U.S. Supreme Court Rules Public Perception Determines Trademark Eligibility – It May Affect How You Protect Your Brand Online

On June 30, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com B.V., that it is possible for a generic word combined with “.com” to receive a federally protectable trademark.

This landmark case strikes at the fundamental clash between two competing, yet central ideas in trademark law.

  • First, there is the notion that to protect the public from confusion, a company can receive trademark protection for works or symbols that the public understands to designate the source of goods or services.
  • Contrastingly, the second idea is that to protect unfair competition, a company cannot receive trademark protection for words or symbols that are “generic” names.

But what happens when a business has a generic name in which the public has come to associate that specific business with the specific goods or services it sells? The Supreme Court answered this very question, and found in an 8-1 decision that booking.com, owned by Booking Holdings Inc., is entitled to nationwide legal protection against competing trademarks.

Booking.com is a business that maintains a travel-registration website. The business sought federal registration of marks including the term “booking.com,” but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the business’ trademark application. It is important to note that a trademark gives a business the ability to distinguish the goods or services it offers from another business. If a business’s application for a federal trademark is accepted, then that business has certain rights, including the right to protect its trademark against use by other businesses. This not only secures to the owner of the trademark the goodwill of her business, but it also protects consumers in that when they purchase a product bearing a particular trade-mark, they can be assured that they will get the product which it wants.

U.S. trademark law, however, does not confer trademark rights to companies that claim ownership of an entire category of goods, such as wine, or computers, or books. But what about the businesses that invested significant resources in building their brands, such as weather.com and hotels.com? When consumers think of weather.com, for example, most associate that domain name with a specific service.

Thus, the case turned on whether consumers perceived “Booking.com” to be generic. In its opinion, the Supreme Court hypothesized that if consumers thought “Booking.com” was generic, they might expect consumers to understand Travelocity — a similar service – to be a “Booking.com” or if a consumer was looking for a trusted online hotel-reservation service, they would ask a frequent traveler to name her favorite “Booking.com” provider.

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s finding that consumers do not perceive “Booking.com” in this generic way. Moreover, the PTO did not dispute that determination. Instead, the PTO argued for a “per se” rule against trademark protection for any generic word followed by a “.com.”

 Yet, the Supreme Court pointed to past instances where the PTO did not follow this rule. For example, the PTO granted trademark registration in the past to “art.com” and “dating.com.” The Court underscored that because domain names are one of a kind, a significant portion of the public will always understand a generic “.com” term to refer to a specific business. Thus, the Court rejected the PTO’s position that “generic.com” terms are categorically incapable of identifying a source or particular business.

There is a limiting principle to take away from this ruling. The Supreme Court did not rule that having a “generic.com” name automatically classifies that term as non-generic. The significance rests with whether consumers perceive that term as capable of distinguishing among members of the class. Booking.com collected consumer surveys to show that 74% of consumers of travel services recognize booking.com as a trademark. Because the PTO offered no evidence to challenge that booking.com enjoys unparalleled consumer loyalty in the travel industry, there was no dispute with respect to whether consumers perceive booking.com to be a generic term.

For businesses, this case proves that if you harness time and effort in building your brand it can pay off. But it comes at a cost. A simple google search reveals that in 2018, booking.com spent $4 billion on marketing.  It is no surprise that booking.com spent a portion of those funds on buying Google Adwords to drive consumer traffic to their website. In the second quarter of 2019 alone, Booking Holdings, the parent company of Bookings.com spent $1.19 billion on performance marketing.

It is important to highlight the point that Justice Stephen Breyer made, as the sole dissenting opinion in this case. He cautioned that the majority’s decision will “lead to a proliferation of “generic.com” marks granting their owners a monopoly over a zone of useful, easy-to-remember domains.”

While consumer perception was central to this case, there is an additional cautionary tale with respect to how booking.com and other companies obtain that perception from consumers. Essentially, bookings.com bought the public perception that was central to winning this case through the billions it spent on advertising and marketing. Notably, this was not discussed in the Supreme Court’s opinion, but nonetheless is something business owners, as well as the public, should keep in mind.

Accordingly, businesses must consider the value of both their trademark and the internet domain associated therewith — and how to ensure they are legally protected.  Simply registering an internet domain does not provide trademark protection and owning a trademark does not automatically provide your business with the right to the “.com” domain extension thereof.

As you consider how to promote your business, Vandenack Weaver attorneys can assist you in determining how to best protect your brand in commerce, social media and online.  If you have questions, please call at 402-504-1300 or contact us via info@vwattys.com.

VW Contributor: Skylar Young
© 2020 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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The Green Jacket of the Masters Golf Tournament is Finally a Registered Trademark

The golf season is almost here for most individuals in the United States and, for golf enthusiasts, that means the Masters golf tournament. Last year, Tiger Woods won the iconic tournament in a dramatic return to the winners circle. However, while Tiger was putting on the green jacket as the winner of the Masters, a fight over that jacket was occurring with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”).

