Archive for the ‘Intellectual Property Law’ Category

Sep
27

DON’T LET A FAULTY SPECIMEN UNDERMINE THAT TRADEMARK APPLICATION!

 Posted by Susan Dierenfeldt-Troy, Esq.

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

Have a question on specimens for your filed trademark application after reading this blog? We can help ensure the specimens you file will meet the USPTO’s requirements so that your registration will actually issue if the other requirements are met. Our trademark law legal services include: prosecuting trademark applications;  representing clients before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board; and representing clients in trademark infringement lawsuits.

 Call us at 305-279-4740 (Miami, Florida) for a complimentary consultation.

So your proposed trademark has met the USPTO’s two threshold requirements for registration:  1) there is no likelihood of confusion with existing registered marks; and 2) the mark is not merely descriptive or generic.  Nevertheless, the examining attorney has refused registration because the applicant’s provided specimens, required for demonstrating usage of the mark in commerce, do not meet the USPTO’s requirements.   This commentator has previously blogged on this topic and is doing so again because there seems to be a lot of confusion over the importance of specimens to the trademark registration process.

Indeed, as a trademark attorney, I have found that specimens are often the most misunderstood requirement for obtaining a registered trademark.  That’s why our firm’s trademark legal services involve advising clients about specimen requirements from the get go.  At times, we have advised clients to modify their specimens before we submit them to the USPTO in a 1A application.  For intent-to-use applications where specimens are not filed with the application but will be required if the mark receives a Notice of Allowance (a preliminary approval of a pending specimen) we work with clients to ensure that they will have suitable specimens commensurate with USPTO requirements for “goods” marks and “services” marks when the Statement of Use is filed.  This may include reviewing the Client’s website and recommending layout changes so “specimen” screen shots will meet the USPTO’s specimen requirements.  Additionally, we ensure that all submitted specimens clearly identify the applicant as the provider of the goods/services, another essential specimen requirement.

The specimen requirement is no joke.  Between Sept. 17 and Sept. 23, 2020, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) affirmed the decisions by three USPTO examining attorneys who had all refused registration on unacceptable specimen grounds for three different trademarks.  All three applicants ended up spending a lot on legal fees only to be denied registration of their marks upon appeal.  The following summarizes the three decisions and the commentator’s practice tips.

The case: In re Iguana Yachts.    Here the mark was a “goods” mark with following description: “Boats; amphibious vehicles; professional boats, and professional amphibious vehicles in the fields of security, military rescue, and transport of goods and people.”  The submitted specimens comprised a banner, a business card, and a website extract with a “custom build quote form.”   The Board concluded that there was no evidence that the banner or business card were displayed or distributed at tradeshow, i.e. the specimens were not actually used in interstate commerce as point-of-sale displays.  Likewise, there was no evidence as to how the quote form was used to actually place orders on the website for the specified goods.  In essence, the provided specimen were mere advertisements.  Advertisements may be suitable for service marks but are never suitable for goods marks.

Practice Tip.   Ensure that a specimen submitted for a good(s) is not mere advertising.  If the specimen represents a point-of-sale display, a customer must have either the ability to buy the good right there or to be able to place an order for the good associated with the mark.  That is, the specimen must show how the mark is being used in interstate commerce by the applicant.  The mark must also be displayed prominently to ensure that a potential customer identifies the mark with the good.   Here, perhaps the website could have been easily amended to provide for a website-related point of sale display before the specimen was ever submitted to the USPTO.   All specimens must also specify the applicant as the provider of the goods/services.  This requirement is in keeping the trademark law’s focus on the consumer – the consumer has the right to know who is providing the good/service under the mark.

The case:  In re Charlie’s EnterprisesEnergy, LLC.     Here the slogan mark was for food goods:  “Peas, fresh; Vegetables, fresh.”  The specimen consisted of “[a] picture of the proposed slogan in use on a semi-trailer wrap.”  Additionally, the mark presented in the application did not match the display on the truck.   The applicant argued that the wrap was a form of packaging.   Indeed, packaging can serve as a goods specimen as long as it shows the mark AND the source of the goods, generally the manufacturer or distributor.  Here the Board held that a trailer wrap is not a common packaging for vegetables even though a trailer wrap may be a common way of displaying the mark associated with bulk goods (such as lumber).

