Tag Archives: Likelihood of Confusion

Is that a Situation in your pants, or are you just happy to see me

It looks like Jersey Shore is beginning to spawn “sound alike” products, as this article on TMZ.com mentions (I never, ever thought I’d be citing to TMZ in my life)

Two applications were filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the hopes of sealing the deal on the phrase for use on clothing — however, neither one of the applicants is Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino himself.

The quasi-law site The Smoking Gun fills in the details.  Looks like one application was filed by the brother of the “real” Situtation, Michael Sorrentino, and another by an unrelated Jersey individual.

The interloper’s application, no. 77/891,064, is a 1(b) intent-to-use application, meaning that the mark has not yet been used in commerce.  It establishes a priority date as of the date of filing (if, of course, the application is approved).  It was filed on December 11, 2009.

Sorrentino’s brother’s application, no. 77/901,546, is for “The Situation” (stylized).  It’s a 1(a) application, meaning that the company has already begun to use the mark in commerce.   The first use date is December 21, 2009. That means, all things being equal, the interloper has nationwide priority.  (But expect a pretty good fight.  The porn company has an attorney; it looks like the interloper filed pro se.)

Users at CafePress creating an “I [heart] The Situation” thong should be wary, or, if they’ve been around for a while, should oppose both applications!

Mike "The Situation"

Yeah, but will the undies give me a six-pack that I'll feel compelled to show all the ladies?

Also surprising is that there do not appear to be any other applications or registrations for “THE SITUATION,” and there is only one other registration in International Class 25 (the clothing goods class) that significantly features “situtation” in the registration– FEEL GOOD SITUATIONS, Reg. No.  3,723,714, for “short sleeved or long sleeved t-shirts,” owned by an individual in Humble, Texas.  Interestingly, the registration was issued December 9 of this year.  Is “situation” the dominant portion of that mark, such that confusion would be likely with “The Situation”?  Stay tuned.

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The Bus (the NFL trademark bus, that is) rides again…

With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl (err, I mean “Big Game“) victory, local fans are quick to make merchandise celebrating.  And the NFL is quick to demand that those fans cease and desist from manufacture of that merchandise under copyright and trademark law.  While I can completely understand the NFL’s enforcement efforts for blatant knock-offs, the latest victim was this T-shirt, which did not feature the words “Pittsburgh,” “Steelers,” the Steelers logo, and only sort of approximated the Steelers’ color scheme.  Yet, the manufacturer made one fatal mistake:  He included an image of the Lombardi trophy.

The logo that caught the ever-watchful eye of the NFL
The logo that caught the ever-watchful eye of the NFL

The NFL sent Dan Rugh, owner of CommonWealth Press on the South Side and the Web site where the shirts were sold, a cease-and-desist order Wednesday stating use of the Lombardi Trophy design violates an NFL registered trademark and copyrighted design.

The NFL also objected to the use of a new trademark, SIXBURGH, even though the NFL has not used the mark, and it includes only the “mashing” of “Pittsburgh” and “six.”

“We have also learned that your company is producing and offering for sale SIX BURGH shirts using the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers Club,” the NFL’s letter stated. “These elements, particularly in combination, clearly misappropriate the goodwill enjoyed by the Pittsburgh Steelers Club, which now has won six NFL Championships.”

The NFL objects to the use of the team colors or any other indication or likeness of the Pittsburgh Steelers, including the designation Sixburgh, “as that’s likely to confuse consumers who might mistakenly believe that the shirts were authorized by the Steelers or the NFL,” NFL spokesman Dan Masonson said.

[…]

In an interesting twist, the NFL could receive a cease-and-desist order of its own. The NFL Shop at http://www.nflshop.com has been selling “Six-Burgh” T-shirts.

SmartArt, LLC of Queenstown, Md., applied for the trademark to the term “SixBurgh” on Jan. 14 for T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps and jackets and the company didn’t license the term’s use to the NFL. SmartArt has been marketing SIXBURGH T-shirts featuring James Harrison’s signature.

“We’ve done well with it,” said Fred Fillah, SmartArt’s marketing director. “I did a lot of research on ‘SixBurgh.’ Prior to us trademarking it, there wasn’t anything. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I did due diligence. You’ve got to respect other people’s rights and what’s considered fair.”

Mr. Fillah said his attorney will be investigating whether the NFL has violated his trademark.

“To the extent the term SixBurgh is being used in a context that refers to the Pittsburgh Steelers, only the team or its authorized representative, in this case NFL Properties, may use it,” the NFL spokesman, Mr. Masonson said.

