Showing posts with label infringement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label infringement. Show all posts

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Van Halen Sues Drummer's Ex-Wife for Commercializing Her Married Name

Van Halen was formed in California in 1972, and named after lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen. Other members of the band have included Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie's son) on bass guitar, as well as David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony.

In 1984, drummer Alex Van Halen married Kelly Carter, who legally changed her name to Kelly Van Halen. Twelve years later, the couple divorced, but Kelly kept her married name.

More recently, Kelly started a construction and interior design company under her married name. Kelly applied for several federal trademark registrations for "KELLY VAN HALEN" on products such as chairs, children's blankets, bathing suits, building construction and interior design.

ELVH, Inc., the holding company that owns the band's intellectual property, has now sued her in federal district court in California, alleging that her use of the name "VAN HALEN" as a trade name is likely to cause confusion, dilute the fame of the VAN HALEN trademarks, and unfairly compete with the band.

It also alleges that Kelly Van Halen's use of the trade name is on goods and services that are "either identical to or closely related to the goods sold by" the band.  (It is unclear when the band ever sold furniture or offered any form of construction or interior design services, but I suspect that they have not and this is only a matter of posturing).

The Hollywood Reporter notes correctly that the legal question here is whether senior family name users like Eddie and Alex can permanently enjoin junior family name users like Kelly from using "Van Halen" in a commercial enterprise. 

Courts are often reluctant to enjoin individuals from using their own legal names to identify themselves in trade or commerce, unless the use was clearly likely to cause confusion, or if the junior family member had previously agreed to cease such use.

For example, in 2007, design house Paul Frank Industries, Inc. had sued its namesake and former designer Paul Frank Sunich after he had left the company and began to use his full name to sell competing products.

In that case, the court held that "under trademark law, there is no absolute right to use one's own personal name where that use would be confusingly similar to an established use of a famous mark that the public has come to associate with another source...Mr. Sunich...has no absolute right to make use of his name in a manner that would be confusingly similar..."

However, the Court went on to clarify that "Mr. Sunich, however, is entitled under trademark law to use his name in other contexts, commercial and otherwise, to identify himself 
and inform others about his work.  [There is] no right to prevent Mr. Sunich and the other Defendants from using Mr. Sunich's full name in contexts were such use will not result in any confusion with PFI's use of the Paul Frank mark."

In that case, Sunich's websites had prominently displayed disclaimers informing customers that the products were not affiliated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by PFI.  However, his further sale of T-shirts was prohibited by the Court.

Courts are therefore often willing to draw difficult lines in order to be fair to both parties, and will put the burden on the trademark owner to actually prove that there is a likelihood of consumer confusion.  If confusion can be demonstrated, the accused may be held in contempt of Court for violating the Court's order.

Further, the Hollywood Reporter astutely notes that "the outcome might depend on whether it can be shown that Kelly had intent to trade upon the goodwill or reputation of the famous band's moniker."

While that fact would not be dispositive, if it can be show that Kelly was deliberately attempting to benefit from the band's fame, that could present a problem for her continued use.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pinterest Sues Travel Planning Startup PinTrips

Social media service Pinterest has filed a federal trademark infringement lawsuit in California against travel startup PinTrips.

Pinterest is a pinboard-style photo-sharing website that allows users to create and manage theme-based image collections such as events, interests, and hobbies.  

Users can browse other pinboards for images, "re-pin" images to their own pinboards, or "like" photos.  The popular site was founded by Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra, and Evan Sharp.  It is managed by Cold Brew Labs and funded by a small group of entrepreneurs and investors.

Founded in 2011, is a Santa Clara, California-based startup.  PinTrips claims that it turns the tedious task of planning and coordinating travel into a seamless experience by allowing a user to "bookmark" specific flights from all travel sites you already use, track and compare results on a main dashboard, and collaborate with others.

According to Pinterest, the startup was faced with a challenging business environment, so it deliberately adopted a name to cause confusion with its popular service.  Further, Pinterest alleges that PinTrips deliberately uses a "Pin" button that Pinterest alleges is a knockoff of its "Pin It" button.

The full Complaint is embedded below:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

T-Mobile Sues AT&T Subsidiary Over Use of the Color Magenta

In a recently-filed federal lawsuit against AT&T subsidiary Aio Wireless, telecommunications giant T-Mobile alleges that Aio Wireless deliberately chose the color magenta to advertise, promote and market a competing product, and in doing so, violated the trademark laws and committed unfair competition.

“With full knowledge of T-Mobile’s use of magenta, AT&T’s subsidiary chose — out of all the colors in the spectrum — magenta to advertise, market and promote its wireless services in direct competition with T-Mobile,” the complaint alleges.