Practice Tip.  Ensure that the submitted specimen is the type commonly used for the particular good.  Additionally, ensure that the specimen’s mark and the mark shown in the application are equivalent.  All specimens must also show the source of the goods as the following decision again demonstrates.   Perhaps this registration could have been saved if the trailer wrap had at least showed the applied-for mark in its entirety.  However, if the goods being transported were sealed in packages for sale at, e.g., a grocery store, a photo showing the packaging with the required info would likely have been accepted.

The case: In re Systemax, Inc.    This case involved the situation where the specimens submitted for a service mark application failed to show an association between the mark and the application’s recited services. The specified services were for “holding company service, namely, providing business management, business administration, and human resource management services to subsidiaries and affiliates.”  The applicant submitted copies of annual reports and website screen shots which failed to show an association between the mark and the recited holding company services.   As such, the Board agreed with the examining attorney and the mark was not registered.  This commentator notes that any website screen shot being submitted as a service mark specimen should clearly show the mark on each and every page where a description of the service is presented.  Additionally, the applicant, as the service provider, should be readily discernable.  Annual reports, invoices, business plans, and the like are not specimens for trademark registration services.

Practice Tip.  This case is a perfect example of how any thorough trademark attorney will first carefully review the applicant’s website before submitting any screenshots as specimens.  If deficiencies are found, the attorney should advise the client to amend the layout of the website and/or the content before screen shots are submitted as specimens.

 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.  AS USUAL THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

May you and your loved ones stay safe & be well during these challenging times.


© 2020 by Troy & Schwartz, LLC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sep
15

HOLDING COMPANIES AS A STRATEGY FOR IP ASSET PROTECTION – UNDERSTANDING THE PROS AND CONS

Posted by Susan Dierenfeldt-Troy, Esq.

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

Intellectual property assets may comprise as much as 70% of an average company’s value according to the Harvard Business Review.  Not surprisingly, businesses large and small are concerned about: 1) protecting their intellectual property from theft or infringement and potential creditors; and 2) reducing their income taxes as part of an overall IP asset management strategy.  Intellectual property holding companies (IPHCs) became a popular means through which companies sought to protect their IP assets and reduce taxes by establishing a wholly-owned subsidiary whose purpose was only to control and own IP assets such as patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and other proprietary information in the 1990s.

The IPHC, established by the parent company, does not itself use the IP it owns (e.g., by manufacturing and distributing a patented product).   Instead, the holding company licenses its IP rights to affiliated operating companies that handle the day-to-day business activities but do not themselves own any of the IP assets.  The holding company as the licensor then receives royalties from its licensee(s).    For example, say ZYX, Inc. owns a U.S. patent for a product it manufactures and sells under a registered trademark.  It has decided to form a Delaware IPHC, CBA, Inc., for holding its patent and registered trademark.  CBA, Inc., now as the IPHC, licenses the patent and registered trademark to ZYC, Inc. in return for a two percent royalty on the patented and trademarked product’s sales.  For states such as Delaware which does not charge income tax on royalties, the tax savings can be substantial. Additionally, ZYX, Inc. can likely take the royalty payment as a tax expense write-off.

States eventually figured out that holding companies were costing them a lot of money and the majority of them have enacted different types of reporting requirements for IPHCs to recover tax monies:  a) mandatory combined reporting (requiring companies to file a single comprehensive tax return for all of their subsidiaries when they calculate their taxes); b) add back statues (requires companies to add back any tax deductions they have taken for royalties paid to their IPHC); and c) the economic nexus approach wherein courts are tasked with finding if an economic nexis (a/k/a/ the Geoffrey rule after a 1993 South Carolina case involving Geoffrey, Inc. as the IHPC for the Toys “R” Us trade name) exists.  As such, IPHCs are not used as much as they were over a decade as a tax “shelter.”  Delaware, however, still continues to be an IPHC tax haven.

What about Florida?  Florida does have a corporate income tax but remains one of a handful of “corporate income” tax states that hasn’t adopted an add-back or combined reporting statute to try and reclaim lost tax revenue attributable to Florida IPHCs.  Furthermore, Florida IPHC law is complicated by the fact that only mining companies, by statute, must count royalties when calculating their income taxes.  For an excellent discussion on the politics surrounding the issue of Florida IPHC taxation see Florida Tax Laws and Intellectual Property by Jason Garcia, Florida Trend Magazine.

