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CORONAVIRUS: Patent Office Not Requiring Original Handwritten Signatures

The Patent and Trademark Office will not be requiring handwritten signatures during COVID-19 outbreak.  Correspondence with the Patent Office requires a signature of some form.  Generally, an electronic or S-signature is sufficient to submit a document to the Patent and Trademark Office.  However, in a few situations, an actual, pen-to-ink, handwritten signature is required.

For the seemingly foreseeable future, however, that requirement has been waived.  The United States Patent and Trademark Office considers the effects of COVID-19 to be an “extraordinary situation” for affected patent and trademark applicants, patentees, reexamination parties, and trademark owners.

The waiver applies mostly to attorney and agent issues, such as new licensing applications to practice before the US Patent and Trademark Office and disciplinary matters in front of the Office of Enrollment and Discipline.  Additionally, some credit card payments apparently must be accompanied by handwritten signatures, though in a decade of practice, I’ve never encountered this.

While the requirement for a handwritten signature has been waive, the requirement for a signature has not.  Indeed, where handwritten signatures were once required, corresponding parties must now submit photocopies of original signatures and S-signatures will satisfy during waiver.



CORONAVIRUS: US Patent and Trademark Office Response

Quail eggs in our backyard

UPDATE: APRIL 28: The USPTO has updated its program which changes some of the information below regarding dates. Read more here.

The US Patent and Trademark Office has made extensions available to filing, response, and fee deadlines in certain patent and trademark matters. The Office recognizes that the outbreak, and the economy impact thereof, have made it difficult or impossible for some entities to meet their deadlines. Applicants have been affected. Patent and trademark owners have been affected. Law firms and legal personnel have been affected. The Office is allowing some deadlines to be extended for 30 days under certain circumstances.

In all cases, a deadline can be extended only if the outbreak materially prevented or interfered with an on-time trademark filing, response, or fee payment. “Materially prevented” or “materially interfering” includes situations such as office closures, cash flow interruptions, lack of access to files or other materials, travel delays, personal or family illness, or other similar circumstances. Further, only certain people can claim the extension: the person affected by the outbreak must be a practitioner, applicant, registrant, or other person associated with the filing or fee.  Lastly, only deadline falling within certain dates will qualify.

If you request an extension, you need to do so explicitly and conspicuously; if the request is hidden, it will probably be delayed or may even

be missed completely. This will require further follow-up by you with the Patent and Trademark Office to make sure it gets processed – just extra work from you during a time when you don’t need more on your plate, if you’re being truthful that the outbreak has affected you. And of course, you must be truthful when making the statement. It is a good idea to at least internally and carefully document the circumstances that are preventing the filing from being made on time, and then to keep those detailed records in case a question about their veracity ever arises. I predict that in five to ten years, some patents and trademarks could be invalidated in litigation because a COVID-19 extension was taken but shouldn’t have, or because the legitimacy of the conditions around the delay could not be shown.

An extended deadline window starts the day after the original deadline. That is day 1. Day 30 – the end of the window – is 30 business days afterward, so long as day 30 is not a weekend or federal holiday. If it is, then the extended deadline falls to the next regular business day.

I’m publishing more information about the US Patent and Trademark Office’s response to coronavirus this week. In the meantime, you can contact patent and trademark attorney Tom Galvani at 602-281-6481.  During the pandemic, Tom is working remotely and will likely return your call from a 435 number.  Videoconferencing is also available.



New Specimen Rules in Trademark Applications

On Friday, February 15th, a number of new rules governing trademark applications went into effect.

All trademark applications, and all correspondence in trademark applications and registrations, must now be filed electronically expect in limited circumstances.  The Trademark Office had been pushing stakeholders in this direction for years, most recently by significantly raising the cost of paper filing versus electronic filing.  However, now nearly all communications with the Trademark Office must be through the TEAS filing system or email (in certain limited circumstances).