“Aio does not use the orange coverage map of its parent company, but instead uses in its stores and on its website a magenta coverage map that is strikingly similar in color to the one used by T-Mobile."

However, what exactly is the "magenta" shade that T-Mobile uses, and does T-Mobile really own it as a trademark?
T-Mobile has undoubtedly been aggressive protecting magenta as a key part of its brand.  

In the more recent fight with Aio, T-Mobile's court filings reference a number of trademark registrations issued to its parent Deutsche Telekom AG for the color magenta alone, "which is the approximate equivalent of pantone matching system rhodamine red u, used on the background of product displays and advertisements found in a store."

However, the Washington Post notes that this trademark translates to hex #c63678 in the pantone color coding system.  The Post's reporters also noted that Aio's version of "magenta" maps to #960051.  In other words, not all magentas are the same, and it will be up to the District Court to sort out if there is a viable claim of infringement here.

But can T-Mobile really lay legal claim to a color to begin with?

The answer is absolutely, as a matter of established U.S. trademark law.  Colors can function as powerful indicators of source, when they are not serving a functional purpose.  A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court definitively pronounced on the subject in 1995, finding that colors could acquire distinctiveness over time, and serve the purpose of a trademark.  As we have also discussed, however, how this regime applies to individual cases is tricky.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Pirate Joe": Innocent Victim or Trader Joe's Nemesis?

An interesting set of legal issues has emerged in a trademark case arising out of conduct occurring in Vancouver, British Columbia. The popular supermarket chain Trader Joe's Company apparently does not operate any retail stores in Canada, but has 390 grocery stores in 30 states, including 14 in the state of Washington.

Consequently, each week, current Vancouver/former San Francisco resident Michael Hallatt drives his van across the international border to Seattle, Washington to purchase several thousand dollars worth of genuine Trader Joe's merchandise.  He then drives back to Vancouver and resells the goods at his own shop "Pirate Joe's", for a profit.

Trader Joe's has now filed suit against Hallatt in federal district court in Seattle, claiming that his conduct amounts to trademark infringement and unfair competition with the supermarket chain there.

Hallatt's lawyer has moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that the complained-of conduct is occurring entirely outside of the United States, is having no clear impact on U.S. commerce, and is therefore wholly outside of the U.S. federal courts' jurisdiction to regulate.

There are several quirky legal issues here.

Generally speaking, even conduct occurring outside the United States can have some effect on U.S. commerce, and could be lawfully regulated by federal courts.  For example, if some Vancouver residents were ordering online from Trader Joe's, but instead shop at Pirate Joe's, that allegation could have sufficient impact on the supermarket chain to sustain a possible cause of action for trademark infringement.  However, Trader Joe's website does not seem to offer any shipping options to British Columbia.  This threshold issue requires resolution.

Further, there may be an even deeper problem with Trader Joe's allegations of trademark infringement.

Typically, once an authentic item is sold for the first time, the intellectual property owner loses all right to control any further sale or redistribution of that item, regardless of whether the further sales occur within or outside of the U.S.

It is this "first sale" or "exhaustion" doctrine that permits both casual sellers on eBay or Craig's List, as well as secondhand antique shops and used car dealers to exist, without constant fear of being sued for patent, copyright or trademark infringement.

Since trademark laws exist primarily to protect the public from confusion, as long as the consumer is fully aware that he is not purchasing an original item from an authorized retailer, there is generally no trademark infringement or unfair competition occurring.  Hallatt noted in interviews that he posts large, conspicuous disclaimers so that customers in his store are aware that he is not operating a legitimate, authorized "Trader Joe's" establishment.

Matters get even more complicated once you add international borders to the mix.

Authentic items that are sold outside the United States and then imported for resale are often called "gray market" goods.  Gray market goods can present significant problems for those brand owners who have different quality control standards abroad as compared to the United States.  

For example, aspirin packaged and intended for sale in Mexico will be labeled differently (and may even have different dosages) than those bottles which are intended for U.S. markets.

When school text books were at issue, Justice Stephen Breyer writing for a 6-3 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2013, held that once the school textbooks were sold overseas, they were free and clear to be resold within the U.S., labeling notwithstanding.  This gray market would likely have an impact of lowering the prices of textbooks.

But here, the "gray market" is essentially operating in reverse:  Hallatt is traveling to the U.S. to purchase goods and reselling them in Canada, not vice versa.

In this context, even if Hallatt's sale of Trader Joe's goods to Vancouver residents could conceivably cause some kind of consumer confusion as to source, it is unclear how his conduct is having any appreciable impact on U.S. commerce, in light of the first sale doctrine.  

In other words, how is Trader Joe's actually injured if, instead of a Vancouver resident driving to Seattle, he instead essentially just pays a nominal fee to Hallatt to do it for him?  