Despite the fewer taxation benefits now afforded by most states to IPHCs, IPHCs can still offer IP asset-protection benefits, for example by allowing a company to quarantine its intellectual property from claims brought against the operating companies.  For instance, in the event the affiliated operating company is sued, the separation of IP assets from the affiliate to an IPHC may well protect that property from potential judgments in a lawsuit.

Any business entity, including an IPHC should be structured in a manner that best fits the business model.  All business entities, whether a C-Corp, S-Corp, or Limited Liability Company have their own considerations which should be discussed with in attorney knowledgeable in IP asset protection. Any such IP transfer needs to be in writing and is generally executed as an assignment of rights document.  The assignment of any issued patent and registered trademarks and copyrights should be recorded with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and/or the U.S. Copyright Office.

Anybody considering forming an IPHC should of course understand the taxation requirements of the state where the IPHC entity will be formed.  Additionally, any IPHC owner needs to understand that infringement actions involving the IP owned by an IPHC may result in unintended consequences for the unwary.  For example, whether or not a plaintiff has standing to sue is a threshold question in any lawsuit.  For a patent infringement action, only patent owners or exclusive licensees have standing to sue for infringement.  A typical exclusive licensing agreement may not be “exclusive” for patent infringement purposes. That is, absent a provision within the exclusive licensing agreement that the patent licensee has the right to sue, the exclusive licensee may be found to have no independent right to sue.

Why is this important to an IPHC?  Because the IPHC may be able to obtain an injunction as the patent owner, but will be limited in its ability to seek lost profits as damages.   For example, a patent-holding IPHC normally does not manufacture or sell a product itself.  The IPHC thus suffers no lost profits damages as a result of any infringement of its patent and any recovery will likely be limited to reasonable royalty damages which are generally substantially lower than lost profits.  Rite-Hite Corp. v. Kelly Co., 56 F.3d 1538, 1553 (Fed. Cir. 1995).

As for non-exclusive patent licenses, the IPHC cannot claim lost profits and will be limited to an award of reasonable royalty damages.  However, non-exclusive patent licenses may provide the IPHC with additional opportunities to exploit its IP beyond just one licensee.

In the context of trademark rights, the IPHC holding company must have sufficient quality control over the goods/services provided under the licensed trademarks.  Failure to exercise sufficient quality control may create what is known as “naked licensing”, resulting in potential cancellation of the registered marks.  Click here for a previous blog on the ramifications of naked licensing.

Take Home Points:

  1. Before setting up an IPHC, understand the tax laws of the proposed entity-formation state by consulting with a knowledgeable CPA or tax attorney.
  2. Before setting up an IPHC, determine the best type of business entity by consulting with a knowledgeable IP asset protection attorney.
  3. Ensure that the assignment of IP assets to the IPHC is done via a formal assignment agreement.
  4. Ensure that an exclusive patent licensing agreement includes appropriate provisions giving the exclusive licensee the right to sue for patent infringement. Utilize the services of a knowledgeable IP licensing attorney.
  5. For trademark licensing, ensure that the licensing agreement includes appropriate provisions allowing the IPHC to monitor the quality and goodwill of the licensed marks. As with patent-licensing agreements, utilize the services of a knowledgeable IP licensing attorney.

 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.  AS USUAL THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

Call us for a complimentary consultation on IPHCs or IP-licensing or any of your IP legal needs at 305-279-4740.

May you and your loved ones stay safe & be well during these challenging times.


© 2020 by Troy & Schwartz, LLC

 

Apr
30

New Guidance by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board on Overcoming Obviousness Rejections: Part I – Lectrosonics, Inc. v. Zaxcom, Inc.

Patent Law Alert from the Law Offices of Troy & Schwartz, LLC

April 30, 2020

New Guidance by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board on Overcoming Obviousness Rejections:  Part I  – Lectrosonics, Inc. v. Zaxcom, Inc

One way for the patent applicant to try and overcome an obvious rejection is to prove nonobviousness through secondary considerations (also known as “objective indicia of nonobviousness”). Yet, proving nonobviousness through secondary considerations to the satisfaction of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (“Board”) has always been challenging even before Supreme Court’s KSR decision.  On April 14, 2020, the Board issued guidance in arguing secondary considerations by designating its most recent decision as precedential (Lectrosonics, Inc. v. Zaxcom, Inc., Case IPR 2018-00129 (P.T.A.B. Jan. 24, 2020)) and two earlier decisions as informative (Ex parte Thompson, Appeal 2011-011620 (P.T.A.B. March 21, 2014) and Ex parte Whirlpool Corp., Appeal 2013-008232 (P.T.A.B. Oct. 30, 2013)).