In situations where the electronic filing system is unavailable (the Patent Office filing system frequently does down; the Trademark Office’s system does so less often), then submissions may be made via fax.  Yes, fax.

As part of this change, the Trademark Office proposed that applicant’s personal email addresses would have to be submitted and would be made public.  While we have always placed our firm email address on trademark applications as the official correspondence address for communications, this change is significant.  It spurred concern from many practitioners, who were worried that their clients would be spammed to no end.  Before last week, applicants receive spam paper solicitations, often with false information, fake deadlines, and large fee requests.  However, publishing a personal email address for each applicant would open the doors to widespread spamming.  So last week, I joined 198 other trademark attorneys in sending a letter to the Trademark Office explaining the consequences of this rule.  Thankfully, the Trademark Office rescinded this rule change on Thursday.  However, there has been talk since then that other systems at the Trademark Office are nevertheless requiring applicant email info.

The rule change has also affected specimens in trademark applications.  For specimens showing use of the mark with goods, the specimen must show use on the goods, on packaging for the goods, on labels or tags affixed to the goods, or on displays associated with the goods.  Previously, one could submit a photograph of a label or tag in isolation; that will only work now if the tag clearly shows the mark in actual use in commerce, such as by showing information like net weight, volume, UPC bar codes, ingredients.  Better practice is to simply show the goods with the tag of label affixed thereto.  As before, the specimen must show actual use; printer’s proofs, artist renderings, computer or digital illustrations, and similar mockups will still not be sufficient.  For screengrabs or screenshots, specimens must now show the URL and print date.

It is possible that these rules will change.  I expect the Trademark Office to issue a revised rule regarding applicant email addresses soon, and hopefully it will maintain the privacy of that information.  Check back for updates.



Sonos Sues Google For Patent Infringement

Patent InfringementSonos pioneered wireless multi-room audio in the early 2000s and first brought consumer products to the market in 2005.  Now it has taken on a juggernaut in smart home technology.  The battle highlights the need for – and difficulty of – foresight when drafting agreements governing intellectual property joint ventures.

Sonos sued Google for infringement of its patents covering smart speakers.  Sonos and Google had entered into a joint R&D venture to integrate Google Play Music into Sonos speakers, during which time Sonos shared a great deal of technological information with Google.  These ventures are common.  Sometimes, they end poorly, in litigation.  Sometimes, as happened here, the joint venture goes well but, a few years later, one of the parties comes out with products that are eerily similar to the other party’s.

Sonos and Google will have to fight it out in court or, more likely, come to a settlement regarding future use of the IP.  Sonos has additionally filed a complaint in the International Trade Commission, seeking to prevent Google from importing some speakers into the country, on the grounds that the speakers violate Sonos’s patents.  Patentees frequently take this double-pronged approach of filing an infringement suit in district court and a complaint with the ITC complaint.

Sonos has not flied suit against other manufacturers, such as Amazon, even though it is a potential target with its Echo products.  This may be because Amazon is a valuable retailer for Sonos’s speakers, and it doesn’t want to poke that bear.

This is not the first time that Google has been embroiled in such an action.  Over the past few years, Google’s affiliated company Waymo has been fighting Uber over technology they say one of Uber’s top autonomous car engineers – and former head of self-driving cars at Waymo – took from Google.

Cases such as these highlight a number of issues: how to properly handle background IP in a joint venture contract; how to deal with IP developed within a joint venture; whether and to what extent knowhow can be handled; how business relationships may affect a company’s choices in pursuing a potential infringement claim.  These are all difficult issues to negotiate, and difficult issues to predict.  However, when writing a joint venture agreement, license agreement, or other agreement concerning patents, trade secrets, and knowhow, both sides must attempt to look into the future and consider both the positive and negative possible outcomes.



Attorney Fees not Available in Appeals from Patent Office

The Supreme Court has recently ruled, in Peter v. Nantkwest, Inc., that in appeals from proceedings at the Patent Office, the patent applicant will not be responsible for the fees of the Patent Officer’s attorneys and paralegals. This decision provides clarity in an important factor when considering how to seek review of a patent application.

