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It is the new year and a lot of us resolved to work out more and get stronger. But don’t limit your strength training to just your muscles–your trademarks deserve a little boost as well!?

Why is trademark strength important?

U.S. trademark law recognizes a spectrum of distinctiveness that provides a sliding scale of trademark protectability. Judge Pierre Leval defined trademark strength as the amount of “legal muscle” possessed by a given mark.

The stronger the mark, the more uses the trademark owner may exclude from the marketplace through a trademark infringement or dilution action. Stronger marks are able to exclude more similar marks from the marketplace. Such increases can happen along two fronts: “appearance” of the trademark and the “goods or services” the trademark protects. The stronger a registered trademark is on the “appearance” dimension, the less similar the look, sound, and spelling a third-party’s mark must be in order to risk being excluded by the registered trademark. The stronger a registered trademark is on the “goods or services” dimension, the less similar the goods or services offered by a competitor using the same or similar marks must be in order to risk being excluded by the registered trademark.

A trademark’s relative strength or weakness will also have a direct bearing on its performance in the market. A mark that is highly distinctive functions as a strong mark, identifying the owner as the source of the covered products or services. When a mark is not distinctive or it may already be used by others on or in connection with different products or services, the mark is considered weak.

Therefore, trademark strength is extremely important for trademark owners as it has a strong impact on the value of the trademarks to their owners. It is generally easier and less costly for a trademark owner to acquire and enforce exclusive rights in a strong trademark that is distinctive and unique than one that is descriptive or highly diluted, i.e., widely used.

How is a mark’s strength or weakness gauged?

The relative strength or weakness of a trademark may be gauged by placing the trademark on a spectrum. The types of trademarks discussed below range from the strongest to the weakest.

  • Fanciful or Coined Marks. A fanciful or coined mark is at the strongest end of the spectrum because it is inherently distinctive. Such a mark consists of an invented word that is a combination of letters that has no meaning. For example: GOOGLE for online services, PEPSI for soft drinks, ROLEX for watches, and XEROX for copiers. Since a fanciful or coined mark has no inherent meaning, in the beginning, a bigger effort in terms of advertising is necessary in order to educate the public as to the relationship between the invented word and the owner’s product or service. However, these marks enjoy the broadest scope of protection against third-party use.
  • Arbitrary Marks. An arbitrary mark is composed of a word or words that have a common meaning in the language of the relevant jurisdiction; however, that meaning is unrelated to the goods or services for which the mark is used. Arbitrary marks, such as CAMEL for cigarettes and APPLE for computers, are considered highly distinctive in identifying and distinguishing products or services. As with fanciful or coined marks, the public must be educated as to the association of the arbitrary mark with the relevant product or service, but the scope of protection obtained is very broad.
  • Suggestive Marks. A suggestive mark gives consumers some sense of the nature of the products or services that a business will provide without actually describing the product or service. A suggestive mark is one that requires “a mental leap from the mark to the product”, or, “the consumer’s imagination, thought, and perception to reach a conclusion as to the nature of the goods or services.” Variety Stores, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 888 F.3d 651, 662 (4th Cir. 2018). Examples of suggestive marks are AIRBUS for airplanes and NETFLIX for streaming services. Suggestive marks can possess an inherent element of sales appeal and will require less education of the public than coined or arbitrary marks; for this reason, generally, suggestive marks are entitled to less-extensive protection.
  • Descriptive Marks. In general, a descriptive mark is a word (or words) that merely describes a product or that contains ingredients or attributes that are too weak to function as a trademark. An example of a merely descriptive mark would be COLD AND CREAMY for ice cream. Such a mark is very unlikely to be granted registration, as the phrase merely describes an attribute of the product. Words that merely describe an attribute, feature, end result, or use of the product, or the persons employed in its production, generally are not granted trademark protection. Merely laudatory terms such as “best” or “quality” also are generally not registrable. In some jurisdictions, surnames are treated as descriptive marks. What is initially a descriptive word may later become protectable as a trademark if it acquires secondary meaning. In other words, if a descriptive word is used and advertised exclusively as a trademark for a sufficient period of time, it may, in addition to having the primary meaning that is descriptive of the product, come to identify the mark as being associated with a single source of origin for that product. An example of a descriptive word that has acquired a secondary meaning and become protectable as a trademark is SHARP for televisions.
  • Generic Words. A generic word can be thought of as the common name of the product or service in question—for example, “clock” is a generic word for timepieces. Such words can never be appropriated by a single party as trademarks for the products or services they signify, since the public perceives and uses them solely as common nouns or terms. Generic words or phrases are not registrable or protectable in relation to the products or services they signify.

How to select a strong trademark?

As a trademark applicant, you should try your best to come up with a strong new trademark that is inherently distinctive. The strongest types of trademarks are (1) fanciful or coined marks, such as EXXON for petroleum products, KODAK for photography company; and (2) arbitrary marks, such as AMAZON for retail services, APPLE for computers, SHELL for gasoline, and BLACKBERRY for cell phones. 

There are many resources online that can help you with the naming process of your brand. For example, what we found on this website: https://guide.onym.co/ or the books like “Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits.” Check out our other blog post on how to choose a business name here

If you need help with determining your proposed trademark’s strength, 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! 