This blog discusses the precedential decision in Lectrosonics, Inc. v. Zaxcom, Inc., Case IPR 2018-00129 (P.T.A.B. Jan. 24, 2020). Given the importance of this topic, the two other decisions will be summarized in a forthcoming blog. The three decisions address nonobviousness issues in three different proceedings before the Board: an applicant’s exparte appeal, an AIA trial, and a reexamination proceeding.

Secondary considerations involve evidence “outside” the four corners of the application with a caveat: the applicant must demonstrate a nexus between the proffered evidence and the claimed invention.  If established, the Board will consider the strength of the objective-indicia evidence itself.

The Board’s Discussion of the Threshold for Establishing “Nexus”

Secondary considerations are generally related to the invention’s commercialized product. For objective indicia of nonobviousness to be accorded substantial weight, its proponent (the applicant or patent owner) must establish a nexus between the evidence and the merits of the claimed invention.  This means that the proponent must show that the asserted objective evidence is actually tied to a specific product and that product indeed “embodies the claimed features and is coextensive with them.”

Courts have considered the following secondary considerations in determining obviousness; (1) the invention’s commercial success, (2) long felt but unresolved needs, (3) the failure of others, (4) skepticism by experts, (5) praise by others, (6) teaching away by others, (7) recognition of a problem, (8) copying of the invention by competitors, and (9) other relevant factors.

The product for which objective evidence is presented must be claimed in its entirety within the patent or application.  CAFC precedent, which the Board must follow, requires that a nexus between the invention and evidence of secondary considerations is only presumed “when the product is the invention as fully disclosed and claimed – that the product embodies the claimed features and is coextensive with them.”  See Fox Factory, Inc. v. SRAM, LLC, 944 F.3d 1366 (Fed. Cir.  2019). 

Nevertheless, all is not lost if an “automatic” nexus presumption is deemed inappropriate.  The patent owner is still afforded an opportunity to prove nexus by showing that the proffered evidence of secondary considerations is the “direct result of the unique characteristics of the claimed invention.”   The ultimate decision depends on the fact finder who “must weigh the secondary considerations evidence presented in the context of whether the claimed invention as a whole would have been obvious….”

Secondary Considerations as to the Original Claims

The Board considered the nexus requirements twice  – first with respect to the patent’s original claims and again with the patent owner’s proposed substitute claims as discussed below.  Relying on Fox, the Lectrosonics Board found that the patent owner had not demonstrated a nexus between the evidence presented and the merits of the invention as originally claimed because the evidence presented was directed to an unclaimed feature of the invention.  Secondary evidence is inapplicable if it does not apply to the patent’s actual claims.

Secondary Considerations as to the Substitute Claims

The patent owner filed a contingent motion to amend the patent to replace the six problematic patent claims with six substitute claims; the written description had disclosed features that had not been claimed and the patent owner now sought to claim these features.    The Board first held that the Motion to Amend complied with the statutory and regulatory requirements for amending found in a previous precedential order for assessing the merits of a Contingent Motion to Amend in Feb. 2019.

The Board then considered whether the proposed substitute claims were obvious, finding that the Petitioner’s (the party seeking claims invalidation of the patent) proposed prior-art combination (the combining of references in an obviousness rejection) “at best only weigh slightly weigh in favor of a conclusion of obviousness.”

The Board then turned to the patent owner’s secondary consideration case but now focusing on the substitute claims.  Had the inquiry only involved the original claims, the patent owner would have been out of luck.  The Board found, however, that the substitute claims shared a nexus with the patent owner’s proffered secondary consideration evidence: the affidavit of two declarants tying long-felt need directly to the newly added claim limitations and an industry award.

After finding a nexus, the Board then considered the secondary consideration evidence itself.  As to long-felt need as a secondary consideration, the Board was convinced that the two declarations demonstrated “a persistent need, recognized by those of ordinary skill in the art.”

Next, the Board considered the evidence of industry praise, citing the testimony of one of the patent owner’s declarants who stated that he “can’t emphasize enough the revolution these recording radios brought on.” The Board recognized that the award also “specifically praises features of the proposed substitute claims including the digital recording of microphone signals in the wireless transmitter.” Although some of the industry praise the patent owner supplied was “directed to features not explicitly recited by [the proposed substitute claims],” the patent owner’s evidence of industry praise ultimately weighed in favor of nonobviousness.