A patent application is initially filed with the Patent Office. Generally, all applications are rejected, and the process of receiving and responding to rejections is called prosecution. Prosecution can take quite a bit of time, but in certain cases, an applicant can appeal an Examiner’s decision in prosecution to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board. If the Board finds against the applicant, the applicant has the opportunity to request further review of the decision, either to District Court or the Federal Circuit. When this occurs, the applicant hires an attorney on its behalf, and the Patent Office is represented by in-house attorneys who argue its case against the applicant.

Recently, a district court held that an applicant, after losing its appeal, would have to pay the attorney and paralegal fees incurred by the Patent Office. This amounted to about $80,000. The applicant, not too excited, appealed that decision to the Federal Circuit and then to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court denied the Patent Office, finding that it should follow the “American Rule,” which has litigants bearing their own costs whether they win or lose. While patent statutes do allow the Patent Office to recover some expenses – expert costs, travel costs, docketing fees, for example – that did not extend so far as to cover attorney and paralegal fees.

Of course, attorney’s fees can be substantial in an appeal, and so the potential imposition of those fees could present a chilling effect on the pursuit of a patent grant. The Supreme Court recognized this, noting that such a rule would limit access to methods of redress from unfavorable Patent Office decisions.



THE Ohio State University and the Clothing Trademark Problem

Earlier this month, the Trademark Office refused an application to register a trademark for THE in

One of the specimens used in the THE trademark application by Ohio State University

connection with clothing.

The trademark application was filed by the Ohio State University. Some people have inaccurately seen this as grab by OSU to lock down all uses of the word THE, or that it was refused because OSU can’t be allowed to take the word THE out of the public domain. Both of these assumptions are wrong, however.

Just about any word can be protected as a trademark, but it has to be used the right way, and with the right product or service.

Here, the THE trademark application was refused for two reasons. First, someone else has filed for THE as a trademark already. When a trademark application is filed, the Trademark Office checks its registers to see if someone has previously registered or filed for a similar mark. If a similar mark has already been registered, the new application will be refused. If a similar mark has been filed (but not yet registered), the new application will be suspended. OSU’s application for THE has been suspended because Marc Jacobs, the well-known fashion designer, filed for THE a few months ago, in connection with clothing. His application was refused for technical reasons that often snare clothing trademark applications. Jacobs has 6 months to respond to the refusal, and until Jacobs’ application is either abandoned or approved, OSU’s application will remain suspended, unless it can argue over the suspension.

The second issue for OSU’s trademark application is one frequently seen in trademark applications for clothing. The application was refused because THE was only being used in an ornamental sense. This happens all the time with clothing because applicants think that putting a trademark in big letters on the front of the shirt shows that the trademark is being used. Just the opposite, though. The Trademark Office consistently rejects such proof of use.  In the photo above, words appearing in big font in the yellow rectangle will almost always get rejected.  Words or logos in the small green square will usually (though not always) get approved.  I’m surprised that this attorney, who appears to specialize in trademarks and IP law, didn’t know that, or didn’t file the application some other way to avoid the rejection; though perhaps there are other reasons the filing was made despite this. OSU will now need to provide proof that it is using THE in some other way, such as on a price tag or a label.

This case beautifully exemplifies why clothing trademarks are so delicate. I see more abandoned clothing trademark applications that any other kind, and I believe it is because business owners file them on their own, thinking that putting a name on the front of a t-shirt s sufficient to establish trademark rights. It isn’t; the law just does not reflect the public perception of a name or logo on a t-shirt. If you are considering filing a trademark application for clothing yourself, please don’t – contact a local trademark attorney or contact Tom here.