Did you know that color, sound, scent, and hashtags can be protected by trademarks? 

Traditionally, trademarks are words or symbols used to identify the source of a product or service. Most trademarks are word marks such as COCA-COLA; or design marks/logos such as ; and slogans, such as Coca-Cola’s “It’s The Real Thing.”

However, the list of things that can be registered as trademarks under the Lanham Act is actually very broad. There are practically no limitations to the subject matter of registrable marks, so long as the mark is capable of acting as an identifier of source, whether because it is inherently distinctive, or it has acquired distinctiveness and the mark is not functional.

Here is a list of non-traditional trademarks: 

Color Mark

The registrability of a color mark depends on the manner in which the proposed color mark is used. Color takes on the characteristics of the object or surface to which it is applied, and the commercial impression of color will change accordingly. Color marks are never inherently distinctive, and cannot be registered on the Principal Register without a showing of acquired distinctiveness.

Color, whether a single overall color or multiple colors applied in a specific and arbitrary fashion, is usually perceived as an ornamental feature of the goods or services. However, color can function as a mark if it is used in the manner of a trademark or service mark and if it is perceived by the purchasing public to identify and distinguish the goods or services on or in connection with which it is used and to indicate their source. 

Sound and Scent Mark 

A sound mark identifies and distinguishes a product or service through audio rather than visual means. Sound marks function as source indicators when they “assume a definite shape or arrangement” and “create in the listener’s mind an association of the sound” with a good or service. Some famous sound trademarks include the iconic ticking of 60 Minutes’ stopwatch that CBS trademarked and the sound of a lightsaber, FYI, is described as “an oscillating humming buzz created by combining feedback from a microphone with a projector motor sound.”

Some scents that are protected by trademarks include the scent of Play-Doh, which is described as “a unique scent formed through the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough;” and the “flowery musk scent” in verizon stores.

A trademark applicant that wishes to register a sound or a scent trademark is not required to submit a drawing if the mark consists only of a sound, a scent, or other completely non-visual matter.  For these types of marks, the applicant must submit a detailed description of the mark.

Hashtag Mark

A “hashtag” is a form of metadata consisting of a word or phrase prefixed with the symbol “#”. Hashtags are often used on social networking sites to identify or facilitate a search for a keyword or topic of interest. 

As hashtags became increasingly more popular on social media, in 2013 the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recognized hashtags as registrable trademarks “only if [the mark] functions as an identifier of the source of the applicant’s goods or services.” The addition of the term HASHTAG or the hash symbol (#) to an otherwise unregistrable mark typically will not render it registrable.

Some examples of hashtag mark the USPTO has granted registration include: 

#EVERYDAYMADEWELL for “online retail store and retail store services in the fields of clothing, footwear, bags, sunglasses, jewelry, watches, and fashion accessories”

#HOWDOYOUKFC for “restaurant services

#THESELFIE for “photography and videography equipment, namely, remote shutter releases

Unique challenges applicants of non-traditional trademarks face

Federal registration of trademarks generally confers certain benefits to the trademark owner However, non-traditional trademarks face unique challenges that traditional trademarks don’t face in registering with the USPTO. Non-traditional trademarks can take longer and cost more to register and in addition to the distinctiveness and non-functionality hurdles, challenges exist in clearing the marks for registration due to the complexity involved in searching Non-traditional trademarks on TESS; fulfilling technical requirements for registration involved in providing the appropriate drawing and specimens for marks that are not easily depicted on paper; and the unique unpredictability due to a lack of successful precedents to provide guidance. Even if it is registered, a non-traditional trademark may be difficult to enforce. Furthermore, the inherent challenges in searching non-traditional marks make it hard to monitor infringement of the mark. 

If you need help with your non-traditional trademark, contact us today to discuss your trademark protection strategies with an experienced trademark practitioner.

When starting a company, your brand is of your most valuable assets. However, an often overlooked area of creating and launching a brand is trademark protection.

Entrepreneurs often wonder whether it is worth filing for a federal trademark. While you establish some rights the moment you start using a brand, there are significant advantages to registering your name, logo, or packaging design.

Here are nine advantages to filing for and obtaining federal trademark protection on the Principal Trademark Register:

  1. Prima facie evidence of validity and the registrant’s ownership of the mark.
  2. Constructive nationwide use of the mark.
  3. Federal court subject matter jurisdiction over infringement and other trademark claims without a showing of diversity or minimum amount in controversy.
  4. Statutory remedies for federal trademark infringement claims, including, under certain circumstances:
    • treble damages; and
    • recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs.
  5. Constructive notice of ownership, which eliminates the defenses of good faith use and innocent adoption.
  6. The right to use ® and other notices of federal registration.
  7. After five years the registration may, subject to limited exceptions, become incontestable and be deemed conclusive evidence of the owner’s exclusive rights to use the mark.
  8. A registration may be recorded with US Customs to stop the importation of infringing, counterfeit, and gray market goods.
  9. A registration may provide a basis for registering the mark in foreign countries.

Not all trademarks will qualify for the Principal Register. However, understanding your options and the best ways to register and protect your brand is a worthwhile investment. Contact us today to discuss your brand protection strategies with an experienced trademark practitioner.

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