Made in the USA Banner
Copyright: lifeking / 123RF Stock Photo

In the last two months, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has reached two settlements related to complaints it initiated against companies regarding “Made in the USA” advertising claims.

First, in February, the FTC announced that it had reached a settlement with a Georgia-based water filtration systems company named iSpring Water Systems, LLC.  According to the FTC, iSpring advertised its water filtration systems on its website and through third parties as “Built in USA” (and other similar claims).  The FTC found such advertising false or misleading because the water filtration systems were either entirely imported or contained significant parts that had been imported, thus violating the FTC’s long-standing requirement that “all or virtually all” of the product be made in the USA in order to be advertised as such.  The settlement allows iSpring to make certain qualified claims, with a clear and conspicuous disclosure, but prohibits iSpring from advertising contrary to the FTC’s “all or virtually all” requirement.  More information regarding the settlement is available on the FTC’s blog.

Second, earlier this month, the FTC announced that it had reached a settlement with a Texas-based pulley company named Block Division, Inc.  According to the FTC, Block Division advertised its pulleys in various media using “Made in USA” text and graphics.  The FTC found such advertising misleading given that the pulleys had significant and essential parts that had been imported.  Further, some of the pulleys contained steel plates stamped as “Made in USA” before they were imported.  The settlement allows Block Division to make certain qualified claims, again with a clear and conspicuous disclosure, but prohibits Block Division from advertising contrary to the FTC’s “all or virtually all” requirement.  More information regarding the settlement is available on the FTC’s blog.

Both of these FTC actions and resulting settlements demonstrate that the FTC takes “Made in the USA” claims seriously and will enforce its requirements regarding such advertising.  A prior blog post outlines those requirements in more detail.

This week, the Federal Circuit issued a new decision that once again reflects the tricky conundrum facing businesses whose trademarks are a collection of descriptive words.

In such circumstances, the Patent & Trademark Office – as well as the courts that review PTO decisions – frequently require such a business to “disclaim” any rights in the words that comprise the business’ mark.  This disclaimer requirement is imposed on the grounds that the words in the mark are merely descriptive on their own and that as a result, the business should not be permitted to own trademark rights which would otherwise prevent other businesses from using those words for their own separate businesses.

In some cases, as was the situation for DDMB, Inc., the Chicago business involved in the current case, the Trademark Office will require the business to disclaim every word in the business’ name, such that the business is not entitled to any rights in any of the individual words apart from their inclusion in the full mark.

This legal doctrine came to bear most recently against a company that operates a pair of Chicago restaurants, in the case In re DDMB, Inc., — Fed. Appx. —, 2017 WL 915102 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 8, 2017).  In its decision, the Federal Circuit affirmed a prior ruling in January 2016 by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, denying federal registration for a service mark using the phrase “EMPORIUM ARCADE BAR.”  The examining attorney at the Trademark Office had required the applicant to disclaim the word “emporium,” after the business already had disclaimed the words “arcade” and “bar,” in its application to register the following mark:

Emporium Arcade Bar - Trademark Registration Application
Source: In re: DDMB, Inc. Opinion, Issued March 6, 2017

When the Chicago business refused to agree to the additional disclaimer of the word “emporium,” the Trademark Office refused to approve the registration, which was being sought in connection with bars, bar services, and providing video and amusement arcade services. The Office’s insistence on a disclaimer of the word “emporium” was approved by the TTAB in a subsequent decision in January 2016. And, that decision has now been affirmed in this week’s ruling by the circuit court.

In holding that a disclaimer of the word “emporium” is required because it is merely descriptive of the applicant’s bar and arcade services, the TTAB had ruled that this word describes attributes of a large establishment with a wide variety of merchandise and activity going on within it, and that as a result, the word functions as a description of the applicant’s services rather than as an indicator of the origin or source of the services. The TTAB’s ruling was premised on dictionary definitions and at least seven other trademark registrations where the word “emporium” had been seen to be descriptive and where a disclaimer was required as a result. Specifically, for example, the TTAB cited registrations where disclaimers were imposed for the marks “THE FLYING SAUCER DRAUGHT EMPORIUM,” “McDADE’S EMPORIUM,” and “STAMPEDE MESQUITE GRILL & DANCE EMPORIUM,” each of which involved businesses with similar bar services.