Protecting Cannabis-Related Intellectual Property

Many say cannabis is the next “Wild West.”  Although a convenient metaphor, it is not entirely appropriate.  Expansion into the American West was full of risk, speculation, and fraud.  The growth of the cannabis industry has been continuous and risky, and while some of the players in the industry have questionable practices and ethics, most are sophisticated business people strategically watching the market and the law.

No Clear Roads Ahead for Cannabis Trademark Protection (photo: Grand Tetons)

For cannabis, companies must negotiate a complex and evolving patchwork of state and federal laws.  Both levels of protection can be used to gain greater security.  Federal protection is advantageous because it is centralized, national, and thus likely to be cheaper and easier to maintain and administer.  However, federal protection has been slow to evolve, and has been risky to pursue.

The availability of federal cannabis trademark registration has waxed and waned in the past ten years, and in the last year has been completely thrown for a loop.  While THC-related trademarks have always been impossible to register, CBD-related ones could be through certain avenues.  Trademark Examiners began issuing rejections against THC marks under the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) a few years ago – but did so inconsistently.  The industry hoped that the 2018 Farm Bill would remove the CDA blockade, and it did, but only for trademarks used in connection with products that contain certain minimal levels of CBD only.  However, the Trademark Office also began citing the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”), administered by the FDA, which prevents the sale of anything containing a product that is under clinical investigation by the FDA.  As such, any CBD-containing product which is edible or ingestible – and some CBD products which are topically applicable – now cannot be registered for trademark protection.  Federal law has been a moving target for the past year or two, which has caused trademark owners to file trademark applications, change strategy midstream, split applications into risky and less risky new applications, and generally just keep their fingers crossed during the whole process.  While average processing time for most trademark applications can be 6-12 months, cannabis trademark applications are much longer.

State trademark protection can be much easier to obtain, but it has to be done on a state-by-state basis, obviously.  This can become expensive and more difficult to keep track of.  Additionally, some of the states have changed their rules governing what is and is not permissible, requiring trademark owners to continually re-evaluate their approach.

Patent and copyright protection is much more straightforward, because they are not dependent on some of the same vulnerabilities that trademark protection has.  While trademark protection must be based on use – and thus lawful, permitted use – patent and copyright protection is not so limited.  A CBD or THC related invention is a patentable invention (presuming it meets all requirements of patentability) – and its quasi-legal subject matter does not negate that.  Same with copyrights – as long as the subject matter is something which is original and creative, it can be protected with copyright.

Despite this, we find that trademark protection is the one that cannabis companies usually want.  We work with a number of clients in this space and find that copyright is a secondary concern and patents a tertiary one, if at all.  Generally, protecting the name, the logo, and the brand is of the highest importance.  As a result, we spend a lot of time discussing strategy, short- and long-term risks, and what the road ahead holds for the client.



International Registrations under the Madrid Protocol

Nothing to do with trademarks: Flosser found at the top of Big Mountain, Utah

Years ago, I wrote about international trademark protection, which can be obtained either by directly filing trademark applications through foreign counsel or by filing a centralized trademark application for an International Registration, through the Madrid Protocol. These two routes for seeking international protection are different, and each has its pros and cons.

One of the chief drawbacks of filing for an International Registration is the vulnerability of a “central attack.” Because all IRs are dependent upon a basis application or registration for the first five years, a central attack on that basis application can have cascading effects; if the basis application is abandoned, then the foreign applications will be canceled, unless the applicant divorces them from the IR. Other drawbacks exist for an IR, but this is a major one.

However, this is mostly only a problem for International Registrations that are based on a trademark application. An IR can also be based on a trademark registration. While applications can present a lot of uncertainty and risk, registrations are far more stable. A pending trademark application can falter if there are similar marks already registered, if the mark is considered to be descriptive, if the applicant is identified incorrectly, if there is an issue with the goods and services description…. A trademark registration, however, is much more concrete – it will only expire if it is cancelled for one of two reasons: you forget to maintain it or a third-party attacks it.

