Trademark Law

Apple Faces Trademark Lawsuit Regarding its iPhone X Animoji Feature

Kaylee Kruschke, MJLST Staffer

 

The Japanese company, emonster k.k., sued Apple in the U.S. on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, claiming that Apple infringed emoster’s Animoji trademark with the iPhone X Animoji feature.

 

But first, what even is an Animoji? According it a Time article, an Animoji is an animal emoji that you can control with your face, and send to your friends. You simply pick an emoji, point the camera at your face, and speak. The Animoji captures your facial expression and voice. However, this technology has yet to reach consumer hands. Apple’s website says that the iPhone X, with the Animoji feature, will be available for preorder on Oct. 27, and will be available for purchase Nov. 3.

 

So why is Apple being sued over this? Well, it’s not the actual technology that’s at issue. It’s the name Animoji. emonster’s complaint states that Enrique Bonansea created the Animoji app in 2014. This app allowed users to customize moving text and images and send them in messages. The United States Patent and Trademark Office registered Animoji to Bonansea on March 31, 2015, who later assigned the trademark to emoster in Aug. 2017, according to the complaint. Bonansea also claims that he received requests from companies, that he believes were fronts for Apple, to sell the trademark in Animoji. But these requests were denied, according to the complaint.

 

The complaint also provides more information that sheds light on the fact that Apple probably knew it was infringing emonster’s trademark in Animoji. The day before Apple announced its iPhone X and the Animoji feature, Apple filed a petition with the United States Patent and Trademark Office requesting that the office cancel the Animoji trademark because emonster, Inc. didn’t exist at the time of the application for the trademark. This was a simple mistake and the paperwork should have said emonster k.k. instead of emonster, Inc.; emonster was unable to fix the error because the cancellation proceeding was already pending. To be safe, emonster applied again for registration of the trademark Animoji in Sept. 2017, but this time under the correct name, emonster k.k..

 

Additionally, Apple knew about emonster’s app because it was available on the Apple App Store. Apple also helped emonster remove apps that infringed emonster’s trademark, the complaint stated. Nevertheless, Apple still went forward with using Animoji as the name for it’s new technology.

 

The complaint also alleges that emonster did send Apple a cease-and-desist letter, but Apple continued to use name Animoji for its new technology. emonster requests that Apple be enjoined from using the name Animoji, and claims that it is also entitled to recover Apple’s profits from using the name, any ascertainable damages emonster has, and the costs emonster incurs from the suit.

 

It’s unclear what this means for Apple and the release of the iPhone X, which is in the very near future. At this time, Apple has yet to comment on the lawsuit.


Scents: The Unconventional Potential for Trademarks

Amber Peterson, MJLST Staffer

Trademarks are intended to create an immediate brand recognition in the consumer’s mind. Consumers who are satisfied with a product must have a way to easily distinguish it from nearly identical or similar products from competitors. Thus, trademarks play a powerful role in branding and marketing as seen in the Nike “swoosh” and the Target bullseye. These traditional marks or logos are what are typically thought of when thinking about trademarks. However, unconventional trademarks such as the catch phrase “Hasta la Vista Baby” from the film, “The Terminator” and the red color of Christian Louboutin soles can be just as effective to identify a product or service.

The key requirement is distinctiveness. If a product can be thought of as inherently distinctive, it can be trademarked. Thus, the United States Patent and Trademark Office allows the trademarking of a scent since scent is distinctive in that it is deeply tied to memory recognition. Although this option is available, few have accomplished the task since the Patent and Trademark Office has put strict boundaries around what smells qualify.

First, the scent must serve no important practical function other than to help identify and distinguish the brand. This means that those smells whose only purpose is smell-related, such as perfumes and air fresheners, cannot receive scent trademark protection. Second, a detailed written description of the non-visual mark is required to complete the registration process. The problem with scents is the subjective nature of them. The perception of smell can be very different among a number of noses and is thus open to interpretation. This creates difficulty in successfully representing the scent graphically which is required to determine whether something is or is not appropriate for a trademark.

To date, there are only about 12 scent trademarks in the United States (e.g., the flowery musk smell in Verizon Wireless stores and the pina colada scent that a ukulele company scents its ukuleles with). As evidenced, the process of registering a scent can be challenging. However, there are marketing advantages that may make it worthwhile if the product or service resonates more deeply with a consumer compared to a typical visual mark or logo trademark.


