The Trademark Modernization of 2020 (“TMA”) was signed into law on December 27, 2020, as part of the COVID-19 relief and government funding bill. It will be fully implemented and take effect on December 27, 2021. TMA brought some remarkable changes to the United States Trademark Act of 1946, a.k.a. the Lanham Act, that will significantly affect brand owners in the U.S.
TMA Codifies Rules for the “Letters of Protest” Practice
There has been a long-standing yet not well-known practice of the USPTO, called the “letter of protest,” which allows third parties to submit evidence to the USPTO prior to registration, regarding a trademark’s registrability. Before the TMA, the USPTO did not have a formal process in place for submitting or reviewing these letters of protest, and it has resulted in the underutilization of this process. The TMA formalizes this letter of protest process for submitting evidence against pending third-party trademark applications by giving it statutory authority. The letter of protest submissions must identify each legal ground for an examining attorney to refuse registration or issue a requirement, include evidence that supports those grounds, and a concise description for each piece of supporting evidence. Following the passage of the TMA, the USPTO issued rules setting out the letter of protest procedures and a $50.00 fee for these submissions that went into effect on January 2, 2021. TMA requires the USPTO to act on submissions of letters of protest within two months of receipt.
The codified letter of protest process under the TMA provides third-parties with a simpler and cheaper procedure compared to the traditional opposition procedure, which limits third parties believing that they may be damaged by the federal registration of a mark to file an opposition during a 30-day opposition period occurring just before registration of the mark in question and pay the expensive opposition filing fees (increased to $600.00 per class from $400.00 this year).
- Takeaway: Any brand owner now may use this simpler and inexpensive formal process to attempt to intervene in a third-party application for a trademark that may conflict with your mark, or that you believe should otherwise be refused registration, by asking the USPTO to consider evidence that it may not otherwise have in the examination record. On the other hand, the letter of protest process may also be disadvantageous to some brand owners by making it more difficult to secure a trademark registration. To help make the most of this new process, brand owners should consider setting up trademark watch services that alert the brand owner to pending applications for marks that may conflict with the brand owner’s mark.
TMA Enables the USPTO to Shorten Office Action Response Deadlines to Anywhere Between 2 Months and 6 Months
In order to free the USPTO trademark register from numerous illegitimate trademark applications that are not actually used in the U.S. commerce, TMA gives the USPTO the authority to set office action response periods that are shorter than the current six-month response time, but not less than 60 days from the Office Action issuance date. If needed, the applicant may request to extend the shortened response deadline to up to six months.
- Takeaway: Brand owners now must pay special attention to the actual response deadline upon receipt of an Office Action, as we may start seeing much shorter response periods than the six-month response deadline that we are used to.
TMA Creates New Ex Parte Expungement and Reexamination Proceedings as New Methods for Seeking Cancellation of a Third-party Trademark Registration
Before the passage of the TMA, the USPTO permits inter-parte Cancellation proceedings that are similar to court litigation against trademark registrations, which occur before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). There are a number of grounds on which someone may petition to cancel a third-party registration, including the registration owner’s abandonment or lack of use of the registered mark in interstate commerce.
TMA provides a new post-registration procedure for ex parte expungement of certain improperly granted registrations. Specifically, it allows anyone to petition the USPTO to expunge a registration, either in whole or in part, where there are specific goods or services listed in the registration for which the trademark has never been used in U.S. commerce. This new procedure must be brought between three to ten years after the registration date.
On the other hand, a reexamination proceeding may be initiated against a registration any time before the fifth year following the registration date for any registration based on use in commerce. The new trademark reexamination procedure provides a process for challenging registrations based upon a false, but not necessarily fraudulent, declaration of the mark’s use in association with the goods and services identified in the registration. When preparing a trademark application, applicants often include many (or all) of the goods and services that fall within the “class” of goods or services initially selected by the applicant. Trademark applicants often try to include as many goods and services as possible under the same class because their filing fee covers the registration of a mark under the entire class. However, this practice violates the spirit of the law, which requires actual use of the mark in association with each good or service identified in the registration. To rectify the proliferation of overzealous registrations resulting from this practice, TMA’s reexamination procedure allows for the cancellation from the registration, each good or service with which the mark was not being used as of the filing date of the mark’s declaration of use.
For both the Ex Parte Expungement and Reexamination proceedings, the USPTO’s decision to cancel a registration is appealable, and these proceedings may be initiated against registrations that registered before or after enactment of the TMA.
- Takeaway: It is critical for brand owners to make sure that they actually provide all the goods and services listed in their trademark registrations, or be exposed to the risk of losing part or all of their registrations for lack of use in commerce.
TMA Restores the Rebuttable Presumption of Irreparable Harm for Plaintiffs Seeking Injunctive Relief in Trademark Infringement Cases.
Before TMA, in order for a trademark infringement plaintiff to obtain a court-ordered injunction against a defendant to stop the defendant from continuing to use the disputed mark, the plaintiff must prove several elements, including that the plaintiff will be irreparably harmed without the injunction. In recent years, the federal circuit courts in the United States have been split on whether the irreparable harm element should be presumed in trademark infringement cases where the court has found either infringement (for a permanent injunction) or that the plaintiff is likely to be successful on the merits of its infringement claim (for a preliminary injunction).
The TMA resolves the circuit split by codifying into law that trademark infringement plaintiffs shall be entitled to a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm without the injunction upon a finding of trademark infringement or likelihood of success on the merits, depending on whether the plaintiff is seeking a permanent or preliminary injunction.
- Takeaway: Brand owners now have a reduced evidentiary burden for obtaining injunctive relief to protect their trademark rights. A brand owner who proves infringement will enjoy a favorable legal presumption that the harm caused by continued infringement will be irreparable.
If you need help with registering a new trademark with the USPTO, contact us today to discuss your trademark protection strategies with an experienced trademark attorney. Schedule an appointment with us to schedule a free initial consultation!