16 July, 2019

That's Just Offensive - US Supreme Court Allows for the Registration of 'Immoral' Trademarks

The notion of morality is deeply embedded in human society, coloring most facets of it in some ways. Whether it is laws prohibiting deplorable actions, or simply stopping you from saying hateful things (in some jurisdictions), morality is an important part of the legislative framework. In the world of IP you rarely deal with issues of morality, but sometimes they do crop up. In the last few years, the registration of 'disparaging' trademarks has been a hot topic in the US (discussed more here and here), but what about marks that one could class as immoral? The Supreme Court were therefore tasked with deciding this part of trademark law, and handed down their judgment very recently.

The case of Iancu v Brunetti concerned an application to register the mark "FUCT", which was the brand of Mr Brunetti's clothing line. Under examination by the USPTO, the application was rejected due to it being immoral due to vulgarity under 15 USC 1052(a). Mr Brunetti subsequently appealed the decision, arguing that it infringes on his First Amendment right to free speech, with the case ultimately landing on the Supreme Court's desk.

As decided in the Tam case, preventing the registration of 'disparaging' trademarks violated the First Amendment as it "...discriminate[d] against ideas that offend". The grounds for rejecting trademarks that are 'immoral' falls within the same provision of US legislation as rejecting the registration of 'disparaging' ones.

Justice Kagan, handing down the majority's judgment, swiftly determined that the provision similarly violates the First Amendment. The Government argued that the prohibition was a viewpoint-neutral one, and would only be restricted to certain kinds of immorality, therefore being somewhat restricted. The Court didn't buy this argument, and saw that "...It covers the universe of immoral or scandalous—or (to use some PTO synonyms) offensive or disreputable—material". This means that almost anything that fits that criteria could therefore be rejected by the USPTO.

The Court honed matters down further, noting that the provision aims to suppress certain views, albeit 'immoral' ones, and would violate free speech., even if allegedly captured through the use of "viewpoint-neutral" legislative language.

Justice Kagan wrapped matters up by drawing a line in the sand: "There are a great many immoral and scandalous ideas in the world (even more than there are swearwords), and the Lanham Act covers them all. It therefore violates the First Amendment".

While most Supreme Court decisions are incredibly important, the decision in this case is in no way revolutionary. The Court has clearly put an end to the limitation on registering negative trademarks, no matter how offensive or immoral. Applicants can therefore rejoice over the possibility to go ham on registering ever-more offensive marks to their hearts' content...

09 July, 2019

Walking the Dotted Line - CJEU Decides on what Dotted Lines mean in Trademark Applications

The Devil is often in the details, especially when applying to register trademarks and/or patents. Sometimes the smallest of 'mistakes' or strategic choices could lead to the revocation or devaluation of your IP, so it is important to be sure you have set out the exact parameters in the best way possible to avoid potential issues. One such matter is how trademarks are presented in graphical form, including dotted lines (the Trunki case being a good example of when the illustration of a mark really mattered). With this in mind, how does the inclusion of dotted lines in trademark applications impact the mark, and can they be excluded as being simply illustrative?

The case of Deichmann SE v EUIPO concerned the registration of a trademark involving a cross design on the side of a shoe, where the shoe itself was marked using dotted lines to illustrate the position of the mark (EUTM 2923852). Infringement proceedings involving the mark were initiated by Deichmann 6 years after the registration of the mark, and the other party, Munich SL, counterclaimed for revocation and invalidity. The matter then ultimately ended with the CJEU for determination.

The crux of the matter is whether the mark can be revoked under Article 51 of the EU Trade Mark Regulation for a lack of genuine use in the EU. What the Court also had to consider was whether the mark was a figurative or a position mark, and whether that was an irrelevant fact for the determination of genuine use.