The Future of Zero-Calorie Soft Drink Trademarks After the TTAB’s Coke Zero™ Ruling and Dr. Pepper Snapple’s Pending Federal Circuit Appeal

Joseph Novak, MJLST Staffer

For the past 13 years, Coca-Cola has been trying to trademark nothing. Well not actually nothing. Zero. As in zero calories. During this time, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) has denied trademarking Zero for soft drinks, as the term was either generic (Referring to the genus of the good, i.e. Coke Zero as a zero calorie sports drink) or merely descriptive (Describing what the good is, i.e. “Zero” describing “Coke” as a zero-calorie version of the drink); neither of which is distinctive enough upon the Abercrombie spectrum to warrant trademark protection.

Not surprisingly, other large soft drink companies have opposed allowing Coke to register “Zero”, as no other company would be able to use “Zero” on their own mark subsequent to Coke obtaining such a trademark. This past May, the TTAB issued a ruling in favor of Coke (over the opposition of Dr. Pepper Snapple Group) allowing Coke to register numerous trademarks containing “Zero” for their soft drinks. The TTAB held that “Zero” had “acquired distinctiveness through a showing of secondary meaning”, which is a fancy way of saying that Coke had proven that the millions of dollars they had spent on marketing “Zero” meant that consumers of soft drinks were now likely to associate the term “Zero” with the Coca-Cola brand.

The TTAB ruling also contemplates Coke’s trademark infringement claim against Dr. Pepper’s “Diet Rite Pure Zero” mark for likelihood of confusion. For a mark to infringe upon another, the potentially infringing mark must cause confusion to the consuming public as to source, i.e. a showing that consumers of soft drinks would confuse the source of “Diet Rite Pure Zero” with “Coke Zero” given the distinctiveness of the “Coke Zero” mark. The TTAB essentially punts the infringement issue, dismissing Coke’s infringement claim for a failure to prove priority (because Coke could not show that they had acquired distinctiveness through before Dr. Pepper’s use of the term “Zero”, there was no infringement cause of action).

Dr. Pepper Snapple has appealed the issue of distinctiveness to the Federal Circuit, asking the court to find “Zero” as generic for zero-calorie soft drinks. That appeal is still pending. Assuming the TTAB’s finding of acquired distinctiveness for “Coke Zero” holds, the question becomes whether future uses of “[Soft Drink X] Zero” will be barred by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for likelihood of confusion with “Coke Zero”? Or does this TTAB ruling only prevent future use of “Zero” on its own as a mark for soft drinks?

As outlined in this previous MJLST article, both the PTO (in deciding whether or not to register a trademark) and the Federal Circuit (who hears appeals from TTAB decisions) use the Dupont factors to determine whether there is a confusing similarity between a pending mark and an existing mark. These 13 factors, analyzed together as a whole, include:

  1. The similarity or dissimilarity of the marks in their entireties as to appearance, sound, connotation, and commercial impression.
  2. The similarity or dissimilarity and nature of the goods described in an application or registration or in connection with which a prior mark is in use.
  3. The similarity or dissimilarity of established, likely-to-continue trade channels.
  4. The conditions under which and buyers to whom sales are made, i.e. “impulse” vs. careful, sophisticated purchasing.
  5. The fame of the prior mark.
  6. The number and nature of similar marks in use on similar goods.
  7. The nature and extent of any actual confusion.
  8. The length of time during and the conditions under which there has been concurrent use without evidence of actual confusion.
  9. The variety of goods on which a mark is or is not used.
  10. The market interface between the applicant and the owner of a prior mark.
  11. The extent to which applicant has a right to exclude others from use of its mark on its goods.
  12. The extent of potential confusion.
  13. Any other established fact probative of the effect of use.

Like many likelihood of confusion cases, the analysis would likely come down to (1) similarity between the marks in terms of sight, sound, and meaning, and (2) whether or not either side could show actual confusion or a lack of such. For example, Coke would argue that any subsequent use of “Zero” in connection with a soft drink would be likely to confuse consumers that (according to the TTAB ruling) have come to associate “Zero” and soft drinks with Coca-Cola products. On the other hand, any subsequent user of “Zero” for soft drinks would likely have to rely upon a dissimilarity in appearance of the mark (as “Zero” would be the same in terms of sound and meaning), or show a lack of actual confusion between the two marks. Otherwise, the potential subsequent user could attempt to argue that “Coke Zero” is the mark in its entirety, and that “[Soft Drink X] Zero” is inherently dissimilar in its nature and thus, unlikely to cause consumer confusion.

In any regard, evidence of actual consumer confusion often comes down to which side has better survey design and results, which often correlates with which side has more resources to conduct such a survey. Thus, if the Federal Circuit upholds the TTAB decision to allow the “Zero” trademark, you better believe that Coca-Cola will put in a hero-like effort to protect their long sought-after victory over “Zero.”


