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Category: News

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.



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.



The Patent Office is Not (Yet) Affected by the Government Shutdown

Nearly a month into the government shutdown, the United States Patent and Trademark Office continues to run at full capacity.  The Patent Office is somewhat self-funded, in that the fees that applicants pay to file and prosecute patent applications are used to pay examiners and other staff.  However, the Patent Office is not allowed to spend all of that money willy-nilly; its budget is set by Congress, and the Office is permitted to spend up to that budget limit assuming sufficient fees are collected. 

In past years, sufficient fees have been collected, and with great foresight, the Patent Office has funded an operating reserve account with some of those fees.  While the Patent Office has a separate reserve fund which is supplied by fees paid in excess of the budget, the money into the operating reserve represent fees siphoned from the budget, perhaps the delta between the budget and the operating costs of the PTO.  And, while the reserve fund is empty, the operating reserve has about $300 million.  This is enough to keep the Patent Office running for a short time, about five weeks.

The operating reserve is not exhausted, but is being steadily consumed with this shutdown.  As it drains further, “non-essential” activities will be suspended.  Examiners will likely pause their reviews of applications.  However, the filing systems – and the staff necessary to support them – will remain online so that application filing deadlines can continue to be met.  It is not clear what will happen if the shutdown continues to the point where there aren’t even fees to keep the filing systems up….



Patent Office Transitions to MyUSPTO Login

For many years, registered patent attorneys, patent agents, and some pro se inventors have been able to log into a secure portal at the Patent Office website to file and monitor patent applications. The portal is protected by both a password and a digital key that requires a lengthy certification process with the Patent Office, so it has mostly just been used by attorneys and agents.

This past month, the Patent Office introduced MyUSPTO.gov, which it billed as a “new, simpler, and safer USPTO.gov account” through which you can access patent and trademark files, monitor a docket, create watches to keep track of competitive patents or your own, and to access the search databases for both patents and trademarks. It is an attempt to unify patent and trademark records, as well as the filing and monitoring systems previously available through the Patent Office only.

Practitioners were asked to link their old portal accounts to their new MyUSPTO.gov accounts by the end of October. Fearing that the old portal would become inaccessible come November, I did this at the beginning of October. What I’ve learned is that while MyUSPTO.gov does offer all the things mentioned above, it also additionally requires two-step verification each day, after completing a prolonged CAPTCHA. This is annoying and unnecessary. I’m not aware of any other provider that requires daily two-step verification; even WIPO doesn’t have it.

As a result, I haven’t been using the MyUSPTO.gov login at all. All of the old services are accessible, and more easily accessible than MyUSPTO.gov. The USPTO is reporting that the digital keys will be officially retired in December, and that a new Patent Center software suite will be rolled out in 2020. As long as the Office continues to provide the old portal login system, I will probably use it, unless they ease this two-step requirement.



Is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Affected by the 2018 Government Shutdown?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is not affected by the shutdown which has closed many government offices and agencies after Congress failed to pass a funding resolution.  Navigate to www.uspto.gov and you’ll be greeted by the banner announcing the Office is still open.

While other agencies are dependent upon immediate funding for their continuance, the USPTO maintains a reserve account of funds. The funds allow the Office to continue operating at nearly full capacity for at least a few weeks. These are collected, in part, from the applicants that have filed and prosecuted patent and trademark applications in the United States in previous years.

In December 2017, the Commerce Department issued a shutdown plan which noted: “The USPTO anticipates that it will have sufficient funds from other than current year appropriations to continue full operations for a brief period after a general lapse in appropriations commences. Therefore, all employees of the USPTO will be excepted for such period following a lapse in appropriations.” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross emailed USPTO employees on Friday, January 19, 2018 directing them to continue reporting for work until they were notified otherwise.

Collections from previous years enable the USPTO to operate despite furloughs at other federal agencies. The USPTO is well-funded; in fact, it generates far more money in fees than it consumes in expenses. However, fee diversion moves much of its revenue to other governmental agencies. The 2011 America Invents Act allows the Office to trap some of those fees into the reserve account before they can be diverted outside the agency.

Should the shutdown continue and the reserve funds be consumed, employees would begin to be furloughed. A small staff would nevertheless remain to accept new applications and to maintain the IT infrastructure. The electronic filing systems through which most patent attorneys and agents correspond with the USPTO would continue to operate, allowing filing dates to be established and deadlines to be met. The shutdown does close down the File Repository Warehouse, where the paper files for older patent applications are maintained. That warehouse is not operated by the USPTO and so is affected by the shutdown. As such, requests for copies of paper files (which normally take 1-4 weeks for production) will likely be delayed. This would not affect electronic files, of course.

In 2013, the government shut down lasted for two and a half weeks. The USPTO stayed open then, too, using the same reserve fund.



Utility and Design Patent Issuances Up in 2017

Nearly every year for the past decade, the Patent Offices have issued more utility and design patents.  2017 was no exception.  While former Director Kappo’s guiding hand has often been praised for increasing patent quality, the patent numbers during his oversight improved as well.  The Office was without an official director during most of Trump’s first year and is now headed by acting Director Joseph Matal.  Despite the uncertainty, in 2017, there were approximately 5% more issued utility patents and roughly 10% more issued design patents than in 2016.  Charts from Patently-O can be seen here.