Does it really count if I signed on a dotted line?
The Court considered that "…it [is] irrelevant whether the mark at issue should be regarded as a position mark or a figurative mark". The General Court had previously determined that the mark was a figurative mark at the same time as being a position mark – which the Court agreed with. They further noted that "…‘position marks’ are similar to the categories of figurative and three-dimensional marks as they related to the application of three-dimensional elements to the surface of a product", and the distinction between a figurative and a position mark in the light of distinctiveness is irrelevant.

Similarly it was irrelevant to the assessment of genuine use. The Court emphasised that the acquisition of genuine use is analogous to that of distinctiveness, therefore rendering the distinction between a figurative and a position mark unnecessary for genuine use.

The Court then looked at the mark itself, which they saw consisted of "…broken or ‘dotted’ lines, which represent the appearance of the product covered by that mark, and two solid lines, representing an affixed cross". The dotted line therefore clearly denotes the location of the mark itself, rather than forming a part of the mark, i.e. making it a position mark.

The mark had been registered as a figurative mark, and even though the above sets it out as a position mark, this ultimately does not matter in the light of the mark's registration.

The case is by no means revolutionary, but does draw a line in the law in the light of dotted lines. Most of the time common sense prevails, and applicants can let out a sigh of relief in their world of dotted outlines.

11 June, 2019

We All Knew That - UK Supreme Court Rules on Patent Obviousness

Patents afford great protection for inventions, but have high threshold in order to ensure that few patents that disclose nothing new are issued. AS one can imagine from common sense, anything that is patented needs to not be obvious, as this would allow for the protection of something that lacks sufficient invention to merit protection. After all, if it is obvious, how can you claim you've invented or found it? Even with this is mind, what makes a patent 'obvious'? In a long awaited decision by the UK Supreme Court, the matter was (finally) put to bed, at least in the UK.

The case of Actavis Group PTC EHF v ICOS Corporation concerned a dosage patent owned by ICOS (EP1173181), which related to the use of tadalafil (more commonly known as Cialis) in a dosage form for the treatment of sexual dysfunction. The patent was exclusively licenced to Eli Lilly. Actavis initiated proceedings to revoke the patent, arguing that it was obvious (among other points), with the matter ultimately ending up with the Supreme Court.

The main point of contention in the case is section 3 of the Patents Act 1977, which sets out that "…an invention shall be taken to involve an inventive step if it is not obvious to a person skilled in the art, having regard to any matter which forms part of the state of the art". Put differently, an inventive step (a necessary component for being able to patent something) cannot include something that is 'obvious' to a person skilled in the art, having considered anything that forms the state of the art in which they are skilled in.

Typically the courts follow two tests on determining obviousness; (i) the Windsurfing/Pozzolli structure; and (ii) the EPO's problem-and-solution method.

The question of obviousness, as set out in Conor Medsystems Inc v Angiotech Pharmaceuticals Inc., concerns an undetermined set of factors in the light of all the relevant circumstances. These may include "…the motive to find a solution to the problem the patent addresses, the number and extent of the possible avenues of research, the effort involved in pursuing them and the expectation of success".

Lord Hodge then set out a number of factors that he considered were relevant to the case at hand. Without diving deeply into each one of them (totaling at nine different factors), they included:

  • whether it was obvious to undertake a specific piece of research, at the priority date, which had a reasonable or fair prospect of success;
  • the routine nature of the research and any established practice of following such research through to a particular point;
  • the burden and cost of the research programme; and
  • the necessity for and the nature of the value judgments which the skilled team would have in the course of a testing programme.
Additionally, as the patent concerned is a dosage patent for the drug, one has to also take into consideration whether the specific dosage is indeed obvious.

The Court finally moved onto consider whether the patent in question was obvious. This began with the acknowledgement that it was obvious for the skilled team to pursue the pre-clinical and clinical research in order to implement the patent. The target for the research was also indeed to identify the appropriate dosage regime for tadalafil in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. The dosages tested would have included doses that were as low as described in the patent. This would, contrary to the decision at first instance, point to the patent being obvious more than not.