On February 21, 2019, Augusta National, Inc., applied to register the green jacket as a trademark. Initially, the USPTO denied registration of the green jacket with gold buttons because they deemed it a non-distinctive product design with functional elements, thus not eligible for registration. The USPTO subsequently denied registration because the jacket was deemed a decoration and ornamentation, not an inherently distinctive service mark, thus not eligible for registration. Regardless of the reasons, the green jacket that has been awarded to the winner of the Masters since 1949, when Sam Snead won the tournament, was initially deemed ineligible for trademark registration. Ultimately, the inherently distinctive green jacket prevailed in arguments with the USPTO and it received registration almost a year later.

For businesses, this illustrates a couple important points. First, that trademark law is used for trade dress, sounds, designs, and possible even smell, not just your standard logo or words. The second is that regardless of how distinctive and historical a trademark, the registration process requires expertise and knowledge of the overall prosecution process. Of course, the attorneys are Vandenack Weaver LLC are here to help with that prosecution, even if the trademark isn’t as famous as the green jacket. As for Tiger, we will have to wait and see if he can defend his title at the Masters.


VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2020 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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New Rules at the Trademark Office

Effective February 15, 2020, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) implemented several new rules for applicants and registrants. While these rule changes are not substantive in nature, the procedural and administrative updates are likely to cause substantive disruption for certain trademark owners and applicants. Although it is arguable what will have the largest impact, the update to the specimen requirements are likely to create new challenges.

The USPTO revised the items that are deemed an acceptable specimen. The change is designed to ensure that the specimen submitted clearly depicts the trademark in use with the specific good or service provided. By way of example, mock-ups, designs on their own, and labels without clear association with the good or service are no longer accepted. Another change includes the USPTO designating email as the only method for formal correspondence. This procedural change includes a new requirement that all registration applications must be submitted electronically, with limited exception. For attorney’s filing on behalf of a client, the attorney will also need to provide the email address for the client, as opposed to just the attorney. This requirement applies to proceedings in front of the trademark trial and appeal board as well as registration applications.

These procedural changes are the latest updates to take effect as the USPTO attempts to modernize and combat fraudulent registrations and applications. For those with a registered trademark, these changes will apply to the next required filing or, if the USPTO so elects, to an audit of the registered mark. This means that trademark owners should ensure that they continuously use their trademarks in commerce in the manner described in the trademark registration.

VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2020 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Scandalous Trademarks: What You Need to Know.

The Lanham Act, which governs trademarks that are registered through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), expressly prohibits the registration of marks that are deemed scandalous, immoral, or deceptive. This prohibition has historically prevented brands from using marks that could fall into this category, even if the mark is appropriate for the situation. However, in 2019, this prohibition was expressly overridden and these types of marks are now eligible for registration and protection under the Lanham Act.

During the summer of 2019, the United States Supreme Court determined that the prohibition against scandalous marks contained in the Lanham Act is an unconstitutional prohibition on protected speech. See Iancu v. Brunetti, 488 U.S. ___ (2019). Essentially, the Court decided that this amounted to viewpoint discrimination, in violation of the First Amendment. As a result, the USPTO is required to accept and consider scandalous trademark registration applications.

For businesses, artists, and musicians that utilize what was deemed scandalous marks by the USPTO as part of their operations, now is the time to act to protect the intellectual property. Although the USPTO hasn’t reported a rush applications that fit this category, now that these previously un-protected marks are protectable, it is expected that the volume of applications will increase.

VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2020 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Foreign-Domiciled Applicants; Why the Change at the Trademark Office?

By Alex Rainville

In a long anticipated decision, starting on August 3, 2019, foreign domiciled trademark applicants, registrants, and parties must be represented by a US licensed attorney in front of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). This means that any foreign-domiciled person or business wishing to seek trademark registration with the USPTO must appoint a US licensed attorney to file and prosecute the trademark registration application. This may appear like an unnecessary burden, but it is part of fixing overarching administrative problems.

The USPTO is actively trying to modernize and streamline the trademark registration application process, to ensure timely review of applications and increase efficiency to final outcomes. One of the challenges to this process has been a large number of foreign-domiciled applicants submitting inaccurate, and often times fraudulent, materials. By way of example, a common problem with these applications is the specimens are either failing to meet the required standards or are outright fraudulent. This increases the time required for the USPTO to examine and process applications, resulting in an inefficient registration process for all applicants. By using a US licensed attorney, the USPTO expects that the applications will be more accurate and eliminate much of fraud, ultimately increasing efficiency.

For businesses wishing to protect its intellectual property, even those based in the US, it is a good idea to hire a trademark attorney. For example, the attorney will be able to guide you on what can be protected under the Lanham Act and the common law, and the best avenue to obtain registration or, more generally, protection for your intellectual property. They will also ensure you and your business are not defrauded by the multitude of USPTO imposters, and will know how to file complaints regarding these imposters with the Federal Trade Commission, for the Department of Justice to prosecute. Although this change of policy at the USPTO may seem unfair to foreign-domiciled applicants, the change may ultimately benefit all the businesses relying on the USPTO to protect its brand and intellectual property.

© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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