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.

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.

Fair use is a trademark concept as well

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)

No copyright protection for two word phrase

quipIn a final pretrial order, plaintiff stated that “to this day [defendant] persists in using [plaintiff’s] copyrighted ‘usurpassed performance’ language on its packages.” Defendant filed a motion in limine (a motion to exclude evidence) to preclude plaintiff from introducing evidence or putting on testimony that would infer or suggest the phrase “unsurpassed performance” has been registered as a copyright.

The court granted the motion.

Under the Copyright Act, “[w]ords and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans” are not subject to copyright. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(a). The court looked to a number of cases in which short phrases had been denied copyright protection. For example, other courts had held that “Where Words Come Alive,” “Earth Protector,” “Chipper,” and “Retail Plus” were not copyrightable material.

One wonders whether plaintiff was really trying to assert some form of unfair competition or trademark infringement. The notion is worth entertaining for but a brief moment, till one realizes that laudatory phrases such as “unsurpassed performance” find no protection under trademark law either.

Predator International, Inc. v. Gamo Outdoor USA, Inc., 2014 WL 321069 (D.Colo. January 29, 2014)

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