Ninth Circuit finds trademark fair use of name of online music site.
Webceleb is a “social marketplace for independent music.” It sued several defendants over the use of the term “web celeb” in connection with a television show award category and a section of an entertainment website. Defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted the motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the award of summary judgment.
The court held that defendants’ use of the term “web celeb” was a classic fair use because:
- the use of the mark was not a trademark use;
- the use was fair and in good faith; and
- the use was only descriptive
There was no trademark use because the term “web celeb” (at least according to the court) is “common parlance” for internet celebrities, which was what the award category was intended to recognize. And the use of “web celeb” in connection with the electronic magazine was merely descriptive of the online magazine’s content. The use was in good faith, as the evidence showed defendants were unaware of plaintiff’s mark when they created the “straightforward, descriptive title.”
The court came close to blaming the plaintiff for its own trademark woes:
Any minimal confusion here is the “risk the plaintiff accepted when it decided to identify its product with a mark that uses a well known descriptive phrase.” (Citing KP Permanent Make–Up, Inc. v. Lasting Impression I, Inc., 543 U.S. 111, 121–22 (2004))
That should serve as an instruction to all trademark adopters: While descriptive marks may do a good job of conveying information about a product, for the same reason the trademark owner may not enjoy as much protected exclusivity in the mark.
Webceleb, Inc. v. Procter & Gamble Co., 2014 WL 448648 (9th Cir. February 5, 2014)
Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. v. Chipotles Grill of Jonesboro, Inc., 2011 WL 2292357 (E.D. Ark. June 9, 2011)
The awesome burrito place Chipotle sued another restaurant that called itself Chipotles for trademark infringement. Plaintiff sought a preliminary injunction. The court granted the motion.
One of the most important factors in the court’s decision to grant injunctive relief was the plaintiff’s showing that it will likely succeed on the merits of the case. In a trademark infringement action, that analysis takes the form of the likelihood of confusion analysis.
Among the factors that a court should consider in determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion is whether there has been any actual confusion among members of the consuming public. In this case, the court found that the evidence plaintiff submitted of actual confusion was “substantial.”
In addition to a number of emails that customers had sent to plaintiff, the court looked to a couple of customer review sites — urbanspoon.com and Yahoo’s associatedcontent.com — each of which contained customer reviews that erroneously linked plaintiff and defendant. The court found this to constitute actual confusion, which could not be remedied even through reasonable care on the part of the consumers.
The case gives a good example of how companies (and their competitors) should be aware of how their brands appear in social media. Evidence of actual confusion is a powerful tool for a trademark plaintiff (and a potentially damning one for a trademark defendant). Smart companies will ensure they remain aware of how their marks and overall brand identity are being put forth, even off the beaten path on the web.
Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to email@example.com, call (630) 362-7237, or follow on Twitter at @internetcases.
Scooter Store, Inc. v. Spinlife.com, LLC, 2011 WL 2160462 (S.D. Ohio June 1, 2011)
The Scooter Store and a related company sued a competitor for trademark infringement and other causes of action for unfair competition based in part on the competitor’s purchase of keywords such as “scooter store” and “your scooter store” to trigger sponsored advertisements on the web. Defendant moved for summary judgment and also moved for a protective order that would prevent it from having to turn over information to plaintiffs concerning defendant’s purchase of the keywords. The court denied the motion for protective order.
Defendant argued that it should not have to turn over the information because plaintiffs’ trademark claims based on those keywords were without merit, as the words are generic terms for the goods and services plaintiffs provide. Defendant also asserted a need to protect the commercially sensitive nature of information about its keyword purchases.
The court rejected defendant’s arguments, ordering that the discovery be allowed. It held that “whether or not [p]laintiffs’ claims involving these terms survive summary judgment  has no bearing on whether the discovery [p]laintiffs seek is relevant, particularly viewed in light of a party’s broad rights to discovery under Rule 26.” As for protecting the sensitivity of the information, the court found that such interests could be protected through the process of designating the information confidential, and handled accordingly by the receiving party.
Black Sheep Television, Ltd. v. Town of Islip, 2010 WL 4961669 (E.D.N.Y., December 6, 2010)
The Long Island Macarthur Airport is in a dispute with a company over that company’s alleged cybersquatting and the creation of websites that apparently a number of people have confused with the airport’s official marketing efforts. That company has also registered some Twitter accounts with usernames that incorporate the airport’s trademarks.
The airport has alleged trademark infringement and other similar claims against the company, and moved for a preliminary injunction. The court granted the motion, ordering (among other things) the Twitter accounts to remain in the ownership, custody, and control of the airport throughout the pendency of the litigation.
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