The NFL is great at arguing that it has rights to trademarks that it hadn”t used (or necessarily thought of).  It won a case when the L.A. Rams moved to St. Louis against a person who attempted to register “ST LOUIS RAMS” before the NFL and then hold the NFL hostage for trademark licensing rights. (I’ll look for the citation.)  The Court found that the early announcements of the team’s move and other uses gave the NFL priority.  But it would seem to me that this is a different situation, particuarly if the applicant for SIXBURGH did not attempt to hold the NFL hostage when it filed its application. After all, SIXBURGH can refer to nothing more than the city that houses the team that has won six NFL national championships, not necessarily the team that actually won the championships.  How ironic it would be if discovery showed that the NFL marketing guys “discovered” the SIXBURGH application and then “suddenly,” beliving the mark to be owned by the NFL through some sort of doctrine of implication, created merchandise with the mark.

If SmartArt has some money to spend and has the smarts to get an experienced trademark firm, this may be an interesting case.

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Not very colorful, not very inspired: PPG sues Sherwin-Williams over THE COLOR OF INSPIRATION

The groundhog may have seen is shadow in Pennsylvania earlier this week, but chemical and paint company PPG did not crawl back into its litigation burrow, instead filing suit against competitor Sherwin-Williams for SW’s use of COLOR OF INSPIRATION on a new SW website that allows custom color matching.
The Complaint (here, pdf) and attachments (a, b-1, b-2, c, d, and e, pdf) allege that PPG has been using the mark COLORS OF INSPIRATION in conjunction with a “color selection system” (i.e. paint chip displays and books), and Sherwin-Williams has subsequently begun to use THE COLOR OF INSPIRATION in connection with a [pretty darn cool–ed.] website where consumers can match a Sherwin-Williams paint color with an “inspiration” from nature or another source, from a photograph.

A screenshot from the Sherwin-Williams webpage. Colorful? Inspired? Or a trademark infringement?

A screenshot from the Sherwin-Williams webpage. Colorful? Inspired? Or a trademark infringement?

PPG has sued for unfair competition under the Lanham Act, cybersquatting protection under the ACPA, and unfair business practices and trademark infringement under Pennsylvania law.

These are two very large chemical companies, and this could be an interesting, although probably not pioneering, lawsuit.  If PPG has trademark rights to COLORS OF INSPIRATION, it will be hard for SW to be victorious.  (However, proving SW’s “bad faith intent to profit”  from the registration of the colorofinspiration.com domain name as required by the ACPA.)

What really surprises me is that this looks like a dispute that could be settled before the initiation of a lawsuit, unless SW really believes that PPG doesn’t have legitimate rights to their mark.  It’s also interesting to see, in these times of economic peril for so many American companies, whether they’re willing to spend $1 million or more to fully litigate  trademark lawsuit on a secondary trademark that may or may not be a large part of their portfolio or brand strategy going forward.

(Hat tip to the Pittsburgh Business Times, reporting on the lawsuit.)

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Stripper Idol update: Answer (and simultaneous motion to dismiss) filed

stripperidol1 On January 26, 2009, an attorney for the strip club and owner filed an answer (pdf) in the “Stripper Idol” case (blogged here, here, and here), FremantleMedia v. Palazio Men’s Club.  Of interest in the answer:

  • Defendants inserted a Motion to Dismiss against the individual defendant, arguing that he did nothing in his individual capacity, or pleading for a more complete statement if Plaintiffs believed he did;
  • Defendants inserted a Motion to Dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), arguing that “no reasonable patron of Palazio Men’s Club would believe that American Idol sponsored stripping contests at Defendant’s venue or had anything to do with Palazio Men’s Club;” and
  • Defendants admitted to “having stripper idol [small letters] contests,” state that the STRIPPER IDOL logo has been removed and is no longer being used, and asserted a general denial to all of the substantive causes of actions under federal and Texas law.

A quick check of their website (sort of safe for work) shows that the advertisement featured above has been replaced with one in the same format, but that reads “Stripper Idols,” in a different, scripty font in a redish-yellow color.  Their  “events” calendar page also refers to SUPER BOWL XLIII (we already know what the NFL thinks of people using the SUPER BOWL trademark) and to a STUDIO 54 80s party (STUDIO 54, both in plain text and in a design mark, is a registered trademark of the MGM Grand, for, among other things “restaurant and cabaret services).  You’d have thought that perhaps, the attorney defending Palazio would have checked the rest of their site for other trademark violations.

The 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss (to the extent that the Court honors a motion to dismiss the entirety of the lawsuit filed without a brief and filed simultaneously with an answer to the entire lawsuit) borders on frivolous.  Regardless of whether Fremantle is actually successful on their claims, there’s no doubt that they state a claim for trademark infringement, and dilution under Texas state law as well.  Of course, the merits become much more difficult to analyze once the extremely similar logos are taken out of the equation.  Fremantle’s claim to “idol” is weak, unless, of course, they can “piggyback” on the old, similar logo and argue an intent to confuse and/or to trade off AMERICAN IDOL’s goodwill.

