Frequently Asked Questions re: Trademarks

Do I have to file a trademark application to protect my trademark?

No. But if you can, it may be worth your while (check out Alex’s post on the Supplemental Register, which contains a brief discussion on the value of a federal trademark registration). Trademark rights can be established in the United States by commencing use of a trademark in commerce.

What does “use” mean?

For goods, use means the affixation of the mark on goods actually moving through commerce. A mark can be affixed in a number of ways, e.g. on product packaging, on an e-commerce webpage, or on a physical display associated with the goods.

Note that a sale of the goods isn’t necessarily required for “use” – what’s important is that the goods are moving through commerce. So, if you have a bunch of game players around the country beta testing your mobile game, that counts!

If a brand owner is providing services under a mark, “use” means the actual provision of those branded services (and not merely advertising them) in commerce.

Can I register my trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office?

Maybe. A brand owner who uses its trademark in more than one state (i.e. interstate commerce) may seek federal registration of its trademark. Federal registration confers many important benefits to the brand owner, including nationwide exclusive rights to the trademark.

A brand owner whose use of a trademark is limited to only one state cannot seek federal registration of a trademark. However, they can probably register the trademark with their home state’s Secretary of State office.

What if I really want to register my trademark with the USPTO, but don’t have interstate use yet?

Although you can’t register your trademark until it’s in use, you can still secure an early filing date with an “intent-to-use” application. The only requirement for filing an intent-to-use application is that you must  have a good faith belief that you will use your trademark in interstate commerce in less than 3 years. The USPTO will examine your application, but won’t issue a registration until you can demonstrate use. It may cost more to do it this way, but you’ll hold your place in line (more on this in another post).

What if I have more questions?

Check out our other posts, or drop us a line!

By Ashley Long

PS: We’ll continue to update this list as we get more questions from rabid fans of the IP HOTBOX, which has been referred to as the “Game of Thrones of IP Law blogs.” Note: no one has actually said that.

Shout outs

We wanted to show our respect to some of the greatest legal minds of our time by giving them a shout out on our little blog. If you want to know more about startup, securities or IP law, you should check out the OTHER BLOGS WE LIKE section of the IP HOTBOX.

If you’re crazy enough to want us to feature your blog on IP HOTBOX, drop one of us a line  with a four to five page (single-spaced) explanation of why your blog should make the cut.

So, you received a “descriptiveness” refusal?

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you received an Office Action from the USPTO on the grounds that the trademark you’re applying for is “descriptive.” Applicants whose marks have been refused on descriptiveness grounds have three options: (1) move the application to the Supplemental Register, (2) abandon the application, or (3) file a response to the office action.1lvvg6

Background

Trademarks that are “descriptive” aren’t eligible for registration on the Principal Register unless the applicant can demonstrate that the mark has become distinctive of the applicant’s goods in commerce. A trademark is “descriptive” if it “merely describes a feature, characteristic, purpose or function” of applicant’s goods or services.  Examples of marks that the USPTO has found to be descriptive include “APPLE PIE” used to identify potpourri and “BED & BREAKFAST REGISTRY” used to identify lodging reservations services.

Move the Application to the Supplemental Register.

Trademarks may be registered on the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register. The Principal Register grants the broadest protection to a trademark, because it creates a presumption that the mark is valid and in-use nationwide. However, marks that are “descriptive” can’t be registered on the Principal Register and are only eligible for registration on the Supplemental Register.

The main drawback of a registration on the Supplemental Register is it does not establish that the registrant has a proprietary interest in its mark. Basically, a registrant must first prove that consumers associate its goods with the registered mark in order to exclude third parties from using it.

Nonetheless, the Supplemental Register does still provide some protection. A registration on the Supplemental Register allows its holder to use the ® symbol in connection with the mark. This signifies that the mark is registered, and a lot of would-be third-party trademark users don’t realize the distinction between the Principal and the Supplemental Registers. Additionally, the USPTO will still refuse third-party applications to register marks that are confusingly similar to a mark registered on the Supplemental Register.

Perhaps the most common strategy for dealing with a “descriptiveness” refusal is registering a mark on the Supplemental Register and then “upgrading” to the Principal Register. As mentioned earlier, substantially exclusive and continuous use of a mark for five years is evidence that “the mark has become distinctive of the applicant’s goods in commerce” and is therefore eligible for registration on the Principal Register. Accordingly, an unopposed registration on the Supplemental Register for five years can be used as evidence that a mark as become distinctive and is therefore eligible to be on the Principal Register.

Abandon the Application.

An alternate solution to registration on the Supplemental Register is to simply abandon the application and wait five years to refile a full-fledged application for the Principal Register. Many applicants prefer this method because it allows them to fly under the radar with their use of the mark. Also, a registration on the Supplemental Register is tantamount to an admission that the registered mark is “descriptive” or otherwise doesn’t meet the requirements of the Principal Register. The drawback of abandoning the application is that the applicant will not be entitled to use the ® symbol.

Office Action Response.

An Office Action response is a set of legal arguments submitted to the USPTO asserting that a mark is eligible for registration. The biggest issue with filing an Office Action response is the costs associated with it. Office Action responses for descriptiveness refusals typically require a significant amount of research and drafting, and the legal fees can run in the thousands of dollars in connection with their preparation. Furthermore, responding to an Office Action does not guarantee registration of the applied-for mark. This is a usually only a good option only where there is a compelling need to have the mark registered as soon as possible.

By Alex Hecker