Crossing the Offensive Line

Quang Trang, MJLST Managing Editor

In my opinion, Autumn is easily one of the top four seasons of the year. It is a season where pumpkin becomes a spice, the leaves change colors, I wear cardigans, and of course FOOTBALL. And yeah, the Supreme Court of the United States becomes a thing again.

During its next term, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear Lee v. Tam, a case that may determine the constitutionality of the U.S. Patent Office’s (“USPTO”) authority to refuse a trademark. The USPTO threw a yellow flag and refused to trademark the name of a band called “The Slants” after finding the name crossed an offensive line against Asians. The Slants threw a red flag challenge to have the decision reviewed. Under review, the Federal Circuit reversed the ruling on the field citing First Amendment protection. The USPTO Hail Mary’d the Supreme Court of the United States to protect its authority to reject offensive trademarks.

Under Section 2 of the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)), the U.S. Patent Office may refuse to register a trademark that “[c]onsists of or comprises a . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” However, granting the USPTO such authority may violate the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The Federal Circuit found the band’s name to be private speech, and thus entitled to First Amendment protection.

At this point you may be wondering “why is Quang making all these football puns?”, “Does Quang think his puns are funny?”, and “will he stop making bad puns?”

A Supreme Court decision in Lee v. Tam may intercept a case in the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit is currently reviewing the USPTO’s refusal to trademark the Washington Redskins after finding the name offensive and disparaging to Native Americans.

If the Supreme Court finds Section 2 of the Lanham Act unconstitutional, then the Fourth Circuit must overturn the USPTO’s refusal to trademark the Washington Redskins. However, if the Supreme Court limits its decision in Lee v Tam to the facts of the case or if the court affirms the USPTO’s ruling, then the Washington Redskins’ challenge may be sacked for good.

If the Washington Redskins loses its challenge, the organization may still keep the name and seek state trademark protection. The team would still be financially impacted if it loses federal protection against copycat merchandising. Changing the team name may then become a financial decision.


“What’s in a Name?” Billions of Dollars, That’s What

Travis Waller, MJLST Staffer

Cease-and-desist letters have long been one of the most commonly used, and perhaps more potent, of the tools relied upon by organizations and legal counsel to cut short unauthorized 3rd party use of material relating to that company’s trademarks. In 2013, Marcella David published a fascinating article in vol. 14 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology entitled “Trademark Unraveled: The U.S. Olympic Committee Versus Knitters of the World”. This article discussed the “scandal” surrounding the U.S Olympic Committee’s (USOC) harshly worded cease-and-desist letter sent to the operators of a website for knitters, called ravelry.com. What did ravelry.com do to receive this response? Ravelry.com hosted a kind of knitting competition, which it called the “ravelmpics”, in which the site would promote various events (such as the afghan marathon) and award “blog badges” to the winner of these events. Ravelry.com even had commemorative pins made up to memorialize the event.

Soon after the announcement of the “ravelmpics”, the USOC sent a cease-and-desist letter to ravelry.com. The outrage surrounding the USOC’s cease-and-desist letter (which complained that the “ravelympics” made light of Olympic athlete’s lifetime of training and dedication, among other things) was immediate and intense, so much so that the USOC actually apologized to ravelry.com for the letter twice, as well as blamed the contents of the letter on an over-zealous summer associate within the organization’s legal department.

While this event may mark the upper limits of the strange when it comes to brand protection, the Olympic committees appear to have not lost their appetite for using their trademark rights in the word “Olympic” as a sword, as the International Olympic Committee recently carved up the name of a Portland charcuterie shop, now known as Olympia Provisions.

Bologna, right? Not necessarily. (Olympia Provisions prides itself on it’s salami). While organizations like the USOC’s actions against these companies may seem harsh – even ridiculous – at first blush, there can be very real harms to an organization’s branding efforts and trademark protection if prevention of unauthorized use is not vigorously enforced. Remember Aspirin? Linoleum? Trampoline? These names, which have now fallen into common use as terms for items, used to be trademarks. That is, aspirin used to denote a brand of acetylsalicylic acid, made by the company Bayer, and branded as “aspirin”.

This loss of rights is due to an aspect of trademark law that allows the expiration of trademark protection for certain marks that lose their status as “source identifiers”. While it may be difficult now to imagine the word “Olympic” as ever losing its connection to the Olympic Games, words have a funny way of changing meaning simply through their usage over time. To this point, consider “literally”, which today is synonymous with both “actually” and “figuratively” (“literally” antonyms of each other).

