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.”

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