Yesterday, on February 13, 2017, the Eighth Circuit issued a resounding affirmation of First Amendment principles in a case raising the question of just how far a public university can go in preventing the use of its marks by student organizations whose views the university may oppose or object to. We previously discussed the dispute in early December, before the court heard arguments in the case.

ISU NORML t-shirtIn the opinion, the unanimous appellate panel held that the First Amendment trumps normal trademark licensing principles for public universities, ruling that Iowa State University violated the First Amendment rights of students at the ISU chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, when ISU barred the chapter from using ISU’s marks in conjunction with images or messages that advocated in favor of marijuana.

In this case, Gerlich v. Leath (8th Cir., No. 16-1518), the court ruled that the university’s trademark licensing program for student organizations – which otherwise allows student groups at the university to use certain of the university’s marks on a royalty-free basis, subject to standard trademark licensing arrangements – constituted a “limited-purpose public forum” in which student organizations could take advantage of the university’s marks to advance their own causes.

The court then ruled, applying standard and well-settled First Amendment principles, that because the trademark licensing program is a public forum, the First Amendment prohibits the university from discriminating against or between speakers in that forum on the basis of the speakers’ viewpoints.

That conclusion necessarily means, the court held, that ISU violated the First Amendment when it prevented the NORML chapter at ISU from taking advantage of the university’s trademark licensing program in the wake of public controversy surrounding the chapter’s advocacy in favor of reforming marijuana laws:  “The defendants’ rejection of NORML ISU’s designs discriminated against that group on the basis of the group’s viewpoint. The state engages in viewpoint discrimination when the rationale for its regulation of speech is ‘the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker.’ . . . The defendants’ discriminatory motive is evidenced by the unique scrutiny defendants imposed on NORML ISU.”

Although ultimately unsurprising in terms of its application of First Amendment law, the Eight Circuit’s decision is likely to have a significant impact on public universities and colleges in how they handle trademark licensing requests.  The holding in this case means that when a university establishes a typical trademark licensing program, especially one for student organizations, the university may not distinguish between licensees (and potential licensees) on the basis of those licensees’ public statements or viewpoints.  The bottom line is that public unviersities and colleges may not do what any other trademark owner could otherwise do in controlling who gets to use the trademark owner’s marks, at least when the public institution has established a trademark licensing program that is otherwise available to certain classes of licensees, such as student groups.

The case stands as an important reminder that trademark licensing principles are different for governmental organizations because of the overarching constraints of the First Amendment.

In April 2016, the FTC filed a Complaint against Dr. Joseph Mercola and his companies alleging that their indoor tanning system advertisements violated section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive practices in commerce, and section 12(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits the dissemination of false advertisements in commerce for the purpose of inducing the purchase of foods, drugs, devices, services, or cosmetics.  According to the FTC, indoor tanning systems qualify as “devices” under the FTC Act.

tanning bed
Copyright: kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo

In its Complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants disseminated a number of false, misleading, deceptive, and unsubstantiated advertisements on the Mercola.com website, in search engine advertising, in a YouTube video of Dr. Mercola himself, and via newsletters.  Such advertisements include:

  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems is safe;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems will not increase the risk of skin cancer as long as consumers top using the system when their skin is only the slightest shade of pink and not burned;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems does not increase the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma skin cancer;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems reduces the risk of skin cancer;
  • The FDA has endorsed the use of indoor tanning systems as safe;
  • Research proves that indoor tanning systems do not increase the risk of melanoma skin cancer;
  • Certain Mercola brand tanning systems will pull collagen back to the surface of the skin, increase elastin and other enzymes that support the skin, fill in lines and wrinkles, and reverse the appearance of aging;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand tanning systems provides various benefits to consumers, including increasing Vitamin D and providing Vitamin D-related health benefits; and
  • The Vitamin D Council recommends Mercola brand tanning systems (without disclosing that the defendants arranged for the Vitamin D Council to be compensated for its endorsement).

Today, the FTC announced that, as a result of a settlement agreement reached with Dr. Mercola and its companies, the FTC is mailing $2.59 million in refunds to more than 1,300 purchasers of Mercola indoor tanning systems. According to the FTC, the average refund check is $1,897.  Additionally, under the settlement agreement, the defendants are banned from selling indoor tanning systems in the future.

More information regarding the FTC’s views on indoor tanning advertising can be found on the FTC’s website and blog.  According to the FTC, no government agency recommends indoor tanning and the FDA requires indoor tanning equipment to contain signs warning users of the risk of cancer.  In addition, the FTC actively investigates false, misleading, and deceptive advertisements related to indoor tanning.