Clearly, as discussed by the Court, the approach to finding the correct dose would've been a 'no brainer' for the relevant skilled experts, and the patent was determined to be obvious. This was not contradicted even if following the EPO's problem-and-solution method.

In short, the Court found that "…the Court of Appeal was entitled to interfere with the trial judge’s assessment of obviousness and to hold that the… patent was invalid for lacking an inventive step".

The decision took a long hard look at the tests surrounding obviousness, and will clearly help further assessments of the same question in the future. The decision does also allow for the acceptance of routine or well-established inquiry as patentable subject matter, even if in this instance the dosage was obvious. 

04 June, 2019

It Ends Now - US Supreme Court Decides on Trademark Licence Expiry on Bankruptcy

An often overlooked facet of business is the aftermath of bankruptcy, particularly in commercial arrangements that don't directly involve a debt to the solvent third party. An example of such an arrangement is trademark licencing, where the party licensing a trademark merely enjoys the benefit of using the mark, and does not have any monies owed to them through the use of the mark (to put things very simply by way of example). One question that hasn't been fully answered in the US is what happens to the licence after the licensor goes bankrupt. The Court of Appeals has been torn on the issue of whether the company going bankrupt can effectively cancel the licence, which has now been looked at by the Supreme Court, who handed their decision in late May.

The case of Mission Product Holdings Inc. v Tempnology LLC concerned the brand "Coolcore", which was owned by Tempnology. The mark had been licenced to Mission in the US and worldwide and also exclusively allowed them to distribute certain Coolcore products in the US. Tempnology filed for bankruptcy during the licence term, and subsequently requested the 'rejection' (i.e. revocation) of the licence through the US Bankruptcy Court. Mission challenged the rejection of the licence, with the matter ultimately ending up with the Supreme Court.

Under section 365(a) of the US Bankruptcy Code the debtor gives a debtor the option, subject to court approval, to "assume or reject any executory contract", i.e. a contract that neither party has finished performing prior to the bankruptcy proceedings. Any rejection of a contract under the provision is an immediate breach of that agreement under contract law, giving the other party the possible route of seeking damages as a result of that breach.

Michael's strategy was no longer a desirable option
In considering the actual meaning of the provision, the Court set out that the section is there to preserve the rights owned by the company before bankruptcy in bankruptcy, and similarly cannot expand on those rights in the same vein. Any trustee in bankruptcy would, therefore, retain those rights and obligations even once bankruptcy proceedings have begun. The Court continued that "…If trustees (or debtors) could use rejection to rescind previously granted interests, then rejection would become functionally equivalent to avoidance… [and] would roll back a prior transfer". The Court was therefore very careful in protecting granted rights, even in the event of bankruptcy.

The Court also rejected Tempnology's argument that, due to exceptions being present in section 365 (providing for protection after 'rejection' to specific parties), that all other parties would therefore not be protected in the same way, including trademark licensees.

Ultimately, the Court therefore held that, under section 365(a), a rejection of a trademark licence under the provision would amount to a breach of contract, and therefore the company cannot rescind that the contract previously granted.

The decision gives needed clarity due to a split in the Court of Appeals Circuits, but does raise further uncertainties that will need to be answered in the future. This writer understands that those would include the scope of non-debtor parties' post-rejection rights under law outside of bankruptcy. In any event, the decision will have a big impact on any bankruptcy proceedings, and companies will have to take heed if any bankruptcy involves trademark licences.

09 May, 2019

It's all the Same - US Court of Appeals Considers When a Trademark is Generic

Having a well-known brand along with an innovative product can be a cruel mistress to many companies. As your product becomes the market leader, and your brand 'the brand' within that category, there is a risk that your trademark can come under threat of becoming generic. This writer for one has caught himself many times asking someone to "Google" something (found to not be a generic term) or referring to sticky bandages as "Band-Aids" - both of which are examples of misusing a trademark and illustrate the perils of becoming 'the brand'. This issue is rarely litigated extensively in the courts, but a recent case in the US Court of Appeals took it on again and giving us yet more insight into how the courts determine if a trademark is generic or not.