Maintenance of a trademark registration requires regular work at very spaced-apart intervals. Initially, a registration must be renewed at the five-year mark, and then again at the ten-year mark, but after that, only every decade. Thus, as long as you calendar your deadline (and you will probably get spammed well in advance of that), you have no excuse for failing to file the renewal paperwork.

A third party can petition to cancel a trademark registration. They might do this if they have filed a trademark application of their own that is then rejected in light of your trademark registration; they want to clear the path of your mark so theirs can register. Or you may have accused them of infringing your registration and they want to have it removed. There are a number of other reasons why a registration might be subject to cancellation. But statistically, the chances of that happening are relatively small.

So the two main dangers posed against a registered trademark are small, which makes filing an International Registration based on a trademark registration fairly safe. There may still be reasons to directly file into some countries (for instance, Mexico and Canada do not participate in the Madrid Protocol), but generally, for a registered trademark, significant costs can be saved with little downside by filing for an international registration. As always, one should consult an experienced trademark attorney for advice on their particular situation. Tom can be reached for more information here.



US Trademark Office Proposes Requiring Foreign Trademark Applicants to Use a US Attorney

About two months ago, the US Patent and Trademark Office proposed a rule change for representation of foreign-domiciled trademark applicants. The rule would affect trademark applicants, registrants, or parties to a proceeding such as an opposition or cancellation, whose domicile or principal place of business is not located within the United States or its territories. If the rule is implemented, these parties – or their foreign attorneys – would need to seek an attorney who is licensed to practice within the US.

The change has three stated goals. First, to increase “customer compliance” with federal trademark law. The second goal is to ensure the accuracy of submissions to the USPTO, and the third is to ensure the integrity of the US trademark register.

These goals all strike me as a little impersonal and machine-like, which may be the purpose behind an efficiency-driven rule change. They really just boil down to the hope that using a US attorney will increase the likelihood that the trademark application or registration, or proceeding flows smoothly through the Trademark Office because the person responsible for it will more likely be familiar with the Trademark Office’s rules. Of course, I’m not sure that these rules are effective measure for achieving the goals: plenty of US attorneys file trademark applications but shouldn’t – just because an attorney is barred in a US state does not mean that he or she is qualified to file a trademark application with the USPTO. We see lots of non-trademark attorneys that screw up filings because they just don’t know what they are doing. I am sure there are many foreign-based trademark attorneys who are better at prosecuting US trademarks than US non-trademark attorneys.

Many practitioners believe this is a response to the influx of Chinese sellers on Amazon and their use of protections offered through the Amazon Brand Registry 2.0 platform. This seems possible. We have seen more cases filed by Chinese applicants without an attorney of their own. Last week, we filed two actions against trademarks owned by Chinese-based applicants without any attorney at all. In both cases, the applications included specimens that appeared fraudulent, digitally-created photograph mock-ups meant to trick a US Examiner into accepting the application. And, both were instances where the applicants were also selling knock-off products on Amazon of my clients’ products. More so, it is well known that, while it costs as little as $225 to file a trademark application pro se, the Chinese government will award around $800 to a successful registration. Therefore, filing fake applications can be a revenue source for a Chinese resident.

The rule change is certainly good news for US attorneys, because it will drive more business to us. Much of that business likely doesn’t really need us – it can probably be competently handled by an experienced foreign attorney. But, some foreign applicants will benefit. And, some fraudulent trademark applications will be curtailed. If the Trademark Office were to require foreign applicants to first find a US attorney, this would raise the bar for filing slightly and would undoubtedly reduce the number of junk trademark applications.

We handle trademark applications in the US and outside the country frequently, both for domestic and foreign clients.  If you have questions about this rule change, or if you are in need of a US attorney, please don’t hesitate to contact us or call +1-602-281-6481.



Trademarks on Software During Beta Testing

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). 

We frequently handle software-based patent and trademark applications.  If you have questions or are in need of an attorney with experience in software, please don’t hesitate to contact Tom or call +1-602-281-6481.