Intellectual Property Lawsuit Between Google/Waymo and Uber

Trial is moving forward in the Google/Waymo v. Uber intellectual property case. It has been thought that this lawsuit might help crown an early king of the self-driving vehicle industry, which Uber describes as potentially “the most lucrative business in history.”

In February 2017, Google spin-off Waymo sued Uber for misappropriation of trade secrets and patent infringement, stemming from the actions of former Google employee Anthony Levandowski. Levandowski was a high-level engineer in Google’s self-driving car division. He downloaded nearly 10GB of Google’s data – over 14,000 files – a few weeks before leaving Google to start his own company in January 2016. His company, Otto, was focused on autonomous truck technology. Just six months after he started the company, Uber acquired it for $680 million, and Levandowski was named to head Uber’s self-driving car work.

Not long after, one of Uber’s supplies mistakenly emailed information to Waymo about a circuit board Uber had ordered. Waymo looked at the board, thought it was a little too similar to the technology it had been working on while Levandowski was part of its team, and filed suit for a preliminary injunction against Uber.

A preliminary injunction is, essentially, a temporary restraining order. It is an order from a court temporarily preventing an entity from taking certain actions until more evidence can be gathered and a lawsuit filed (or not filed) or settlement reached. Here, Waymo requested that Uber’s work on self-driving cars be halted until Waymo could figure out possible damages and how to proceed next. Waymo won that injunction, showing a likelihood of prevailing in an eventual lawsuit and the danger of irreparable harm.

The case revolves primarily around LiDAR, which is a laser-based radar technology that allows a computer to map or “see” an environment. LiDAR has been used extensively for decades, but has recently come to prominence with autonomous vehicle developments. The trade secrets and patent claims revolve around this technology. The trade secrets claims rest, in part, on things like the designs for the printed circuit boards that Waymo developed, the position and orientation of the diodes and photodetectors on the boards, the selection and placement of optical elements for modifying LiDAR laser beams, and the laser pulse rate in the LiDAR system to create a precise resolution profile of objects in the environment. The patents (U.S. Patent Nos. 8,836,922, 9,368,273, and 9,086,273) also cover LiDAR technology. For instance, the ‘922 patent claims protection in a LiDAR device including a rotatable housing including transmit blocks and receive blocks, with a number of transmitters and detectors in them, such that light is emitted from the device and return light is gathered and collimated, or aligned, and focused back into the detectors. This technology assists in three-dimensional mapping of the environment.

Uber has several different types of LiDAR devices, and the patent claims reflected actions against them. However, in July, most of the patent claims were dropped after the judge encouraged the parties to narrow the issues, and after Uber stopped work on its “so-called” Spider technology on one of the LiDAR devices.

Last week, Waymo’s case grew more tenuous with the release of a due diligence report Uber commissioned before it acquired Otto. Although report includes dark details like Levandowski’s deletion of files and then destruction of the hard drives holding those files. Levandwoski tried to talk with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about the hard drives, but Kalanick put up a brick wall to the discussion. Together with the report, documents regarding Uber’s designs were released, and even the judge noted that “the product is dissimilar. In many ways, it may be a vast improvement of what was going on at Waymo. So [Waymo has] come up a little short there.” In light of the documents release, trial, set to begin yesterday, has been postponed now to early December.



Firm Quoted in Newspaper Regarding Recycling

A few months ago, the firm was recognized as a Green Business Leader. Now the word is getting out. I was interviewed last week by the Arizona Republic regarding the program and recycling in Phoenix generally. You can see the article here.



Government Trademark Fees To Rise

The United States Patent and Trademark Office will be increasing certain trademark fees on January 14, 2017. The USPTO is unique among government agencies in that it is a profit center for the US; it generates more revenue for the government than it expends in operating costs.

Most, if not all, of the increasing fees are for paper filings. Trademark applications filed by paper are much more time-consuming than those lodged electronically through the Trademark Office’s online filing system. The filing fee for paper applications is nearly doubling to $600. It appears the costs associated with pursuing a registered trademark are not going to change.

Trademark fees are set at levels projected to cover future costs, including operating costs and reserve funds. The number of applications filed, and the number of registered trademark issued, continues to climb this year, as it has for the past six years. The Trademark Office is predicting that this will not change in the near future. Further, the Office desires to not increase the pendency of a trademark application, which currently averages 9.8 months, despite the predicted increase in trademark filings. Further, the Trademark Office is upgrading its IT systems.

The Trademark Office has chosen to fund these changes and improvements by shifting the fee burden to those still filing by paper. I don’t have figures for the number of applications filed electronically versus in paper, but I find it fascinating that there are apparently enough paper filings that these fee increases will bring in enough money to fund its changes. As the Office puts it: “The fees will allow the Office to further USPTO strategic objectives by: Better aligning fees with the full cost of the relevant products and services; protecting the integrity of the register by incentivizing more timely filing or examination of applications and other filings and more efficient resolution of appeals and trials; and promoting the efficiency of the process, in large part through lower-cost electronic filing options. The changes will also continue to recover the aggregate estimated cost of Trademark and Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) operations and USPTO administrative services that support Trademark operations.”