The case of Booking.com BV v USPTO concerned applications by Booking.com to register the name "BOOKING.COM" in a few variations. The marks were initially rejected by both the USPTO and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which considered that the mark was generic as applied to the relevant services, finally succeeding with the District Court. The matter was ultimately appealed to the Court of Appeals, who was tasked with determining whether the mark is generic or not.

In terms of provenance of whether a mark is generic or not, according to the Court, the onus lies on the USPTO to prove this is indeed the case.

The Court then moved onto setting out the test to determine whether a mark is generic or not. The test consists of three factors: (i) identify the class of product or service to which use of the mark is relevant; (ii) identify the relevant consuming public; and (iii) determine whether the primary significance of the mark to the relevant public is as an indication of the nature of the class of the product or services to which the mark relates, which suggests that it is generic, or an indication of the source or brand, which suggests that it is not generic. Once a mark has been deemed to be generic, it cannot become distinctive.

To book or not to book - that is the question
Both parties agreed that, in relation to the first and second steps, the mark is used to identify the class or product to which it belongs (i.e. making hotel reservations for others) and the relevant purchasing public consists of consumers who use hotel reservation services offered via the internet or in person. What remains at issue is the third step, i.e. "…the public's understanding of what the term BOOKING.COM primarily refers to".

In considering the public's understanding of a term the courts may look at "…purchaser testimony, consumer surveys, listings and dictionaries, trade journals, newspapers, and other publications". To ascertain whether the same term is understood to primarily refer to the service or the source the Courts consider the proposed mark as a whole.

The Court subsequently had to consider whether the USPTO's evidence that the public use "booking.com" generically, and whether the inclusion of a top-level domain to a generic second-level domain 'booking' means the mark is necessarily generic.

The USPTO failed to show in their evidence that the mark had become generic. Even though other domain names featured the term 'booking', these alone didn't make the mark generic since the term 'booking' is used to book a multitude of things, not just hotels. Consumers, therefore, wouldn't necessarily understand the mark to automatically mean the provision of hotel booking services. Booking.com's consumer survey also indicated that over 70% of consumers identified the mark as meaning the company, and not just any booking service for hotels. The mark was descriptive, and not generic. The Court of Appeals, therefore, rejected the USPTO's first argument.

The USPTO then argued that the addition of the second-level domain ".com" meant that the mark was necessarily generic.

The Court followed by expanding on its considerations of compound marks, like Booking.com. This focusses on how the public perceives the mark as a whole, not simply as a collation of separate constituent parts. Leading from this the Court noted that the addition of ".com" doesn't in itself make a mark generic, as the public's perception would have to be considered in the light of the whole mark. Additionally, even though the mark describes the activity within the website "...it does not necessarily follow that the public commonly understands the mark to refer to the service broadly speaking". The Court, therefore, rejected the argument on the addition of ".com" making a mark generic.

The Court finally noted that, even though the mark does describe the activity of booking something via a website (specifically hotels), it doesn't prevent others from using the mark in a different context, e.g. booking a car rental or travel tickets.

The case does provide further discussion of an important facet of trademark law in the US, which isn't often touched upon by the courts. While the subject matter is somewhat established, it sets out in more detail the world of trademarks in an online environment, which is growing in importance as we become more and more entwined in an online marketplace.

24 April, 2019

It Ain't Bad - Advocate General Kotott Considers Bad Faith in TM Applications

Picking the right trademark can sometimes feel like it's the make-or-break moment for a brand, particularly when you are building a brand from nothing. Maybe taking 'inspiration' from a very well-known brand might be the boost you need, since people might naturally gravitate to your brand thinking it is another – but of course without meaning it is that one! Toeing the line of registering a trademark in bad faith is a tough one, since when is an application truly made in bad faith? This issue hasn't been touched on by the EU courts in a while, and in the lead-up to a CJEU decision Advocate General Kokott has given their two cents in a recently published opinion discussing this very issue.