Lastly, the Board considered the evidence of the failure of others. Here, the Board determined that the patent owner’s testimony submitted in support of this factor was “conclusory and without adequate [evidentiary] support for the proposition that others failed.” This factor thus weighed in favor of the Petitioner’s obviousness arguments.

The Board ultimately concluded that, although the failure of others weighed in favor of the Petitioner because of lack of evidentiary support favoring the patent owner, the long-felt need and industry praise weighed heavily in favor of nonobviousness.  The Board concluded that the substitute claims were nonobvious, thereby saving the day for the patent owner.

Take Home Points

It has been historically very difficult to win on a secondary consideration argument before the Board and appellate courts. The following lessons can be drawn from the Lectrosonics decision:

  • In presenting an objective-indicia case, practitioners during patent prosecution or the patent owner in a post-patent proceeding must present solid evidentiary support (e.g., long-felt need, failure of others, industry praise, copying, etc.).
  • Conclusory statements are not evidence. Additionally, the nexus between that evidence and the claimed invention must be proven in those cases where the Board or a court determines that the patent applicant or patent owner are not entitled to a nexus presumption.  Such a nexus will be found lacking if the evidence does not relate to the patent’s claims.   Here, the patent owner’s win is because the Board agreed that the patent could be amended to include substitute claims after finding that the original claims had no nexus with the proffered objective evidence.
  • The Lectrosonics decision is also a good reminder for practitioners to claim everything the applicant is entitled to claim based on the written disclosure to help ensure that the required nexus between the claims and secondary considerations will be found in any “obviousness” contest. Here the patent owner won because the Board first granted its contingent motion to amend the claims to include substitute claims which then were found to be “covered” by objective secondary consideration evidence.  If a patent owner plans to file such a motion during a patent claim contest, it would be well advised to review the Board’s requirements for granting this type of motion as set forth in the decision available here. The outcome would have been far different absent the Board’s approval of the motion to amend.

©Troy & Schwartz, LLC

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.  AS USUAL THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

Apr
13

Color as a Trademark – A Discussion of the CAFC’s Decision in In re Forney Industries, Inc.

 Susan Dierenfeldt-Troy, Esq.

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

A color mark is one where one or more colors are used to perform the trademark function of identifying the source of the good or service.  These marks may be registered as a trademark on the Principal Register under U.S. law if: 1) at the time the color mark is applied for, it is intrinsically distinctive or has become inherently distinctive in the minds of consumers as being associated with the supplier.  If not, the color mark may be registered on the Supplemental Register (which provides some limited benefits to the registrant) providing it meets the other requirements for registration.  If the color mark is later shown to have acquired secondary meaning, it then may be eligible for registration on the Principal Register.  This blog provides background information on color trademark law and discusses the April 8, 2020 decision of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in In re Forney Industries, Inc.

Quick Take-Home Points

Color marks may be registrable either on the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register.  Generally, color marks associated with packaging stand a much greater chance of being approved for registration relative to color marks associated with goods themselves for reasons discussed below providing the “package” color mark meets the many other requirements of trademark registration (e.g., the color serves no function and color is clearly a unique indicator of the source of the goods or services in consumers’ minds).  Three well-known color marks are UPS’s brown mark as applied to its delivery trucks, Tiffany’s egg shell blue mark as applied to its packaging, and John Deere’s green and yellow mark as applied to its various farm and industrial equipment.  Nevertheless, registration of color marks is no easy task as this blog demonstrates.

 Detailed Discussion

Color marks have been deemed by the courts as akin to trade dress.  Trade dress is the commercial look and feel of a product or service that identifies and distinguishes the source of the product or service.  It includes the various elements (such as the design and shape of materials) used to package a product or services.  For example, the Coca Cola Company has a registered trademark for the shape of its glass bottle.

Under 15 U.S.C. 1052 of the Lanham Act, applicants may file for trademark registration of merely descriptive marks which may not otherwise qualify for trademark protection by providing evidence that consumers have come to identify the mark with the applicant.  Trade dress that is not inherently distinctive to start with or has not acquired distinctiveness under §2(f) of the Lanham Act will be refused registration on the Principal Register.  For color marks, whether or not a color “trade dress” mark can be registered on the Principal Register is also largely dependent upon whether the mark involves a product design or packaging both of which may be viewed as a type of trade dress as will be discussed below.

