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Distinctive symbols of authenticity through which the products of particular manufacturers or the salable commodities of particular merchants can be distinguished from those of others.
A trademark is a device, word or combination of words, or symbol that indicates the source or ownership of a product or service. A trademark can be a name, such as Adidas, or a symbol, such as McDonald's golden arches, or it can be a combination of the two, such as when the NIKE name is written with the "swoosh" symbol beneath it. In very limited cases, a shape or even a distinctive color can become a trademark.
People rely on trademarks to make informed decisions about the products they buy. A trademark acts as a guarantee of the quality and origin of a particular good. A competing manufacturer may not use another company's trademark. The owner of a trademark may challenge any use of the mark that infringes upon the owner's rights.
The presence of trademark protection for the name or logo of a company or product is often indicated by the small symbol of an R in a circle placed near the trademark. The R means that the mark is a registered trademark and is a warning that the law prevents unauthorized use of it. A party may indicate that it is claiming rights to a particular mark by displaying a TM rather than an R symbol. Marks bearing the TM symbol are not registered, but the presence of the symbol shows an intent to register.
Origins and Development of Trademark Law
Trademark law in the United States is governed by the Trademark Act of 1946, also known as the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 1051 et seq). The Lanham Act defines trademarks as including words, names, symbols, or combinations thereof that a person uses or intends to use in commerce to distinguish his or her goods from those made or sold by another. Potential trademarks are categorized by the functions they perform. Within trademark law are several specialized terms used to categorize marks that may be subject to protection. The categories are form, mode of use, and, most commonly, strength. The four subcategories of strength are generic, descriptive, suggestive, and arbitrary or fanciful.
A generic name is the common name for a product and will never be considered a trademark. Shoe, ball, hat, and lightbulb are all generic product names. Some marks that do not begin as generic may later become generic if the public adopts the mark as the general name for that product. Examples of marks that were not originally generic but later became so are cellophane and aspirin. Generic marks are not "strong" because they are not distinctive. To give trademark status to the generic or common name of a product would prevent all other manufacturers of the product from identifying it. To prevent that from occurring, granting trademark status to the generic name of a product is prohibited.
A descriptive term tells the consumer something about the product and may only become a trademark after it has acquired secondary meaning. This occurs after a period of time during which the term's association with that product is exclusive. This acquisition of secondary meaning is sufficient to make a mark distinct, meaning that in the eyes of consumers it has come to represent that products bearing the mark come from a particular source. The mark "Brooklyn Dodgers" is an example of a descriptive mark that is exclusively associated with a professional baseball team formerly from New York.
A suggestive term, rather than describing the product, merely makes a subtle suggestion about the type of product and its qualities. It requires consumers to use their imaginations to make the intellectual jump between the suggestion and the actual product. For those reasons, it can be a trademark immediately upon use. Examples of suggestive marks are Orange Crush (orange-flavored soft drink), Playboy (sexually oriented magazine for men), and Ivory (white soap).
When distinguishing between descriptive and generic terms, courts try to determine the viewpoint of the prospective consumer. Courts look for the meaning that the buyer of a product assigns to the contested word. Courts may also look at the term as used by dictionaries, third parties, trademark owners, texts, patents, newspapers, literature, and surveys. Use of a term as a common name indicates that the word may be the generic name of a product.
The strongest marks are arbitrary and fanciful marks, which need not acquire secondary meaning. They are strong because they bear little or no relationship to the products with which they are affiliated, and thus their use is not unfair to others trying to compete in the marketplace with similar products. Arbitrary marks are common words used in an uncommon way and are used in connection with the goods in a way that does not describe the goods or suggest anything about them. Examples include Camels in reference to cigarettes and Dial as the name of a brand of soap. Fanciful words, on the other hand, are invented and (at least at the time they are first applied to the goods) have no dictionary meaning. Examples of fanciful marks are Kodak, Exxon, and Rolex.
These considerations force a producer to select or create a symbol or name for its product that is suitable for trademark protection. A producer labors to create a good name for a product, and a protected trademark prevents competitors from unfairly capitalizing on the reputation of that name. When trying to decide what mark is appropriate, the potential trademark owner should keep in mind a fundamental rule of trademark selection: in most situations, one will not be allowed to use a trademark that another entity already uses. Before an entity incorporates under a certain name, or attempts to sell a service or product bearing a particular name, it should conduct a search or hire an attorney to investigate prior or existing use of the name. Those companies that fail to conduct this kind of a search or blatantly ignore existing use of a trademark are likely to face a lawsuit by any existing owner of the mark. Such a lawsuit may lead to a court order to stop any infringing use and an award of damages to the holder of the mark.
Uniqueness is a major consideration to the potential trademark owner, regardless of whether the mark is descriptive, suggestive, and arbitrary or fanciful. The fewer unique characteristics a mark possesses, the less legal protection it receives. The potential trademark owner must consider whether others need to use a particular mark in conjunction with a product in order to compete. A unique mark that bears little relationship to the product is preferred over a mark that is more generic.