Aside from the USOC, the NFL is another large entity that actively enforces it’s use of the “SUPER BOWL” mark through cease-and-desist letters, and does so out of many of the same fears that the USOC uses in justifying it’s strict enforcement of it’s marks.

To bring this discussion to a head, cease-and-desist letters are probably more a tool of necessity than an expression of corporate malice. While there may be the rare occasion of an “over-zealous summer associate” or two, the astronomical economic value associated with the trademarks of many of the worlds most famous brands provides ample incentive to stymie even the most negligible 3rd party uses, strong likelihood of confusion or not. This is because, like it or not, language is slippery, and far is the fall to “generic”.


Are Trademark’s a Medium for Free Speech?: Federal Circuit Considers Whether Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act Violates the First Amendment

Michael Laird, MJLST Staffer

The Federal Circuit recently heard arguments en banc in a case considering the relationship between intellectual property regimes, specifically trademark law, and freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The long-term rule comes from the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals—the predecessor to the Federal Circuit—in the case In re McGinley. 660 F.2d 481 (C.C.P.A. 1981). There, the court held: “with respect to appellant’s First Amendment rights, it is clear that PTO’s refusal to register appellant’s mark [as a trademark] does not affect his right to use it. No conduct is proscribed, and no tangible form of expression is suppressed.” Id. at 484. Under that traditional rule, trademark law was held consistent with the first amendment because an applicant is still permitted to use a mark, whether or not it is trademark eligible. However, that precedent may be at risk.

On Friday, October 3, the Federal Circuit heard arguments for In re Tam on the question of whether § 2(a) of the Lanham Act is consistent with the right of free speech. Section 2(a) bars trademark eligibility for a mark that “consists of or comprises of immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” 28 U.S.C. § 1052(a). In Tam, § 2(a) was the basis for denying trademark registration for “The Slants”, the name of an Asian-American band because of its disparagement of those of Asian descent.

The court appeared to latch on to concerns that the logic of McGinley would be applicable in the copyright regime since rejection of a copyright would also not inhibit the applicant’s right to use that material. The court asked: “would [it] be constitutional and not a first amendment violation if Congress enacted a statute that said, ‘we’re going to regulate Copyrights and not allow copyright registration to issue to scandalous, immoral, or disparaging copyrights?’” Recording of Oral Arguments, In re Tam, No. 2014-1203 at 39:13 (Fed. Cir. October 2, 2015). The Government conceded, and Court appeared to agree that Congress could not bar disparaging art from copyright registration, as it does with trademarks. See id. at 39:33.

If a work cannot be denied copyright registration because the government concludes the work is disparaging, then some distinction between a copyright and trademark must exist for the government to reject a trademark on that basis. The Government was mostly unsuccessful in providing a means to distinguish the two regimes. The court, however, discussed a few possibilities.

First, the nature of speech in copyrighted material differs from the marks which are eligible for trademark protection. Copyrightable material may involve fundamental political speech and other private speech, which is protected under a heightened scrutiny by the first amendment. Id. at 41:30. Conversely, trademarks, as a means to associate the producer of goods and a brand or logo, constitutes commercial speech.

Second, as one judge stated: “the distinction that could be made is that in copyright, if the government has these limitations it’s so coercive that it essentially…prevents you from [certain] speech. Whereas the trademark realm, although it takes away some benefits of federal registration…it’s not so coercive that the restriction is a burden on free speech.” Id. at 44:30. This argument relates to McGinley, since independent of whether a trademark is granted or denied, the mark owner has the right to use his or her mark in public. In the copyright realm however, the logic of McGinley fails because the denial of a copyright might actually chill speech because of the risk that it will be misappropriated by someone else.

Third, the court differentiated the purpose of the copyright and trademark regimes: “isn’t a copyright a forum for the expression of the arts…whereas a trademark goes to the very heart of stability in the marketplace?” Id. at 5:23. Like a distinction between the nature of a trademark and copyright, the purpose of the systems diverge. Copyright is inherently protective of speech generally. Yet, most trademarks do not concern traditional speech, but protecting an association between the producer of a good and a brand or other mark.

Whether any argument will persuade the court that trademark law is distinct from copyright in some way that permits a disparagement bar to trademark registration remains to be seen. Notably, the court need not resolve the issue, if it were to determine that § 2(a) should be upheld or rejected based on the whether a trademark constitutes private, public, or commercial speech. Either way, the implications of the court’s ruling could impact another major ongoing disparagement case concerning the Washington Redskins’ trademark which is being appealed in the Fourth Circuit. If you are interested in listening to the argument in full, you can find a copy here.