(The circuit court affirmed the TTAB’s ruling, in a non-precedential, per curiam decision in light of the extremely generous standard of review on appeal for such factual determinations by the TTAB because the circuit court is required to affirm such determinations if there is “substantial evidence” to support them.)

The In re DDMB case stands as a cautionary tale for businesses with names that are otherwise descriptive words, or collections of descriptive words. The trouble for the applicant here is that there is a long history of the Trademark Office requiring applicants to disclaim the word “emporium.” This trouble was accentuated by the fact that the applicant sought to register a composite mark that had other descriptive words in the mark that the applicant already had disclaimed. The specimen that the applicant submitted with its application highlighted this trouble:

Emporium Arcade Bar - USPTO File Wrapper Record Image
Source: USPTO file-wrapper record, U.S. TM Serial No. 86312296, June 17, 2014.

In such circumstances, instead of seeking registration for a mark in which the word “emporium” was displayed with equal visual significance as “arcade” and “bar,” the applicant might have considered applying for registration of a different version of the mark, with only the one word “emporium,” such as what is now visible at the applicant’s storefront at its Logan Square restaurant in Chicago, as shown on its website:

Emporium Arcade Bar - Front
Source: Emporium Arcade Bar Website, March 10, 2017

Ultimately, however, even if the application had focused on only one word, as opposed to three, it is still likely that the Trademark Office would have required a disclaimer of the word “emporium” because of the long history of treating this word as merely descriptive.

As a result, and as a lesson for businesses with highly descriptive words in their names, it may be wise to accept a demand from a trademark examiner to disclaim the descriptive word in a business’ mark – if only as a means of moving forward with the federal trademark registration –and then to invest in building consumer recognition of the business’ mark. Some of the most famous marks today, which have been around for generations, continue to have disclaimers on portions of the mark. Hence, The Coca Cola Co.’s registration of DIET COKE® continues to carry a disclaimer for the word “diet,” and KFC Corp.’s registration of KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN® continues to carry disclaimers for the words “fried” and “chicken.”

The moral of this story may be that disclaimers are a necessary evil when a business’ mark is a word that the Trademark Office already has concluded is merely descriptive.

In the United States, unlike overseas, you get a lot of legal protection right away simply by coming up with a brand name and USING it to sell goods and services. USE is the crucial issue here.

This means that we trademark attorneys spend a lot of time thinking about how to prove that our clients’ trademarks have been used. It’s not as easy as it sounds!

For example, last month the USPTO’s reviewing board rejected a real estate company’s attempt to prove it was using its name. The company submitted digital photos of the front door of its facility where it provided and managed its real estate services:

door
Source: In re Republic National LLC (TTAB Opinion), February 23, 2017

Not good enough. As experienced trademark attorneys know, the USPTO is persnickety about what proof it will accept to show a trademark is actually in use. In this case, it wanted to see a description of the services being offered, not just a name on a door.

In December 2016, the Consumer Review Fairness Act became law. On February 21, 2017, the FTC published guidance for businesses in following the new law. The law protects the consumer’s right to express and share his or her honest review of a company or its products, even if the review is negative. To accomplish this, the law targets contractual provisions used by companies to stifle negative reviews. The law specifically prohibits any such provisions, whether in online terms and conditions or in some other contract.

18572446 - stylized illustration of somone with a hood gesturing symbol of silence with finger on lips

The law makes it illegal for a company to use a contract provision in a “form contract” that:

  1. Prohibits or restricts the ability of an individual who is a party to the contract to review the company’s products, services, or conduct;
  2. Imposes a penalty or a fee against an individual giving a review; or
  3. Requires individuals to give up their intellectual property rights in the content of their review.

The law provides that any such provisions in a form contract are void, barring some specific exceptions. The law also exposes companies using prohibited contractual provisions to FTC enforcement actions, including potential financial penalties.

To ensure compliance and avoid enforcement actions, the FTC recommends that businesses: (1) “review their form contracts and online terms and conditions; and (2) remove any provision that restricts people from sharing their honest reviews, penalizes those who do, or claims copyright over people’s reviews (even if you’ve never third to enforce it or have no intention of enforcing it.)”

As stated by the FTC: “The wisest policy: Let people speak honestly about your products and their experience with your company.”

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!