In both cases, Trader Joe's is selling the same merchandise:  Hallatt is just an unauthorized middleman.  Assuming there is no confusion, Trader Joe's appears to be unharmed.

It will be very interesting to see how the district court in Seattle ultimately rules.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pop Art: Free Expression or Trademark Infringement?

A frequently-asked question of Intellectual Property lawyers relates to pop artists' use of famous, trademarked products in the context of artistic expression, and whether such uses are protected free speech, or are really nothing more than infringement and dilution cloaked in the guise of art.  Examples include Andy Warhol's famous paintings of Campbell's soup cans (above), as well as the juxtaposition of famous brand logos on guns and weapons of war such as Peter Gronquists' controversial uses (see below).  The legal analysis is not simple, and depends largely on the factual circumstances surrounding the use of the trademarked products.

A trademark is a word, symbol or design used to identify the source of a product. In order for a court to determine if the unauthorized use of a trademark constitutes unlawful infringement, at least eight (8) non-exhaustive factors are considered, including: (a) the strength of the mark; (b) degree of similarity between marks; (c) proximity of the products; (d) likelihood that senior user will bridge the gap between the goods; (e) actual confusion; (f) junior user's bad faith; (g) quality of the junior user's product; and (h) sophistication of the relevant consumers. Polaroid Corporation v. Polarad Electronics Corp., 287 F. 2d 492 (2nd Cir. 1961).  Additionally, the Court will consider if the use is "likely to dilute" the fame of a famous trademark through either blurring or tarnishment. 15 U.S.C. § 1125.

Even when grounds for a potential infringement or dilution claim exist, certain defenses are available to an artist depicting the trademarks in an artistic creation. Primarily, the artist may be able to defend the claim on the grounds of "fair use" of the trademark. However, fair use is an affirmative defense, which means that it is only asserted once the artist has been sued in court.
An illustrative case involving the use of trademarked products as part of an artistic creation is Mattel Inc. v. Walking Mountain Prods., 353 F.3d 792 (9th Cir. 2003). In that case, photographer Thomas Forsythe developed a photographic series entitled "Food Chain Barbie," which depicted Barbie dolls in various disturbing and provocative positions, such as being roasted in an oven or in a blender and fondue pot (see below):

Copyright Thomas Forsythe
After being sued by Mattel, Forsythe argued that his creative images attempted to "critique [ ] the objectification of women associated with [Barbie]," and to "lambast [ ] the conventional beauty myth and the societal acceptance of women as objects because this is what Barbie embodies." Id.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Forsythe's use of the Barbie dolls in this manner constituted fair use, as it was transformative, defining this requirement as: "add[ing] something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message." Id.
The Ninth Circuit explained that "when [trade]marks 'transcend their identifying purpose' and 'enter public discourse and become an integral part of our vocabulary,' they 'assume[ ] a role outside the bounds of trademark law.' Where a mark assumes such cultural significance, First Amendment protections come into play: '[T]he trademark owner does not have the right to control public discourse whenever the public imbues his mark with a meaning beyond its source-identifying function.'" Id.
To try to address concerns about exposure to claims for trademark infringement, some artists incorporate disclaimers in their catalogs or on websites that advise the consumer that the use of the trademarks is not licensed or authorized by the trademark owner. While a disclaimer can help address possible confusion, it does not guarantee freedom from liability.
Ultimately, to prevail in convincing a Court that a particular use of a trademark in a painting or photograph is sufficiently transformative to shield that use behind the First Amendment, will depend on the facts of the given case.
The legal outcome, much as the appreciation of the pop art itself, may very well depend on the viewpoint of the beholder.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Understanding Trademark Bullying

Many successful companies seeking to aggressively protect their intellectual property portfolio of valuable brands have been accused of becoming “trademark bullies.”  Their accusers argue that rather than using a reasoned, measured approach to address actual commercial threats, these large brand owners deliberately use the specter of civil litigation to threaten alleged infringers into submission.

Trademark infringement litigation may be brought either in federal court, or can also be commenced by opposing or seeking to cancel trademark applications in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) in a lengthy and byzantine administrative proceeding that can last years and cost the parties thousands of dollars.  Because the cost of litigating trademark disputes can be prohibitive, especially for smaller companies or individuals, many accused infringers choose to settle or otherwise resolve their conflict without the merits of the underlying conflict ever being adjudicated.

Consequently, commentators -- and sometimes even the brands’ own customer base – have vocally accused some brand owners of overzealously enforcing their perceived trademark rights against others in a manner that smacks of bad faith or anticompetitive conduct used to squelch competition or free speech.