Demonstrating that an applied-for color mark is or has become inherently distinctive to the satisfaction of the United States Patent & Trademark Office is a tough burden to meet as General Mills found out in a 2017 appeal to the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (“Board”) when it tried to register the color yellow for its Cheerios’ brand boxes.  Even though the yellow box was a “package” trade dress, the Board found that the color yellow was in such common use for other cereal brands, that General Mills claim of acquired distinctiveness under 2(f) lacked merit.

According to the Supreme Court, a mark that consists of product design trade dress is never inherently distinctive and is not registrable on the Principal Register unless the applicant establishes that the mark has acquired distinctiveness under §2(f). Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Bros., 529 U.S. 205, 213-216, 54 USPQ2d 1065, 1069-70 (2000).  Features of a product’s design can never be inherently distinctive and are registrable only upon a showing of secondary meaning. Id. at 213–14, 54 USPQ2d at 1069.  The commentator notes that the Court’s rationale is consistent with the purpose of trademark law:  to allow the consumer to readily identify the source (e.g., the manufacturer) of the goods/services being sold under the mark.  Indeed the Wal-Mart court noted that product design almost invariably serves purposes other than source identification, and that “[c]onsumers are aware . . . that, almost invariably, even the most unusual of product designs — such as a cocktail shaker shaped like a penguin — is intended not to identify the source, but to render the product itself more useful or appealing.” Wal-Mart at 213-2014.

In contrast to product design trade dress, trade dress constituting product packaging may be inherently distinctive for goods or services and registrable on the Principal Register even without a showing of acquired distinctiveness.  “[A] mark is inherently distinctive if ‘[its] intrinsic nature serves to identify a particular source.’” Id. at 210 (citing Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763, 768 (1992)).

This brings to the discussion of the April 8, 2020 decision on the registration of a color mark where the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (“CAFC”) reversed the Board’s decision against registration of a package color In re Forney Industries, Inc., Appeal No. 20191-1073.  This precedential decision is noteworthy because it distinguishes instances when an arrangement or blending of colors into a distinctive scheme for packaging may qualify for protection as already having intrinsic distinctiveness without a showing of acquired distinctiveness under §2f.  Forney’s trademark application was not made under 2(f) but under 1(a) of the Lanham Act, the usual route for applicants who believe their mark is beyond being merely descriptive.

In Forney, the applicant sought to register a mark comprising the colors “red into yellow with a black banner located near the top as applied to packaging” for metal hardware, welding equipment, safety goods and marking products. The Board had relied on the High Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores in concluding that this color combination was not registrable because the applicant could not establish inherent distinctiveness.

The CAFC took a different approach and found that the Board, by relying on Wal-Mart Stores had “erred in two ways: (1) by concluding that a color-based trade dress mark can never be inherently distinctive without first differentiating between product design and product packaging color marks; and (2) that product packaging marks that employ color cannot be inherently distinctive in the absence of an association with a well-defined peripheral shape or border.”  In other words, the CAFC concluded that under either scenario, the Board’s logic was faulty.

With regard to the first point, the CAFC disagreed that the Supreme Court had made it clear that color, when on a product or its packaging, can never be inherently distinctive without establishing inherent distinctiveness. The CAFC observed that the Supreme Court has not gone that far because it has not so ruled as to product packaging. The CAFC then held that “color marks can be inherently distinctive when used on product packaging, depending upon the character of the color design.”  The CAFC reasoned that, although “color is usually perceived as ornamentation,” In re Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 774 F.2d 1116, 1124 (Fed. Cir. 1985), “a distinct color-based product packaging can indicate the source of the goods to a consumer, and, therefore, can be inherently distinctive.”

The CAFC also took a different tact from the Board by applying the Supreme Court’s precedent in trade dress case law to Forney’s package mark.  In the seminal case of Two Pesos, the Supreme Court assumed that the trade dress related to the interior décor of a Mexican restaurant was inherently distinctive.  Accordingly, Two Pesos stands for the proposition that trade dress can be inherently distinctive. [Emphasis by CAFC].