A company has a better chance of procuring protection for a mark when, by using the mark, it is the first to cause consumers to see an association between the mark and the product.
The Lanham Act distinguishes trademarks from trade names and service marks and also addresses certification marks and collective marks. A service mark is used to identify and distinguish the services of one company from another, such as Sears for retail stores, and American Express for credit cards. A trade name or commercial name distinguishes and identifies a business. The same name or portion of a name may also serve as a trademark, trade name, or service mark. An example is the name Ford Motor Company, which is the trade name of a company that builds and sells cars and trucks that bear the trademark "Ford." In short, trademarks apply to products, service marks to services, and trade names to businesses.
Certification marks endorse products and certify approval of their origin, quality, or authenticity. A certification mark is not the property of the maker of the products upon which the mark will be affixed. Examples are the Union Label in garments and various seals of approval. When the provider of goods or services belongs to an association, it often advertises or attaches a collective mark to announce that relationship. The mark is used on products or services not provided by the owner of the mark, typically as a symbol guaranteeing quality and taking advantage of the supposed benefits to the consumer that stem from the product's association with the owner of the mark.
Traditionally, trademark rights had depended on prior use, but since 1988 a party with a genuine intent to use a mark may apply for trademark registration. The applicant must intend to use the mark in commerce and must intend to do so in order to sell a product, not merely to reserve rights for future use.
Registration begins with application to the commissioner of patents and trademarks in the patent and trademark office. Registration of a mark means that others will be presumed to know that the mark is owned and protected. By itself, registration is considered evidence that the registrant has ownership and that the registration is valid.
Registration benefits the trademark owner because it suggests that the registrant did everything necessary to protect its mark. While trademark rights actually stem from use, a party may have difficulty convincing a court that it had good reasons to not register a mark for which it now claims a protected right. This is particularly so when a claimed symbol's status as a trademark is uncertain, such as in a dispute over the design of a product as a trademark.
One may apply with either the principal register or supplemental register of the Patent and Trademark Office. The principal register is for arbitrary, fanciful, suggestive, or descriptive marks that have acquired secondary meaning or distinctiveness. The supplemental register is for descriptive terms capable of acquiring secondary meaning. Once a mark establishes secondary meaning, it can be transferred to the principal register.
Registration with the principal register is preferable to supplemental registration for many reasons. Principal registration is proof that the mark is valid, registered, and the intellectual property of the registrant, which has exclusive rights to use the mark in commerce. Further, a registered mark is presumed to have been in continuous use since the application filing date. After five years of continuous use, a registered mark may not be contested. Registration with the principal register means that a potential infringer will be considered to know about the registrant's claim of trademark ownership. The owner of a mark registered with the principal register has the right to bring suit in federal court. Those who counterfeit registered marks face criminal and civil penalties. The owner of a trademark that registers with the principal register and deposits the registration with the U.S. Customs Service can prevent goods bearing infringing marks from being imported.
A mark on the supplemental register may become a trademark, but its status as such has not yet been determined. For this reason, the presumption created by registration with the principal register, that the registrant can be the only valid owner, does not apply to supplemental registration.
The owners of registered trademarks can lose their rights in a number of ways. When a trade or the general public adopts a trademark as the name for a type of goods, the mark is no longer distinctive and the rights to it are lost. The owner of trademark rights must be vigilant to ensure that this does not occur. For instance, the Rollerblade company introduced a new product of roller skates where the wheels are arranged in a single line (offering performance similar to the blade on an ice skate) rather than side by side. Initially Rollerblade was the only company selling this type of skates, and the name Rollerblade became widely known. When competing producers of this new skate emerged on the marketplace, the consuming public often used the word rollerblade to describe the type of skates, no matter what company was making and selling them. Further, the public often called the activity of using such skates, no matter the manufacturer, rollerblading. The Rollerblade company spent millions of dollars in advertising and lawsuits to ensure that the trademark Rollerblade was not used to describe a product whose proper generic name is in-line skates. To protect its rights to the trademark, the Rollerblade company must actively oppose any use by competitors or consumers of the words rollerblade or rollerblading to describe generic in-line skates and the activity of in-line skating.
Registrants forfeit rights to their marks if they use them deceptively, use them in fraudulent trades, or abandon them. Registrants abandon their marks by failing to renew within ten years or by deliberately transferring rights with consent.
Once they have established their trademarks, owners have the duty to guard against infringement
and to be vigilant to preserve and protect their rights. The Lanham Act aids owners in protecting their rights and protects consumers from being tricked or confused by misleading marks.
The six most common causes of action in infringement lawsuits charge that a defendant has infringed on a plaintiff's registered trademark; undermined a plaintiff's unregistered mark in a manner that affects commerce; violated common-law trademark infringement standards and unfair competition principles; violated state deceptive trade practice laws; diluted a plaintiff's trademark; and misappropriated a plaintiff's mark.