Why would savvy and well-represented companies sometimes risk going too far and potentially alienating their own customer base?  While every case is different, under existing U.S. Intellectual Property law, an established brand may very well face a Hobson’s choice:  risk the ire of an angry mob, or face ongoing brand erosion and even extinction in a world of ever-expanding fakes and imitators.  A few examples of alleged "trademark bullying" warrant mentioning:

  • Chick-Fil-A sells more than $4B of sandwiches each year.  The company’s humorous “EAT MOR CHIKIN” trademarked slogan held up by aggrieved cattle (see right), became an instant hit for the company’s efforts at marketing and promotion.  When a small local farmer named Mr. Muller-Moore sought to federally register the “EAT MORE KALE” slogan in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the corporation opposed his application on the grounds that his mark was likely to cause confusion with their slogan.

  • Hansen Beverage Company, maker of the popular “MONSTER ENERGY DRINK” sent Rock Art Brewery a letter demanding that Rock Art cease and desist its use of “VERMONSTER” as a trademark for beer.  Ultimately, after a public outcry on Twitter, the parties settled their dispute outside of court, with Rock Art permitted to keep selling their brew.

  • Non-profit Susan G. Komen for the Cure opposes dozens of trademark applications for wording that includes “FOR A CURE” or “FOR THE CURE.”  When the charity opposed an application for “MUSH FOR THE CURE” sought by a local non-profit, it became national news. 

So what do each of these four examples have in common? Each circumstance may seem like an example of brand protection gone awry, and perhaps they are.

However, Difficult Legal Lines Must Inevitably Be Drawn

It is worth reminding their critics that if each of these brand owners had not acted to draw a line in the sand, they would undoubtedly face the prospect of closer and closer copyists, and eventually encounter even more widespread infringement.  Where any specific line between infringer and innocent victim is drawn in each case is another matter, but it is clear that a legal line still must be drawn somewhere, and the clear incentive for brand owners under current law is to be zealously protective of their investment in their brands.

One legal reason for brand owners to be zealous is that in the event of a brand owner’s complete failure to act, their targets may be entitled to legally rely on the affirmative defense that their delay has been inexcusable.  This potentially crippling defense is known as “estoppel by laches” or “laches” for short.  The laches defense is also sometimes described as "estoppel by acquiescence."

Similar to an undefined statute of limitations, laches may be available as a defense when an infringer was actually known about by the Plaintiff, or even should have been known about under the circumstances, and the delay in bringing suit was inexcusable.

An essential element of laches is the requirement that the party invoking the doctrine has somehow changed its position as a result of the delay.  In other words, the defendant is now in a worse position than at the time the claim should have been brought.  For example, the delay in asserting the claim may have caused the defendant to open up more stores, hire more employees and build up its own reputation in reliance on the brand owner’s unfair inaction.

Even worse yet, if a brand owner fails to act against numerous infringers in the marketplace, it may very well face the dire prospect of losing its trademark altogether under a doctrine known as “genericide.”  

Some words that started out as brand names and “killed” by such widespread genericide are: aspirin, bundt cake, cellophane, dry ice, escalator,
 granola, kerosene, linoleum, minibike, nylon,
 pogostick, tarmac, thermos, touch-tone, trampoline,
 yo-yo and zipper.

In each of these cases, the brand owner failed to act to sufficiently police the marketplace to stop widespread third-party unauthorized uses.  Ultimately, these erstwhile brands passed into the netherworld of “dead” trademarks, devoid of legal protection altogether.

But Are These Extreme Historical Examples of Genericide that Can’t Recur Today?

Harris Interactive released a list of products ranked by brand equity, a measure of the brand's popularity with U.S. consumers.  Among the top 10 are Ziploc food bags, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Candy Bars, Kleenex Facial Tissues, Clorox Bleach, WD-40 Spray Lubricant, Heinz Ketchup, Windex Glass Cleaner and Campbell’s Soups.  In other words, some of the most valuable and well-known trademarks in the world.

It is clear from this list alone that success in today's marketplace can be a double-edged sword.  The companies who manufacture these products have done an incredible job in advertising and marketing them, so successful in some cases that the brand name is in danger of becoming a genericized trademark.  If the companies on this list aren't zealous, they could end up losing the trademark for the products that they have worked so hard to market successfully.

Ultimately, trademark law is intended to protect consumers and companies from confusion with established brands.  Quality control and brand reputation are crucial in today's marketplace, and zealous trademark protections are a perfectly logical and legal way to protect customers from fraud, and to give companies the tools they need to protect their valuable investment.  In conclusion, in this age of rampant counterfeiting and infringement, it is important to fully understand why in their zeal to protect their valuable brands, aggressive tactics can seem like a viable option for brand owners, even if sometimes they risk going too far.