In Wal-Mart, the Supreme Court, in discussing a product design mark, stated that, “with respect to at least one category of mark—colors—we have held that no mark can never be inherently distinctive.” 529 U.S. at 211–212.  As the CAFC emphasized in Forney, product design and product packaging involve different trademark considerations.   In Wal-Mart, the Supreme Court “considered the fact that ‘product design almost invariably serves purposes other than source identification.'” Id. at 213. As to product packaging, however, the Court noted, “[t]he attribution of inherent distinctiveness to certain categories of . . . product packaging derives from the fact that the very purpose of . . . encasing [a product] in a distinctive packaging, is most often to identify the source of the product.”   The commentator emphasizes that trademark law is indeed focused on ensuring that a consumer will know the true source of purchased goods and services and distinct packaging can be a factor in building “memory muscle.”

Turning then to Forney’s proposed mark, the CAFC opined that multi-color packaging is “more akin to the mark at issue in Two Pesos than those Wal-Mart.” As such, Forney’s unique color combination falls firmly within the category of marks the Court described as potential source identifiers.  The CAFC’s opinion is instructive because it demonstrates that precedent can be interpreted as much for what it does state as for what it does not state. In Forney, the CAFC concluded that the Supreme Court’s Qualitex and Wal-Mart decisions when combined with its Two Pesos decision demonstrate that a color mark when used for packaging (i.e. as trade dress) can be inherently distinctive.  See also Wal-Mart (stating “[a] mark is inherently distinctive if ‘[its] intrinsic nature serves to identify a particular source.’” (Wal-Mart at 210 citing Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763, 768 (1992).

In considering the Board’s alternative conclusion, the CAFC found that the Board’s decision had again not comported with prior CAFC case law. “Without explaining why it was doing so, the Board found that a color may only be inherently distinctive when used in conjunction with a distinctive peripheral shape or border.”  In other words, the Board had made a conclusory argument without providing evidence to back up its assertions.             The Board agreed with Forney that the proposed mark “is not just a ‘color mark’ but also a ‘symbol.’ ”  A public policy consideration in granting color marks is whether the registered mark would preempt use of a color that is commonly used in a particular field of commerce.  According to the CAFC, Forney was not attempting to preempt the use of any particular color, but only to protect the particular colors arranged in a particular design.  According to the CAFC, the question for the Board is whether the proposed mark is “sufficiently indicative of the source of the goods contained in that packaging.” That assessment must be made “based on the overall impression created by both the colors employed and the pattern created by those colors.”

The CAFC further criticized the Board for its failure to determine inherent distinctiveness using the Seabrook factors.  These factors are referenced in the TMEP which states: “The test for determining inherent distinctiveness set forth in Seabrook Foods, Inc. v. Bar-Well Foods, Ltd., 568 F.2d 1342, 1344, 196 USPQ 289, 291 (C.C.P.A. 1977), although not applicable to product design trade dress, is still viable in the examination of product packaging trade dress. The examining attorney should consider the following Seabrook factors – whether the proposed mark is:

  • (1) a “common” basic shape or design;
  • (2) unique or unusual in a particular field;
  • (3) a mere refinement of a commonly adopted and well-known form of ornamentation for a particular class of goods viewed by the public as a dress or ornamentation for the goods; or
  • (4) capable of creating a commercial impression distinct from the accompanying words.”

Not surprisingly after its detailed analysis, the CAFC vacated and remanded the case to the Board to determine if Forney’s proposed mark is inherently distinctive under the Seabrook factors and therefore entitled to registration on the Principal Register.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.  AS USUAL THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.  WE SUGGEST YOU CONSULT WITH AN ATTORNEY IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING AN ACTION WHICH COULD HAVE LEGAL CONSEQUENCES.

© 2020 by Troy & Schwartz, LLC

 

Mar
13

Patent Licensing Agreements: Ensuring They Won’t Thwart the Patentee’s Rights to Damages in a Later Patent Infringement Lawsuit

Attorneys often categorize themselves as either only transactional or only litigation attorneys. The fact is that legal documents, whether drafted by a transactional attorney specifically retained to draft an agreement or “grabbed off” the Internet, may become the subject matter” of a lawsuit, either directly as in a breach of contract claim or indirectly as where an agreement fails to properly address statutory requirements pertinent to the contact.   The latter situation is discussed in the Federal Circuit Court of Appeal’s Feb. 19, 2020 decision in Arctic Cat, Inc., v. Bombardier Recreational Products, Inc.

Arctic Cat is the owner of two patents directed towards thrust steering systems for personal watercraft (“PWCs”). Although it initially sold the inventions before the patents had issued, Arctic Cat later entered into a license agreement with Honda for several patents including the PWC patents.  Somewhere along the licensing negotiating process, the provision requiring Honda, as the licensee, to mark all licensed patented products with the applicable patent numbers was deleted.  The final version even expressly stated that Honda had no marking obligations.  This provision was contrary to the requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 287 and case law involving the interpretation of that statute.