The case of Koton Ma─čazacilik Tekstil Sanayi ve Ticaret v EUIPO concerned the application for the registration of a figurative mark by Nadal Esteban for the trademark "STYLO & KOTON", with the letters o written using symbols that look like flowers (EUTM 9917436). The application was opposed by Koton, who had earlier rights in the figurative trademark "KOTON", in which the letter o was also written using flowers. Koton argued that Mr Esteban's mark had been registered in bad faith, and should be declared invalid. After a rejection most recently by the EUIPO General Court, the matter has moved for determination by the CJEU, with the AG issuing their opinion ahead of the decision.

Under Article 52(1)(b) of the Trade Mark Regulation, an application can be declared invalid if the applicant was acting in bad faith when filing the application. For the Article to apply the mark applied for has to be identical or similar for identical or similar goods/services to the third-party mark being 'copied'. The General Court rejected Koton's argument under this premise since the mark being applied for was in relation to dissimilar good/services.

The AG emphasized that in assessing bad faith you have to, in addition to the above "…take into account all the relevant factors specific to the particular case which pertained at the time of filing the application". Factors in considering bad faith could include a lack of intention of using the mark at all, or the intention to use it in order to mislead consumers over the origin of goods or services. This could also include the attempt to register a mark knowing or thinking that registration by another would be imminent (i.e. registering iPad thinking Apple might start a line of tablets).

The AG therefore considered that based on the variety of factors raised by the AG (as discussed above) "…It is not therefore essential for recognition of bad faith that a third party is using an identical or similar sign for an identical or similar product or service capable of being confused with the sign for which registration is sought". Bad faith can include the registration of a similar or identical mark for wholly unidentical goods/services. 

The General Court had not considered Mr Esteban's earlier application as a factor when assessing bad faith, which was refused, for identical goods and services. After the EUIPO rejected his application Mr Esteban changed the goods and services included in his application and the mark was registered. The AG considered this to be an important factor and one that needed to be included. What the earlier application allows an inference to be drawn as to his intentions at the time of filing.

This highlights just how different bad faith is to other causes for invalidity, as it "…is not an inherent defect in the trade mark itself, but stems from the circumstances in which it was applied for". An application also cannot be divided into good and bad faith parts under Article 52 of the Regulation, but must be looked at as a whole in the light of bad faith. As such the AG saw that "…The fact that an application was originally filed for a trade mark for goods and services in respect of which the applicant knew or should have known that identical or similar trade marks existed may in any event be an important indication that the application to register that trade mark for other goods or services was also filed in bad faith".

The General Court also failed to properly assess whether Mr Esteban's defense to bad faith had any 'economic logic'. Having considered the new factor, and Mr Esteban's defense to bad faith, the AG concluded that the application had indeed been filed in bad faith.

While we wait for the CJEU's decision in the matter, it seems that the Advocate General has highlighted important oversights made by the General Court.

11 April, 2019

A Host of Problems - US Court of Appeals Decides on Copyright and Hosting User Uploaded Content

This writer fondly remembers the early days of the Internet when it felt like a totally lawless, open and free space where users could do whatever they wished with whatever they wanted. As the Internet has become more ubiquitous and 'corporate' this had to be reined in, and legislation has slowly caught up to how people use the Internet. One still meddling piece that the legislature and the courts have struggled with is user-uploaded content, where the service provider merely provides the platform for uploading content (infringing or not), and does not actively do it itself. With this in mind, where do you draw the line between freedom and intermediary liability when it comes to user-uploaded content? The US Court of Appeals recently issued an important decision trying to take on this issue.

