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.

Personal name in web search results did not support Lanham Act claim

Stayart v. Yahoo, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 3785147 (September 30, 2010)

Plaintiff performed a vanity search of her own name on Yahoo and found some results on porn and pharmaceutical sites. When Yahoo would not remove the search results upon plaintiff’s request, plaintiff sued under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act. She claimed that the results showed a false endorsement by her of the pornographic and pharmaceutical sites.

Yahoo moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiff was without standing to challenge this use of her personal name under Section 43(a). The district court granted the motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

It held that plaintiff had failed to show she had a commercial interest in her name. Such interests are the only ones protectible under Section 43(a). Attempting to overcome this hurdle, plaintiff urged the court to consider her online activities such as writing “scholarly articles” and some poetry to be commercial services.

The court rejected this argument, noting that while those goals may be passionate and well intentioned, they are not commercial. Absent commercial activity, plaintiff lacked standing under the Lanham Act.

Other coverage of this case:

Trademark holder not entitled to domain name registered years before

Arizona State Trailer Sales, Inc. d/b/a Little Dealer Little Prices RV v. World Wide RV, No. FA1003001315658 (Nat’l Arb. Forum, May 7, 2010)

Startups in the process of selecting a company or product name are often frustrated to see that someone else, years ago, registered the .com version of their newly thought-of name. Similarly, companies that have acquired a trademark registration wonder whether they can use their crisp new registration certificate to stomp out someone else who has been using a domain name similar to the company’s new mark.

A recent case arising under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP for short) shows us that the earlier domain name registration is usually going to be on solid ground against a later-arriving trademark owner.

In the case of Arizona State Trailer Sales, Inc. d/b/a Little Dealer Little Prices RV v. World Wide RV, a National Arbitration Forum panelist denied the trademark owner’s cybersquatting claim against another company who had registered the domain name version of the trademark in 2006.

To be successful under the UDRP, the complainant would have had to show:

  • the domain name registered by the respondent was identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which the complainint had rights;
  • the respondent had no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name; and
  • the domain name had been registered and was being used in bad faith.

The complaint failed on the first of these three elements. The panel found that the requirement of being identical or confusingly similiar “necessarily implies that Complainant’s rights must predate the registration of Registrant’s domain name.” Since the domain name in this case was registered years before, there was no relief to be had. The request to transfer the domain name was denied.

File extensions cannot be trademarks

Autodesk, Inc. v. Dassault Systemes Solidworks Corp., 2009 WL 5218009 (N.D. Cal. December 31, 2009)

One of the issues in the case of Autodesk, Inc. v. Dassault Systemes Solidworks was whether Autodesk could claim trademark rights and the letters “DWG”. The .dwg (“drawing”) file extension is the native file format for Autodesk’s flagship product AutoCAD.

File types

Plaintiff Autodesk moved for summary judgment on the trademark issue. The defendant pointed out that the trademark laws do not permit one to claim exclusive rights in trademarks that are merely functional.

During the hearing on the motion, the court asked Autodesk’s counsel to disavow any claim to trademark protection for the letters “DWG” when used for the file extension. Counsel did disavow such claim but held onto Autodesk’s argument that the letters could serve as a word mark to be used on packaging and advertising and marketing materials.

The Court agreed and sided with Autodesk and included in its order language that expressly stated “anyone in the world is free to use .dwg as a file extension as far as Autodesk is concerned.”

Autodesk filed a motion and asked the court to reconsider its holding, arguing that what Autodesk really meant when it disavowed the claim of exclusive rights was that anyone else could use the extension so long as the use was being made with Autodesk’s proprietary technology, or was interoperable with that technology.

The court rejected this argument holding:

File extensions are functional, and functional uses cannot be trademarked. To rule otherwise would invite a clog on commerce, given the millions of software applications. The limited universe of extension permutations would soon be encumbered with claimants and squatters purporting to own exclusive rights to file extensions.

The court went on to say there would be no consumer confusion because,

[T]he primary purpose of a file extension is to tell the computer the type of the file it is handling. A computer is not a consumer. Its “reading” of the file extension is not in connection with a commercial transaction. It doesn’t care who made the file format it is trying to read.

This isn’t the first time the question of whether machine perception of information has been held to not give rise to trademark protection. An analogous situation is the 1-800 Contacts v. WhenU decision in which the Second Circuit held that WhenU did not “use” another company’s trademarks within the meaning of the Lanham Act when it included trademarked terms in an unpublished directory that triggered delivery of contextually relevant advertising.

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