Several large retailers likely thought that they were finally clear of legal problems relating to advertising sale prices for products that were not truly on sale.  With a post on September 28, 2016, https://advertisinglaw.foxrothschild.com/?s=class+action, Dennis Hansen discussed these class action lawsuits, several which have settled for millions of dollars.  For example, JC Penny paid $50 million to settle a class action suit against it alleging that its advertised and listed sale prices were not actually sale prices, but were more akin to regular prices.  However, the bad news for these retailers continues as local government enforcement actions have now been brought.

The Los Angeles city attorney brought claims against Kohl’s, JC Penny, Macy’s and Sears based upon the same alleged conduct.  These lawsuits could subject these retailers to additional substantial penalties, on top of the money already spent on the consumer class actions.  Additionally, the Alameda County Attorney’s office recently brought claims against My Pillow for making health claims in its advertising that are allegedly not supported by any scientific research or studies.  My Pillow settled with Alameda County, agreeing to pay over $1 million in fines.

These actions brought by local governments are unique in that false advertising claims are usually left to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC”), consumer class actions, or lawsuits brought by competitors.   The FTC, however, does not have the resources to bring claims against all improper advertising, even focusing on just advertising relating to health claims.  However, these local government enforcement actions can somewhat fill that gap and give more effect to state statutes regulating advertising, such as California’s statute regarding what is a sale price.  As a result, it is important to make sure that you are aware of the advertising statutes in each state in which you are advertising, particularly if you are frequently listing a product as being on sale.  For example, in California, a sale price cannot be compared to a previous price (such as 50% off) unless that previous price was the actual market price of the product within the previous three months.  And, as always, all advertising claims, especially health claims, should be substantiated so that if a competitor, the government, or a consumer class action lawyer brings a claim, you are able to quickly show that the advertising is accurate.

What comes to mind when you hear the term “LifeProof”? Does it immediately make you think of something that protects from all of life’s hazards or does it merely suggest that something can withstand various accidents? That is what the Ninth Circuit in California is deciding in Seal Shield LLC v. Otter Products LLC, et. al. after hearing oral arguments on the topic in January. The issues central to the case hammer home the importance of using your trademarks in the right way—as a trademark identifying a brand—or a source—and not as term that merely describes the product.

In this case, Seal Shield and Otter Products both claim rights to the same term—LIFEPROOF. Seal Shield argues that it was the first to use it, so it should have the rights. Otter Products counters and argues that Seal Shield did not use it in the right way—that Seal Shield only used it to describe the product and not as a trademark.

Copyright: 91foto / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: 91foto / 123RF Stock Photo

Seal Shield sued Otter Products and TreeFrog Developments (which was acquired by Otter Products) after TreeFrog Developments obtained a federal trademark for LIFEPROOF in 2010. Seal Shield brought a suit in 2013 and argued that it had senior rights to the name LIFEPROOF and requested that the court cancel Otter Products’ trademark as a matter of law. In ruling in favor of Otter Products, the district court held that as a matter of law Seal Shield did not have proprietary rights to the LIFEPROOF name because the way Seal Shield used the name (as a tagline or slogan with its Klear Kase protective cases) was merely descriptive.

Seal Shield appealed the district court decision arguing that its use of LIFEPROOF is not merely descriptive but is suggestive. Specifically, Seal Shield argued that LIFEPROOF falls short of explicitly describing the various features that are included under the mark LIFEPROOF and it takes a mental leap to associate the word LIFEPROOF with a protective case that protects from all of the elements and human error, meaning the mark is suggestive. Seal Shield also argued the mere fact that the USPTO granted TreeFrog Developments federal registration of LIFEPROOF demonstrates that such mark is protectable.

For its part, in addition to a myriad of other arguments, Otter Products contends that Seal Shield’s use of the LIFEPROOF mark is merely descriptive and that it failed to show any consumer evidence of secondary meaning—such as a survey showing that consumers associate their use of LIFEPROOF with the goods of one maker rather than merely describing the product. And to address the seeming inconsistency, Otter Products contends that Seal Shield cannot rely on Otter Products’ federal registration as evidence that the mark LIFEPROOF is distinctive because, as Otter Products argues, it uses the mark as a trademark and not merely to describe the goods.

The court will rule on this appeal later this year. You may think it’s counter-intuitive for Otter Products to argue that Seal Shield’s use of the LIFEPROOF mark is merely descriptive while at the same time maintaining a federal registration for that same mark that is inherently distinctive and suggestive; however, this demonstrates that the way you use mark is a key component on whether a mark will obtain trademark protection.