My guess is that, so long as Fremantle doesn’t demand an inordinate sum of money, the case will settle soon. The cases from the NFL and/or MGM, well, that may be anothe rstory.

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A tale of two CITIs…

It seems that everyone who has a computer today has written about the lawsuit between Citicorp and All Citi Pawn, a New York pawn shop.  CNN Money may have been the first to write about it, with this story:

In the suit filed last week in Brooklyn federal court, Citigroup alleges that in using the same Citi abbreviation and red arc as its banking subsidiary, Citibank, All Citi Pawn has infringed on their trademark. Citigroup is seeking all of the business’ profits since it adopted the All Citi name.

“What can I tell you? Its crazy. They’re going wild for a little art that I put up. Theirs is a moon shape, mine is a V-shape, but I’ve already taken it down,” pawn shop manager Bob Kay told CNN.

[…]

“It is important for Citigroup to know that no one is trading off their name – they need to protect their intellectual property.” [said Trademark attorney Michael Feign].  Feigin went on to say, however, that removing the offending logo should resolve the case. According to Kay, it has not.

Marty Schwimmer has the full text of the complaint here.

What’s surprising is that most of the commentators–and even reporters—are complaining that this is somehow a frivolous exercise for Citi.  CNN lead off its article with “You would think that Citigroup had enough on its plate these days, but that hasn’t stopped the financial behemoth from filing a copyright [sic] infringement suit against a Brooklyn, New York, pawnshop over a similar logo….”   And even Mr. Schwimmer titled his blog post “Your tax dollars at work.”

In defense of Citi, this is not a bad case. According to the allegations in the complaint, the owner of All Citi Pawn started using the offending name, and registered its allcitipawn.com domain name well after CITIBANK became famous.  Second, Citibank attached some promotional materials showing the logo that All Citi Pawn used.  It included a logo that looked a lot like Citibank’s.  A quick trip to the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) retrieved this logo at the http://www.allcitipawn.com website:

The logo of All Citi Pawn

The logo of All Citi Pawn

Compare that to Citi’s logo:

The registered logo from the big CITI.

The registered logo from the big CITI.

According to the Wayback Machine, the first appearance of anything on allcitipawn.com was in 2007.   So we have a small pawn shop in New York independently choosing to modify the word “City” to “Citi” in its business name, and coincidentally use a sans-serif font in blue, with a red roof instead of a red arch?  That screams bad intent to appropriate the goodwill of the senior user (and its mark, previously adjudged to be famous).  The word is the same; the logo is nearly identical; to the extent that a pawn shop and a bank both make loans on collateral, the services are quite similar.  This is not overzealous trademark prosecution; this is what a responsible trademark owner should do to police its mark and keep it distinctive.

The fact that Citi may be in dire financial straits right now doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t continue to protect its brand and logos, especially when the marks and goods are so similar.  It’s certainly worth a couple of thousand dollars to draft a complaint (it shouldn’t take more than that; my guess is that the associate charged with drafting the complaint already had plenty of examples from which to model) and a couple hundred dollars in filing and service fees.  It’s certainly no million dollar office renovation.

Here’s what happened (as alleged in the complaint):    All Citi Pawn, instead of consulting trademark counsel, adopted the name in 2007 (or thereabouts) not in an attempt for people to believe that Citibank was opening a pawn shop, but rather for customers to see the logo and think “cute,” and maybe to get customers to think that All Citi Pawn was as stable and honorable as Citi (*smirk*). Citi attorneys found the website. They sent a cease-and-desist letter. All Citi Pawn, instead of consulting trademark counsel, thought, it’s just the word “Citi,” and our inverted “v” is different from their semicircle, so screw ’em, they won’t do anything else. And–whoops!–they did something else.  Now all of the business community is in an uproar just because Citi wants to protect whatever goodwill remains in their brand.

And now to the infuriating part of the CNN report:

“…but that hasn’t stopped the financial behemoth from filing a copyright infringement suit against a Brooklyn, New York, pawnshop over a similar logo.

[…]

“Citigroup is seeking all of the business’ profits since it adopted the All Citi name.”

First, there is no allegation of copyright infringement in the complaint.  This is a matter of trademarks, CNN! And if a business reporter for CNN doesn’t know the difference between trademarks and copyrights….

Second, Citigroup isn’t seeking all of All Citi Pawn’s profits.  In the WHEREFORE clause of the Complaint, Citi seeks:

D (1) All of defendant’s profits, gains and advantages derived from the unauthorized appropriation of Citigroup’s good will in its service marks as part of defendant’s name, to identify defendant’s services and products…. (emphasis added).

