the products (e.g., Apple for computers), or “suggestive” – sort of describing the product but requiring a step in imagination (e.g., Beautyrest for mattresses). Or the mark can be a design. Marks can become distinctive over time (usually after 5 years of use). This is known as “acquired distinctiveness.”

#4 – Smart business owners do trademark clearance.

clearance

Trademark clearance is the process that a company goes through before actually using or seeking to register a mark. The goal is to become reasonably sure that the use of the proposed mark will not put you at high risk of infringing someone else’s mark. Clearance also helps prevent wasting resources on a trademark application that will get rejected by the USPTO because there is already a similar mark that someone else has applied for or registered. Clearance usually has a couple steps. Many companies have their trademark counsel perform “knockout searches” to identify any obvious risks of conflict. This can be as simple as doing a web search and a search of the USPTO database for marks that look and sound the same and are for similar goods or services. Before going all out on adopting and seeking to register a mark, however, it is a good idea to have trademark counsel perform a comprehensive search and advise on the results. A number of parties offer comprehensive search services. The key question in trademark clearance is likelihood of confusion. A mark owner needs to be reasonably sure that using the proposed mark in commerce will not cause confusion among the confusing public as to the source of the goods or services offered under the mark.

#5 – Trademark fair use is a thing.

starbucks

In some circumstances a company can use another company’s trademark without much risk of infringement. Generally this falls under the heading of “fair use.” Classic fair use is when one company uses another’s mark in just a descriptive sense. For example, a laundromat may say in its advertising that it is next door to the Burger King. In that case, the use of Burger King is not an infringement. Nominative fair use is when a company uses another mark to describe some characteristic of that mark. A commercial for Toyota, for example, may use the Honda trademark for purposes of comparing the two product lines.

#6 – Use it or lose it. Protect it or lose it.

abandoned

Trademark rights come from the company’s use of the mark, and there is always a risk that those rights might be abandoned. If a company stops using a mark, a court may find that it has abandoned its rights, and another company would be free to adopt and use the mark. The USPTO requires that documents be filed every few years to ensure that marks that are listed as registered remain in use. If a company does not take appropriate steps to ensure its mark is distinctive in the marketplace, it can similarly be found to have abandoned its rights. So mark owners should do some “policing” to see that there no one else uses a confusingly similar mark on similar products. If the company discovers such use, it must be diligent in seeking to get the other company to stop, through sending a cease and desist letter or through litigation when appropriate.

Food&Beverage photo courtesy schatz under this Creative Commons license.

Coffee sign photo courtesy Aaron Gustafson under this Creative Commons license.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with trademarks, copyright, technology, the internet and new media.

Domain name case under ACPA failed because trademark was not distinctive

Federal appeals court holds that plaintiff failed to satisfy all elements of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act in action against competing airline

The federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) [15 U.S.C. 1125(d)] is a provision in U.S. law that gives trademark owners a cause of action against one who has wrongfully registered a domain name. In general, the ACPA gives rights to owners of trademarks that are either distinctive or famous at the time the defendant registered the offending domain name.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the decision of a lower court that dismissed an ACPA claim, holding that the plaintiff failed to plead that its mark was distinctive at the time of the domain name registration.

Plaintiff sued its competitor, who registered the domain name tropicoceanairways.com. Defendant moved to dismiss, and the lower court granted the motion, finding that plaintiff failed to plead that its mark TROPIC OCEAN AIRWAYS was distinctive and thus protected under the ACPA. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal, holding that plaintiff’s complaint failed to allege that the mark was either suggestive or had acquired secondary meaning as an indicator of source for plaintiff’s services.

Suggestive marks are considered distinctive because they require “a leap of the imagination to get from the mark to the product.” (The court provided the example of a penguin used as a mark for refrigerators.) In this case, the court found the term “tropic ocean airways” was not suggestive, as it merely “inform[ed] consumers about the service [plaintiff provided]: flying planes across the ocean to tropical locations.”

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that a pending application at the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the mark proved that it was suggestive. While a certificate of registration may establish a rebuttable presumption that a mark is distinctive, the court held plaintiff was not entitled to such a presumption here, where the application remained pending. Moreover, the court observed in a footnote that the presumption of distinctiveness will generally only go back to the date the application was filed. In this case, the trademark application was not filed until about a year after the domain name was registered.