The FTC recently cracked down on Breathometer, Inc., the maker of an app-supported smartphone breathalyzer, for false and deceptive advertising.

The advertised purpose of the product is to keep people safe—to let someone know when he/she has had too many to drive, and provide an estimate on when sobriety will return.  The device, which connects to an app on a smartphone, allows the user to blow into it and receive a blood-alcohol content reading on their phone.  The accuracy of the reading, however, is in dispute – and it appears the advertisements may have overstated the accuracy of the BAC reading.

In its advertising, Breathometer touted “FDA registered, Law enforcement grade accuracy” and “‘police grade’ precision.”  The advertising went on to claim that the accuracy was proven by “government-lab grade testing.”  According to the FTC’s complaint, these claims were not supported, or outright false.  The FTC alleged that the product was not adequately tested for accuracy and that the company was aware that the device regularly understated users’ BAC – in other words, informing drunk people that they were sober to drive.

Now a settlement with the FTC has imposed strict restrictions on the conduct of the company and its founder going forward.  The company and its founder are prohibited from making claims regarding the accuracy of the product without the support of specifically outlined testing demonstrating it “meets the accuracy specifications set for evidential breath alcohol testers that have been approved by the Department of Transportation.”  In fact, without such testing support, the company cannot advertise that the product detects BAC at all, and is prohibited from “re-enabling the Breathometer app’s breathalyzer functions” which were previously shut down.

In addition, the company must give a full refund to everyone who bought the product – wiping out approximately $5.1 million in revenues.  The company is required to specifically notify its customers by email of their right to a refund, and post refund information on its website.

Registering your brand name as a trademark domestically or internationally can be a long, confusing process involving obscure governmental agencies requiring various fees at seemingly random intervals. Some of these demands are legitimate (International Bureau of the World Intellectual Property Organization notification that payment of a 2nd part fee is due in Swiss francs): but many others are NOT (WPAT s.r.o. invoice for 2738$ “on or before”, 2798$ “after”).

These solicitations arrive because the process of registering a trademark creates a public record. This means that anyone who infringes a registered trademark is not allowed to complain they did not know about the trademark but it also lets potential scam artists know that you have a trademark you care enough about to spend money registering.

But be careful not to be misled by the flurry of official looking invoices! Like this one:

Don't pay this invoice!
Don’t pay this invoice!

The United States Patent and Trademark Office warns against such scams, listing a number of examples (the above image was taken from their website).

If you have hired a trademark attorney to register your brand name for you, you need never pay any of the invoices yourself. Trademark attorneys will pay the legitimate ones on your behalf. In the United States and in most other countries, legitimate communications will be directed only to the trademark attorney and not to the trademark owner. When in doubt, just forward the communication to your trademark attorney.

If you are trying to negotiate the process yourself or just want to be able to spot wrongdoers, here is our list of red flags:

  1. Who dd it come from? Scammers like to use slight deviations from the correct names of the legitimate agencies. For example instead of “The United States Patent and Trademark Office”, the notice will come from entities such as the “Trademark and Patent Office” or the “United States Trademark Registration Office”.
  2. Where dd it come from? The real United States Patent and Trademark Office is located in Alexandria, Virginia. Beware of solicitations directing funds be sent to an address in New York or Philadelphia Pennsylvania. And, especially not Slovakia!
  3. Read the fine print. Some of the communications helpfully state that they are not legitimate (in a tiny difficult-to-read font, embedded in the middle of a long paragraph with otherwise unalarming factual information): “THIS PUBLICATION IS AN ELECTIVE SERVICE WHICH NEITHER SUBSTITUTE THE REGISTRATION NOR PROLONGS THE VALIDITY OF THIS TRADEMARK OR PATENT WITH U.S.P.T.O.”
  4. Watch the grammar! Typos, grammar and spelling errors are common in these types of scams. See the example in our red flag number 3…
  5. Check the website address. The real United States Patent and Trademark Office operates from the address USPTO.gov. Addresses such as patenttrademarkoffice.org, on the other hand, take you to a website that explains, in the “About Us” tab: “Headquartered in New York City, the Patent Trademark Office is the nation’s premier Trademark and Patent renewal service.” (ha!). Likewise, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) operates from the address WIPO.int. Be suspicious of any address ending in a .com, .org or .us.
 Don’t fall prey to these confusing communications!

 

 

This morning, the United States Supreme Court heard the long-anticipated oral argument in the Lee v. Tam trademark dispute. The issue in the case, as reported on the SCOTUS blog, is as follows:

“Whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which provides that no trademark shall be refused registration on account of its nature unless, inter alia, it ‘[c]onsists of . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute’ is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

Supreme Court
Copyright: mesutdogan / 123RF Stock Photo

Stated more simply, the issue facing the Supreme Court is whether section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which bars the registration of disparaging trademarks, is constitutional. The Supreme Court is now primed to make that decision, which will not only have an impact on the Lee v. Tam dispute but also the Washington Redskins dispute and many others.