This pleading is appropriate and correct for willful trademark infringement. Citi is not asking for all of the defendant’s profits, but all profits that flow from the use of Citigroup’s names and logos.  That’s a much, much smaller pool (and almost impossible to prove).

I’m not usually one to valiantly defend the big, bad bank from a bit of bad publicity, but I think in this instance, Citi’s gotten an unfair shake.

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“Stripper Idol” Part Deux

Gene Quinn at IP Watchdog has written this post about the ongoing “Stripper Idol” lawsuit (blogged by yours truly here).  In the post, he argues that the commentators on Fox News covering the story argued on the Bill O’Reilly program that because no one would confuse a strip club with American Idol, there’d be no likelihood of confusion as to source of the services, and therefore the strip club wins.  Gene writes:

While I do enjoy O’Reilly, the fact of the matter is that his legal correspondents were dead wrong, as are most legal correspondents when the attempt to pontificate about matters relating to patents, trademarks or copyrights.

He then states that a trademark dilution theory is most likely to be successful, as “likelihood of confusion” need not be proven.  While I agree with him that the O’Reilly commentators were “dead wrong” in their assessment of the merits of the suit, I respectfully disagree that dilution is the best theory for FremantleMedia to pursue.

First, dilution is sticky because you have to prove that your mark is “famous.”  Under the Texas dilution statute, which may be more liberal than the Section 43(c) of  the Lanham Act, fame may be easier to prove.  But it’s still a significant threshold of proof that the plaintiffs must overcome.

Second, a number of recent federal decisions have noted that for a junior mark to dilute a senior mark, the junior mark must be nearly identical to the senior mark.  In other words, if we’re not going to look at consumer confusion, you have to prove a very close nexus between the allegedy famous mark and the allegedly diluted mark.  While STRIPPER IDOL and Design may be close the AMERICAN IDOL and Design design, it’s a hard burden to show that the more risque mark actually dilutes the distinctive quality of AMERICAN IDOL or tarnishes its image.

My continuing belief is that the best theory revolves around likelihood of confusion, not as to source of the goods, but as to sponsorship or affiliation. A typical survey question used to support Plaintiff’s case may ask something like “Do you believe this strip club had to get permission from anyone to use this logo? If so, who?”  I wouldn’t be surprised if a good percentage of people would respond “Yes; American Idol.”  That’s confusion as to sponsorship or affiliation.

Dilution is a good idea, too, particularly under Texas law (which may be more lenient than the federal standards), and I can’t wait to see how the case unfolds.

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Meep-Beep-Huh? New Mexico’s trademark troubles

As reported by the New Mexico Business Weekly, a Massachusetts company called RailRunner N.A, Inc., which develops truck-and-rail systems and is the owner of RAILRUNNER (U.S. Trademark Reg. No. 3,227,113) and RAILRUNNER (Stylized) (U.S. Trademark Reg. No. 2,966,296), for, among other things “Railway bogies,” “Railway vehicles,” “Repair of railway vehicles” “Logistics management in the field of railway vehicles,” “Custom manufacture of railway vehicles,” and “Educational services [related to maintanence and operation of railway vehicles” has sued the New Mexico Department of Transportation for its use of NEW MEXICO RAIL RUNNER  EXPRESS for a commuter passenger rail system running from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to Belen, NM.

The allegedly offending mode of transport

The allegedly offending mode of transport

According to the article, RailRunner (the company) has been warning New Mexico authorities about the use of the name for a while now.  RailRunner also brought an opposition to the state’s application to register NEW MEXICO RAIL RUNNER, and the Board granted summary judgment to RailRunner on the ground that the New Mexico agency that originally applied for the mark wrongfully transferred the application (an “intent-to-use” application) to another New Mexico agency, in violation of Section 10 of the Lanham Act.

Now that the state (and its subdivisions) have not renamed the commuter line, RailRunner’s speeding them off to federal court in Massachusetts.

A state official was quoted in the article as saying that she was “confident” that the state would be able to work something out, but, on the merits, it looks like the state should be expecting to end up face-first in a big, flat rock.

Who's the coyote, and who's the Road, er RailRunner?
Who’s the coyote, and who’s the Road, er RailRunner?

But, the state may have one saving grace– Sovereign Immunity.  The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution essentially prevents individuals from suing states in federal court, and the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically recognized that Congress can’t “force” a state to waive that right through the Lanham Act.  As I’ve not been extensively involved in any trademark litigation matters in federal court against state subdivisions, and I’ve not been involved in this apparently long-running dispute between these parties, I don’t know whether sovereign immunity is available in this situation or whether any of the actions of the state has resulted in a sovereign immunity waiver.  But only time will tell who’s a wile coyote with their branding and litigation strategy and who’s just Wile E. Coyote, missing the prize and ending up with flattened face and some seared fur.


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