As for the argument the mark had acquired secondary meaning, the court found plaintiff’s allegations to be insufficient. The complaint instead made conclusory allegations about secondary meaning that were insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. The court held that plaintiff failed to allege the nature and extent of its advertising and promotion, and, more importantly, did not allege any facts about the extent to which the public identified the mark with plaintiff’s services.

Tropic Ocean Airways, Inc. v. Floyd, — Fed.Appx. —, 2014 WL 7373625 (11th Cir., Dec. 30, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients with domain name, trademark, and other matters involving technology and intellectual property.

What should we do when trademarks offend?

Trademarks are symbols that convey meaning, and ostensibly that meaning is ontologically linked to the purveyor of the goods or services with which the trademark is connected. But those symbols can relate to different ontologies as well, be they freighted with racism/prejudice, religious offense, or plain old poor taste. Take for example the ongoing Redskins dispute, Muslims protesting a sacred symbol on perfume, and the weird attempt by a Malaysian company to get an Australian trademark for MH17.

The law and social advocacy step in to critique these brand owners’ selection of marks. For example, the USPTO found the Redskins marks to so disparage Native Americans that the football team should not enjoy the protections of a federal trademark registration. Ticked-off Sufis protested their holy symbol being used in a concupiscent manner. And we all sort of scratch our heads at why a company would think it should capitalize commercially on the tragedy of an airliner downed in a war zone.

But do the law and social advocacy really have any role to play here? Of course. So perhaps the more critical question is whether those roles should be primary ones. Trademarks exist to regulate commerce. More specifically, trademark law seeks primarily to ensure that a purchaser’s decision making process will be unmessed-with by others seeking to muddy that purchaser’s picture of who is providing the goods or services. If trademarks can have multiple meanings, which of course they sometimes will, shouldn’t we just let the marketplace sort that out? At the same time that trademark law is guiding a purchaser’s decision in an environment hopefully free of confusion, why not just let the sensibilities of the purchasing majority decide what products – some branded with offensive symbols while others not – be sustained?

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with trademarks, copyright, technology, the internet and new media.

Tweet served as evidence of initial interest confusion in trade dress case

The maker of KIND bars sued the maker of Clif bars alleging that the packaging of the Clif MOJO bar infringes the trade dress used for KIND bars. Plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction, but the court denied the motion. But in its analysis, the court considered the relevance of a Twitter user’s impression of the products. Plaintiff submitted a tweet as evidence in which the user wrote, “I was about to pick up one of those [Clif MOJO bars] because I thought it was a Kind Bar at the vitamin shop ….” The court found that this type of initial interest confusion was actionable and therefore the tweet supported plaintiff’s argument.

KIND LLC v. Clif Bar & Company, 2014 WL 2619817 (S.D.N.Y. June 12, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago, advising clients on matters dealing with trademark protection and enforcement, technology, the internet and new media. Contact him.

Company facing liability for accessing employee’s Twitter and Facebook accounts

While plaintiff was away from the office for a serious brain injury she suffered in a work-related auto accident, some of her co-workers accessed and posted, allegedly without authorization, from her Twitter and Facebook accounts. (There was some dispute as to whether those accounts were personal to plaintiff or whether they were intended to promote the company.) Plaintiff sued, alleging several theories, including violations of the Lanham Act and the Stored Communications Act. Defendants moved for summary judgment. The court dismissed the Lanham Act claim but did not dismiss the Stored Communications Act claim.

Plaintiff had asserted a Lanham Act “false endorsement” claim, which occurs when a person’s identity is connected with a product or service in such a way that consumers are likely to be misled about that person’s sponsorship or approval of the product or service. The court found that although plaintiff had a protectable interest in her “personal brand,” she had not properly put evidence before the court that she suffered the economic harm necessary for a Lanham Act violation. The record showed that plaintiff’s alleged damages related to her mental suffering, something not recoverable under the Lanham Act.

As for the Stored Communications Act claim, the court found that the question of whether defendants were authorized to access and post using plaintiff’s social media accounts should be left up to the jury (and not determined on summary judgment). Defendants had also argued that plaintiff’s Stored Communications Act claim should be thrown out because she had not shown any actual damages. But the court held plaintiff could be entitled to the $1,000 minimum statutory damages under the act even without a showing of actual harm.

Maremont v. Susan Fredman Design Group, Ltd., 2014 WL 812401 (N.D.Ill. March 3, 2014)