A trademark application filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office must meet certain requirements to be eligible for registration. At some point, almost all trademarks must be deemed “in use” before the Trademark Office will register them. “In use” is short for “in use in commerce,” which itself is short for “in use in commerce that can be regulated by Congress,” i.e. interstate commerce or activities that impact or affect interstate commerce.
Often, determining whether a trademark is in use is not a difficult act. A restaurant has been operating for years with customers from all over the state? In use. Products are branded and sold to customers across the country? In use. A blog gets traffic everyday from all over the world? In use.
But the law is defined by its contours, its grey areas, and beta testing of software is one of them. Beta testing, most frequently associated with software, is the practice of releasing a product to a group of customers who not only use it, but test it. They may provide direct or indirect feedback about its operation. It is a near-real-world test, allowing the owner to find and fix issues before a widespread release or launch.
Because beta testing is often experimental, limited to a small number of customers, and done without a fee exchange, questions arise as to whether a trademark used in beta testing is “used in commerce.” There are no clear answers here. Courts have found beta testing to be either sufficient or insufficient to establish trademark use, each case having its own set of facts that leaned one way or the other.
There are some factors that be evaluated to attempt to determine whether a trademark is in use during beta test. More testers are more likely to be considered “in use.” Testers outside the state that the company is in will weigh toward a finding of use in commerce. Arms-length testers – not friends and family – will help lean toward use. If the beta testing is consistent with other forms of beta testing in the ordinary course of trade within the relevant industry, use is more likely to be found. The beta testing should not be simply marketing, but rather be part of an ongoing and eventually successful march toward launch. The more widely available the beta testing is to the public, the better. The consistency and normalcy with which the beta tested product is marked can affect the “in use” determination. These factors are not determinative or exhaustive – others may exist and may be more influential, so it always a good idea to contact a trademark attorney to discuss whether your particular use of a trademark is sufficient.
Lastly, to emphasize that this not a clear test, here is an excerpt from some of the Trademark Office rules: “Specimens for software may also indicate that the software is a ‘beta’ version. This term is commonly used in the software field to identify a preliminary version of a product. Although some beta products may not be made available to consumers, others are. Thus, the appearance of this term on a specimen for software does not, by itself, necessarily mean that the relevant goods are not in actual use in commerce or that the specimen is unacceptable. However, if examination of the specimen indicates that the beta version is not in actual use in commerce, the examining attorney must refuse registration … because the applicant has not provided evidence of use of the applied-for mark in commerce. ” TMEP 904.03(e).