The case of VHT Inc. v Zillow Group Inc. concerned Zillow, an online marketplace for real estate. VHT is a photography company who take professional pictures of houses and apartments that are then used to illustrate the location for sale to prospective buyers. VHT saves these pictures onto a centralized database, where they are given to clients under a license, which Zillow receives from various real estate related sources. VHT subsequently sued Zillow for copyright infringement for its use of VHT's pictures in its "Listing Platform" and "Digs" pages, exceeding the scope of the licenses issued to VHT's customers.

The first aspect of the case dealt with direct infringement, particularly in the context of Zillow's automated systems. While ownership in the copyright of the works can be easily established, infringement requires direction causation, i.e. volitional conduct. What this means is that "...'direct liability must be premised on conduct that can reasonably be described as the direct cause of the infringement'". What remains key here is who the ultimate selector of the content is; Zillow or the end-user. In order for Zillow to have liability VHT would have to "...show [the alleged infringer] exercised control (other than by general operation of [its website]); selected any material for upload, download, transmission, or storage; or instigated any copying, storage, or distribution" of its photos".

Zillow's systems operate on licensed feeds provided by external third parties, and the providers guarantee those licenses are up to date and authorized. The Court considered that this automated system didn't involve any volitional conduct on part of Zillow, not supporting an argument of direct infringement. This and the various rules within Zillow's systems protected it from direct infringement. Even when notices were filed on behalf of VHT, Zillow acted promptly and removed any infringing images. Overall the Court, therefore, rejected VHT's argument of direct infringement.

Even with this in mind, the jury at first instance did, however, find that Zillow's Digs service did infringe directly on VHT's rights. In considering the evidence issued to the jury, the Court overturned the jury verdict of direct infringement, as VHT had not presented substantial evidence of infringement.

A cozy one bedroom with easy street access and a unique facade
The Court then turned to the matter of fair use in relation to the Digs service. As a short primer, fair use allows for the use of copyright-protected works under certain situations. This is assessed looking at four specific factors: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. In short, the user would have to do something different with the work, and the more it deviates from the original the more likely it is that fair use applies (in essence), i.e. whether it is 'transformative' or not.

How Digs operated was much like a search engine, allowing users to search for photos of apartments in specific styles or configurations. Recent case law has considered search engines to typically be transformative, but that is by no means a panacea to a claim of infringement.

In assessing the Digs service's features in relation to the first factor, the Court considered that it was not a transformative use, since, while the service tagged the photos and organized them, their intended use and nature remained the same; to display space in an apartment in an artful manner. The images didn't serve a different function from what VHT had intended them for.

In terms of the second factor, the Court quickly concluded that the creativity of the photos is critical to their nature, and therefore potentially deserve a higher degree of protection. While this is true, the fact that the photos were published on the listing platform for Zillow to use did work against them in a finding of non-fair use.

For the third and fourth categories, Zillow copied the entire images, which turned the third factor against them. As they were copied in their entirety, they had a direct impact on VHT's market for licensing photos, including to Zillow. The Court, therefore, rejected Zillow's argument of fair use.

The Court then moved onto secondary liability, which can be established if "...a party (1) has knowledge of another's infringement and (2) either (a) materially contributes to or (b) induces that infringement". A material contribution to infringement would require "...actual knowledge that specific infringing material is available using its system, and can take simple measures to prevent further damage to copyrighted works, yet continues to provide access to infringing works".

Most of Zillow's activities around the works were purely passive. Any evidence adduced in relation to those activities would not, according to the Court, fulfill the requirements for the second prong (even with knowledge of infringing materials). VHT argued that Zillow needed to take proactive steps to prevent infringement, including requesting the URLs of infringing works, which the Court promptly rejected. In the end, the Court considered that no jury would be convinced of secondary liability. In equal mesure, the Court rejected VHT's argument on vicarious liability.

The case is a very interesting one, and yet again demonstrates the difficult position internet services and search engines alike are when it comes to copyright infringement.