Section 287(a) provides in pertinent part:

Patentees, and persons making, offering for sale, or selling within the United States any patented article for or under them, or importing any patented article into United States, may give notice to the public that the same is patented . . . by fixing thereon the word “patent” . . . . In the event of failure so to mark, no damages shall be recovered by the patentee in any action for infringement, except on proof that the infringer was notified of the infringement and continued to infringe thereafter, in which event damages may be recovered only for infringement occurring after such notice. Filing of an action for infringement shall constitute such notice.

The notice provision of § 287 does not apply to patents directed to processes or methods. Nor does it apply if a patentee never makes or sells a patented article; such a patentee may recover damages even absent notice to an alleged infringer.  On the other hand, the patentee who either directly sells the patented article or indirectly introduces into the market through a licensee, cannot collect damages until it either begins providing notice or sues the alleged infringer.  Any resultant damages are limited to the period after notification.  A patentee can cure the marking dilemma by beginning to mark (or have the licensee mark) its products in accordance with § 287.

The public policy behind § 287 is threefold: to (1) help avoid innocent infringement; (2) encourage patentees to give public notice that the article is patented; and (3) aid the public to identify whether an article is patented.   Arctic Cat at 8 citing Nike, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 138 F.3d 1437, 1443 (Fed. Cir. 1998).   Failure of a patentee to inform the public that an article is patented is deemed problematic because of its potential to mislead others into believing they are free to make and sell an article that is actually patented and then finding themselves on the receiving end of a patent infringement lawsuit.

The statute also actually provides incentive to the patentee to sell marked products so as to maximize its damages in any subsequent patent infringement lawsuit by a “knowing” infringer. That is, the marking statute imposes notice obligations on the patentee.  Whether or not the alleged infringer may have had mere knowledge that unmarked patented articles were actually patented is irrelevant.  A patentee who does not comply with the marking statue cannot later claim entitlement to “willful infringement” damages without establishing that the alleged infringement had been put on proper notice.

The duty to mark is not limited to the patentee but is also imposed on any licensee or assignee. Arctic Cat at 6.   The licensing/assigning patentee has to demonstrate that it made reasonable efforts to ensure any third parties’ compliance with § 287 to the satisfaction of the court.  Inexplicably, the licensing agreement between Arctic Cat and Honda expressly stated that Honda had no obligation to mark the patented PWCs.   As such, in its later filed infringement lawsuit, Arctic Cat was in no position to argue that it had made reasonable efforts to ensure labeling.  The “wrong” provision included within the patent licensing agreement with Honda executed years before proved fatal from a damages maximization perspective.

And this begs the question:  Who drafted that licensing agreement and why was the original provision referencing marking deleted?  Did Arctic Cat’s authorized representative understand the implications of what he was signing?  Did its transactional attorney explain the consequences?

From our perspective, the Arctic Cat decision drives home the point that a faulty transactional agreement may well mess up a party’s rights in a future lawsuit.  Faulty agreements can range from unartful, overly verbose, and ambiguous wording to provisions that are inexplicably contrary to federal and/or state statutory requirements and public policy.  The latter should never happen at least when a transactional attorney is involved.  Any such attorney must have a thorough understanding of the legal area the agreement involves to determine how much latitude may be incorporated into the agreement without running afoul of governing law.  Failure to do so denotes sloppy work.

The commentator handles both legal disputes involving intellectual property rights including patents and drafts and negotiates complex licensing and assignment agreements.  In my opinion the preferred approach to drafting these and other types of agreements is to draft with an eye toward future litigation whether between the parties to the agreement or a third party as in the Arctic Cat case.  Such agreements should also be drafted by an attorney with experience in the subject matter.

Considering licensing your intellectual property? Contact us to see how we can provide value to you or your company from drafting the licensing agreement from scratch through negotiating the draft (or a previously existing draft) with the other party to the agreement.  Our services including taking care to explain the agreement in detail to our clients and providing a summary of the agreement’s provision to provide for ready reference.  

WE HOPE YOU FIND THE ARTICLE INSTRUCTIVE.  HOWEVER, THE INFORMATION PRESENTED IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AND IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.

© Troy & Schwartz, LLC 2020

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