Trademark infringement claims generally involve the issues of likelihood of confusion, counterfeit marks, and dilution of marks. Likelihood of confusion occurs in situations where consumers are likely to be confused or misled about marks being used by two parties. To constitute infringement, this confusion must be probable, not merely possible. The complaining party must show that because of the similar marks, many consumers are likely to be confused or misled about the source of the products that bear these marks.
In a likelihood of confusion cause of action, the defendant can defend on the basis that confusion is not likely or that although confusion may be likely, the plaintiff has behaved improperly regarding the mark or the mark is somehow defective.
The Lanham Act defines a counterfeit mark as being "identical with, or substantially indistinguishable from, a registered mark." All counterfeits are infringements. The product or service bearing the counterfeit mark must be of the same type of product or service bearing the protected mark. The defendant must have knowingly produced or trafficked a counterfeit mark.
Dilution is lessening the individuality or impact of a mark. The usefulness of a trademark depends on its recognizability and individuality. In cases of dilution, the challenged mark does not necessarily have to be used on products in direct competition with the products of the complaining party, nor is it necessary that the mark is causing confusion. The complaining party only needs to show that the strength and impact of the registered mark is somehow lessened by the presence of similar marks. A trademark owner uses its mark as a means of recognition and as a symbol representing its goodwill, and when similar marks flood the marketplace, this message is considered to be diluted. The product or service thus becomes psychologically less identifiable and less distinguishable. Trademark law prohibits this dilution and prevents the infringing party from unfairly profiting from an association with an established name.
To establish an infringement cause of action based on dilution, the plaintiff must initially show that its trademark is genuinely unique. Similar to the standard for confusion, dilution because of defendant's conduct must be likely or probable, rather than merely possible.
The defendant in an infringement case can invoke any of several affirmative defenses. An affirmative defense is a response that attacks the plaintiff's legal right to bring an action, as opposed to attacking the truth of the claim. The defendant can argue that the plaintiff abandoned the trademark or that the mark is generic. Defendants may claim that they made "fair use" of the mark, in that their purpose for using the mark did not unfairly compete with the plaintiff. Another affirmative defense is that the plaintiff has "unclean hands" from acting in an unfair or deceptive manner. The defendant can charge that the plaintiff engaged in trademark misuse and used the mark in a manner that went against the public policy that allowed the trademark to be granted in the first place. The defendant may charge the plaintiff with fraudulent use of a trademark. The defendant can argue that the plaintiff violated antitrust laws, which are designed to protect commerce and trade against unlawful restraints, price fixing, and monopolies. Finally, the defendant can offer the affirmative defense of laches, which provides that the party that unreasonably delays in asserting legal rights forfeits them.
Trademark Rights Versus Publicity Rights
Every person enjoys the legal right to control the commercial value of his or her identity (i.e., name, face, likeness, voice), and to prevent others from exploiting that value for profit without permission. The law of torts calls this right the "right of publicity," and defines infringement as any nonconsensual use of a person's identity that is likely to damage its commercial value. Falsity or deception is not an element of a claim for infringement. Rather, to trigger infringement of the right of publicity, the plaintiff's identity must be "identifiable" from the defendant's unauthorized commercial use, whatever form that use might take.
Courts and commentators often compare trademark rights to publicity rights because each set of rights is a form of intellectual property that grants owners the exclusive power to commercially exploit their property. But the right of publicity is only analogous to the law of trademarks and not identical. The key to the right of publicity is the commercial value of a human identity, while the key to the law of trademarks is the use of a word or symbol in such a way that it identifies and distinguishes a commercial source. Thus, while a trademark identifies and distinguishes a commercial source of goods and services, the "persona" protected by right of publicity law identifies a single human being.
Nor should the right of publicity be confused with the right of privacy. Courts recognize that the two rights are clearly separable and rest on quite different legal policies: the right to privacy protects against intrusion upon an individual's private self-esteem and dignity, while the right of publicity protects against commercial injury caused by the nonconsensual commercial appropriation of an individual's personality. Damages for invasion of privacy are usually measured by the mental and physical distress suffered by the plaintiff. On the other hand, damages for infringement of the right to publicity are measured by the loss in business value of the plaintiff's identity. Put simply, publicity rights protect against an injury to the pocketbook, while privacy rights protect against an injury to the psyche.
The right of publicity is not absolute. The use of a name or likeness incidental to the dissemination of a news story in which a person is properly and fairly presented is not actionable as a violation of the right of publicity. However, according to some authorities, the right of publicity can extend to the publication of one's name or picture in nonadvertising portions of a magazine or broadcast.
Dinwoodie, Graeme B., and Mark D. Janis. 2004. Trademarks and Unfair Competition: Law & Policy. New York: Aspen.
Trademarks A to Z. 2004. Mechanicsburg: Pennsylvania Bar
Trademarks Throughout the World. 2003. 4th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West.