In making that decision, the justices will consider the parties’ oral argument and briefing as well as the numerous amicus briefs filed by numerous third party organizations and individuals interested in the outcome of the Lee v. Tam dispute. Demonstrating the significance of this dispute, numerous of the justices during oral argument today asked pointed questions to the attorneys representing the parties, particularly to the attorney arguing on behalf of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (in favor of the Lanham Act’s current prohibition). Today’s oral argument started and ended with questions related to differences in trademark law and copyright law and included questions on a whole range of topics relevant to section 2(a), its constitutionality, and its implications.

The Supreme Court will issue an order in the case later this year. Additional background regarding this dispute and the related Washington Redskins dispute can be found in prior blog posts as part of this blog’s ongoing coverage of developments in this landmark dispute.

Sunscreen
Copyright: farakos / 123RF Stock Photo

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued a decision against California Naturel, Inc. related to its advertising of “all natural” sunscreen on both its website and the product packaging itself. On its website, California Naturel was not only advertising its sunscreen as “all natural” but was describing the sunscreen as containing “only the purest, most luxurious and effective ingredients found in nature.” The FTC found that this advertising conveyed that California Naturel’s sunscreen contains only ingredients that are found in nature.  But because California Naturel admitted that eight percent of its sunscreen formula consists of a synthetic ingredient, the FTC determined that California Naturel’s advertising constituted false and misleading advertising and that such advertising is likely to materially impact consumers’ purchasing decisions.

In response to California Naturel’s arguments, the FTC decided that the product’s ingredient list and the disclaimer on California Naturel’s website were insufficient to cure the deceptive advertising. With respect to the ingredient list, the FTC noted that the synthetic ingredient was buried within a list of over 30 ingredients and that nothing identified the ingredient at issue as synthetic. With respect to the website disclaimer, the FTC found that it was not prevalent enough given its location at the bottom of the website—particularly in contrast to the prevalence of the “all natural” advertising elsewhere on the website and on the product packaging itself.

Under its authority to issue a remedy for false and misleading advertising, the FTC issued an order prohibiting California Naturel from advertising its products as “all natural” or making other similar representations. More information about the FTC’s decision against California Naturel can be found here.

Next week (12/14/2016), in a marble tiled courtroom in frosty St. Paul, Minnesota, a panel of judges of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will wrestle with a question that is both as new as the campaign to legalize marijuana and as old as the First Amendment: When can a public university protect its brand, and its valuable trademarks, from being associated with viewpoints or messages that it rejects?

In the case of Gerlich v. Leath (8th Cir., No. 16-1518), a pair of students at Iowa State University are pursuing the provocative position that public universities have no power to discriminate in their trademark licensing practices so as to prevent their marks from being used by student groups that espouse positions the university regards as objectionable.  In that sense, the Gerlich case pits classic trademark rights – the power of a trademark owner to control how his mark is used – against the First Amendment’s prohibition of government discrimination based on a speaker’s viewpoint.

At Iowa State, as is the case at most public universities, student organizations are permitted to license various university trademarks to designate the organization’s involvement with ISU and the organization’s status as a registered student organization.  So long as these student groups comply with standard trademark usage guidelines, such as not altering or modifying the look of the university’s marks, the student groups are permitted to use the university’s marks under royalty-free licenses.  Iowa State has authorized trademark licenses to hundreds of student organizations, including those as varied as the Iowa State University Students for Life, an anti-abortion group, and the Iowa State Democrats, a group supporting abortion rights.  The university’s trademark licensing practices even extended to CUFFS, a sexual bondage student club that was a recognized student organization on campus and which used the university’s trademarks in conjunction with the club’s logo displaying a set of handcuffs.

In the context of these licensing practices, when the university came under fire for publicity garnered by the Iowa State chapter of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), which was using the university’s marks in combination with NORML’s logo displaying a distinctive cannabis leaf, the university put its foot down.  The university revoked any prior authorization for the ISU NORML chapter to use the university’s marks on the student group’s t-shirts – which bore the slogan “Freedom is NORML at ISU” along with a cannabis leaf.  And thereafter, the university prohibited the use of the university’s marks in connection with “illegal” products.

