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1-800-SKI-VAIL found not to infringe VAIL ski resort mark

Vail Associates, Inc. v. Vend-Tel-Co., Ltd., — F.3d —-, 2008 WL 342272, (10th Cir. February 7, 2008)

[Brian Beckham is a contributor to Internet Cases and can be contacted at brian.beckham [at] gmail dot com.]

Vail Associates, owner of the incontestable service mark VAIL (which is used in connection with a wide variety of skiing and resort-related services), sued Vend-Tel-Co, the operator of the “1-800-SKI-VAIL” phone number, for infringement. After trial, the District Court entered judgment in Vend-Tel-Co’s favor, and Vail Associates sought review.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s judgment, holding that use of Vend-Tel-Co’s “1-800-SKI-VAIL” mark (registered in 2001) was not likely to cause confusion with Vail Associates’s VAIL mark (registered in 1989).

Key to the appellate court’s decision was witness testimony from the proceedings. Vail Associates’s vice-president of marketing and sales testified that customers dialing the phone number would mistakenly think they were reaching Vail Associates, but acknowledged “hundreds of uses of the letters V-A-I-L in the names of [other] businesses in the Vail Valley.” As for the descriptive term “ski,” testimony from another witness revealed ownership of no less than 23 vanity phone numbers incorporating that term. Also important was the testimony of a travel agent who fielded calls to the number 1-800-SKI-VAIL. She testified that the typical caller would ask questions of a general nature (e.g., about products, directions, lift prices, ski conditions, etc.).

Vend-Tel-Co’s main witness, trademark attorney Kenneth Germain, testified that in the context of ski resorts, the VAIL mark was a “world renowned” strong mark, but that in the context of goods and services offered by businesses in the Vail area, it was weak (being geographically descriptive). Germain further testified that he did not deduce an intent to infringe (Vend-Tel-Co’s advertising materials promoted area businesses), and that use of the VAIL mark was a necessary, good faith component of the Vend-Tel-Co’s marketing activities.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Vail Associates, the Court of Appeals was satisfied that the District Court did not err in finding that consumers perceive the VAIL mark as referring to a particular geographic location, namely, a Colorado skiing destination. It held that Vail Associates failed to prove consumers associate the word “Vail” exclusively with its resort services.

As to the likelihood of confusion factors, the court found none favored Vail Associates. It observed that (1) Vail Associates offered little evidence of actual confusion, and the testimony reflected that consumers recognized Vail as a destination, not a specific service provider, (2) despite some showing of secondary meaning, the VAIL mark was found to be “not particularly strong”, (3) Vail Associates did not prove that in creating the phone number Vend-Tel-Co intended to deceive the public, trade on Vail Associates’s goodwill or reputation, or infringe its mark, (4) the marks were not similar in sight, sound, or meaning, (5) the parties’ services were not similar, but rather “symbiotic”, and were not marketed in a similar manner, or with similar connotations, and (6) consumers exercised great care in purchasing Vail Associates’s services which the court termed “first class accommodations at first class prices” in contrast to dialing a toll-free number.

The dissenting opinion offered that: (1) the marks were confusingly similar (indeed, the additional “1-800-SKI” elements furthered consumer confusion), (2) Vend-Tel-Co intended to trade on the goodwill and reputation of Vail Associates, (3) there was ample testimonial evidence of actual confusion (namely the travel agent’s testimony), (4) the services and their marketing “appeal to exactly the same class of consumers,” (5) despite care exercised by consumers in purchasing ski packages, there was significant, uncured initial interest confusion, and (6) VAIL is an incontestible descriptive mark whose strength was proven by evidence of secondary meaning, and that Vend-Tel-Co did not take VAIL out of the ski resort services context; instead, it emphasized that context with their choice of mark.