ISU NORML t-shirt

In the face of these actions, the student leaders of ISU NORML brought a First Amendment civil rights suit against Iowa State’s university president and other university administrators, contending that their First Amendment rights were violated by the university’s trademark licensing actions.  The students argued – and Senior District Judge James E. Gritzner, in the trial court in Des Moines, Iowa, agreed – that the university’s exercise of standard trademark licensing powers violated the First Amendment because it constituted “viewpoint discrimination” based on the university’s objections to the student organization’s political views.

Under a robust and well-developed line of judicial decisions, courts have routinely held that one of the most hallowed functions of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from discriminating between speakers on the basis of what they say.  Such “viewpoint discrimination” is per se prohibited by the First Amendment because the essence of this constitutional provision is to prevent the government from favoring one speaker over another on the basis of agreement or disagreement with the content of the speaker’s messages.

In contrast, however, standard and equally well-settled trademark law requires a trademark owner to control a licensee’s use of the owner’s marks, and allows the trademark owner to discriminate in his selection of licensees for his marks on the basis of the trademark owner’s assessment of whether the licensee will undermine the reputation or goodwill of the trademark owner’s brand.

Confronted by these two doctrines, the district court sided with the students in a decision in January this year, issuing an injunction prohibiting the university from refusing to license its marks to the ISU NORML chapter.  Now, on appeal, the university is attempting to escape the strong First Amendment prohibitions against viewpoint discrimination by focusing on how the use of its marks by various student groups can reflect negatively on the university, and as a result, the university’s trademark licensing practices should be regarded as a form of government speech.  (If so, then there is no First Amendment violation because the government is entitled under the First Amendment to say whatever it likes.)

With a bevy of First Amendment scholars and advocacy organizations lining up against the university through various amicus briefs, as well as a vigorous argument on behalf of the students from noted Washington, D.C., First Amendment litigator Robert Corn-Revere, it seems likely that the Eighth Circuit will affirm the injunction and endorse the students’ position that the First Amendment trumps trademark licensing norms when dealing with a public university.

Such a ruling would be another cautionary tale for public institutions with regard to their trademarks, perhaps demonstrating once again that they are “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”

It would also be another instance in the perennial tension between the First Amendment and trademark law demonstrating that in such battles, it is usually the First Amendment that wins.

Stay tuned.  Literally.  The Eighth Circuit posts same-day audio of its oral arguments online.

The newest NHL franchise, set to debut in Las Vegas next year, might be considering other names for the team after the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) rejected the hockey team’s proposed trademark, “VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS”.

In an Office Action issued this week (Dec. 7, 2016), an examining attorney preliminary rejected the mark “VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS” because it was too similar and likely to be confused with the mark used by the College of Saint Rose, “GOLDEN KNIGHTS OF THE COLLEGE OF SAINT ROSE”.

Interestingly, the College of Saint Rose (Albany, NY) doesn’t even have a sanctioned hockey team!

In a statement released following the issue of the Office Action, the franchise said the following:

“There are countless examples of college sports teams and professional sports teams with coexisting names, including Vegas Golden Knights and Clarkson Golden Knights, UCLA Bruins and Boston Bruins, U of Miami Hurricanes and Carolina Hurricanes, etc. We will plan on making these arguments and others in our detailed written response to the office action which must be filed by June 7, 2017.

Office actions like these are not at all unusual, and we will proceed with the help of outside counsel in preparing a response to this one.”

The Office Action also required the franchise to “disclaim” the word “VEGAS” as being too geographically descriptive. Since the team will be playing in Las Vegas, and “VEGAS” is included in the trademark, that portion of the mark impermissibly describes the services and cannot be protected as part of the mark.

Many trademark applicants receive office actions (rejection letters) from the USPTO, and this is merely a preliminary refusal to register the mark. The franchise’s response to the USPTO’s Office Action, which is due in six months, will likely set out the franchise’s position on why it should be allowed to register its mark, regardless of the College of Saint Rose’s mark. The arguments could range from arguments regarding dissimilarities in the marks or the consumers of the marks to the existence of a co-existence agreement.

Team owner Bill Foley has previously said that Clarkson College and the University of Central Florida – both of which are also known as the Golden Knights – consented to his team using the name. Foley has not said whether he attempted to get consent from the College of Saint Rose.

Co-existence agreements (i.e. agreements that both parties can use the marks) are typical, and submitting evidence of such an agreement to the USPTO often gets a proposed mark registered.

Whatever the arguments the franchise may have, individuals and companies alike should remember to conduct thorough due diligence before attempting to register a mark—and before spending significant resources promoting a mark. This will help identify potential conflicts to a registration and use of a mark, allowing for, if necessary, the modification of the mark or the development consent co-existence agreements to avoid office actions or infringement claims.

This is a developing story, so stay tuned for further updates.