What does “natural” mean in the context of product advertising?  Consumers see phrases like “natural,” “all natural,” and “100% natural” over and over again in modern marketing.  The trouble is that “natural” may not mean what consumers expect it to mean, thereby opening companies up to claims of false or misleading advertising.

Two recent lawsuits against Pret A Manger, the sandwich company, provide a cogent illustration.  One complaint was filed by two consumers as a class action.  The other was filed by three non-profit organizations (including the Organic Consumers Association) on behalf of their members and the general public.  Both complaints assert that Pret A Manger has deceptively labeled, marketed, and sold certain bread and other baked goods as “Natural Food” when the products contain trace amounts of a chemical biocide.  According to the non-profit plaintiffs, consumers are willing to pay more for “natural” products and consumers expect such products to be free of pesticides.

This isn’t the first time the Organic Consumers Association, the Federal Trade Commission, or others have gone after companies advertising their products as “natural.”  Companies should be mindful when marketing their products using that term, and should be prepared to defend the claim with substantiation if necessary.

 

The Coachella/Filmchella trademark infringement case, which we have previously covered herehere, and here, is headed to trial in California this October.  Last week, the federal judge assigned to the case denied Coachella’s partial summary judgment motion and ruled that a jury, not the judge, must ultimately decide whether the Filmchella founder committed trademark infringement by way of his movie festival.  The standard the judge had to apply was whether a reasonable juror could find that the two festivals are not similar enough to cause confusion, which is exactly what the judge determined.

As a result, the case will head to trial and will be decided by jury verdict.  Until then, the court’s preliminary injunction in favor of Coachella, which currently prohibits the use of Filmchella, remains in effect.

 

Earlier this year, I authored a blog post about the so-called “Monkey Selfies” after the Ninth Circuit ruled that animals cannot sue for copyright infringement because, as nonhumans, they lack the required standing under the Copyright Act.  Recently, following a single judge’s request for a vote, the Ninth Circuit did not vote in favor of an en banc hearing (a full panel rehearing of the case).

Therefore, the Ninth Circuit’s earlier ruling against the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., on behalf of a monkey named Naruto, stands.  At least for now.

Just when we thought the unconstitutionality of the ban on disparaging and scandalous trademarks had been resolved, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) is shaking things up.  As a reminder, and as previously covered on this blog here and here, there were two important rulings in 2017 related to the trademark ban set forth in section 2(a) of the Lanham Act.  First, in June 2017, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the disparaging trademark ban is unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free speech clause and later, in December 2017, the Federal Circuit found that the Supreme Court’s ruling also applies to the ban on immoral and scandalous trademarks.

Refusing to accept the latter ruling, the USPTO has now petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Federal Circuit’s decision and to essentially reinstate the ban on scandalous trademarks.  Although the unconstitutionality of the disparaging trademark ban is settled law from the Supreme Court, the USPTO views the scandalous trademark ban as different and as not violative of the First Amendment.  Whether the Supreme Court will hear the case and will agree with the USPTO remains to be seen.

 

66567075 - ketogenic diet with nutrition diagram written on a note.Yesterday the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) affirmed the refusal by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) to allow a Florida company to register trademarks containing the word “Keto.”  In its ruling, the TTAB explained that the term “keto” is descriptive for ketogenic dietary products, even when combined with the other words making up the company’s trademark registrations.  With the popularity in ketogenic dieting and products, this may serve as an informative ruling going forward.

The General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, took effect May 25, 2018. As predicted, the GDPR has complicated access to WHOIS information (commonly used to look up the contact information for website domains for, among other things, stopping others from infringing IP rights) and given ICANN (the corporation that manages WHOIS data) a headache.

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) continues to struggle to identify a proposal that bridges the gap between the requirements of the GDPR and access to WHOIS information. On the day the GDPR took effect, ICANN passed a Temporary Specification, which attempted to facilitate GDPR compliance while also preserving parts of the WHOIS system of domain name registration data. This temporary guideline states the registrar and registry operator must provide reasonable access to personal registration data to third parties for: (1) legitimate interests, except where those interests are overridden by the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the registrants or (2) when the specified request is deemed lawful by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB), a court having jurisdiction, or applicable legislation or regulation.

First, these temporary specifications have not prevented the brand enforcement problems I previously discussed. For example, some European domain name service registrars have decided to no longer collect WHOIS information. Furthermore, Brian Winterfeldt has reported that a California-based registrar has declined a data access request related to a specific enforcement effort of intellectual property rights and that other registrars are responding to such requests on a “case-by-case basis with no transparent or predictable criteria.” More alarming is the report that at least one global company has estimated its ability to enforce trademark rights against infringing domains may drop 24%.

Second, the EDPB still has problems with ICANN’s proposal. On July 5, 2018, the EDPB urged ICANN to develop new legal justifications for why it asks for the data that makes up the WHOIS database and provided further guidance in developing a GDPR-compliant WHOIS model. ICANN appears to be taking the EDPB’s guidance to heart and is hopeful they can create a GDPR-compliant-model that satisfies their purpose of providing WHOIS data to those who need it.

Unfortunately, only time will tell if a GDPR-compliant WHOIS database will emerge. In the meantime, it has become more difficult to determine who is in charge of websites infringing on intellectual property rights making brand enforcement more challenging.

Soy milk. Almond milk. Coconut milk. With the increase in health-conscious shopping and non-dairy diets, these terms and others have become household names.

But the Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) recently suggested these products don’t constitute milk at all, since they do not come from animals. According to multiple sources, during the Politico Pro Summit in July, the FDA Commissioner commented that the FDA is probably not currently enforcing its “standard of identify” for milk considering the FDA defines “milk” by referencing the milking of cows.

Manufacturers and sellers of non-dairy products currently advertised and labeled as “milk” should keep watch on whether the FDA issues guidance on this issue or decides to strictly enforce its current definition of “milk.” If it does, the marketing for these products may drastically change.

When a trademark owner/licensor files for bankruptcy, there is an open question as to whether the licensee of the trademark can legally continue use of the mark or whether the trademark owner/licensor can reject its obligations under the licensing agreement and effectively prohibit the licensee’s continued use of the mark.  When it comes to the licensing of patents and copyrights, the question is already closed: Congress created an exception in U.S. bankruptcy law that allows licensees of such intellectual property to retain their rights even after a licensing agreement has been rejected by the intellectual property owner who has filed for bankruptcy.  However, whether purposely or not, Congress did not mention trademarks in the exception, thereby leading to the current question.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether to grant certiorari in a case that would answer this question and resolve a circuit-split on the issue.  That case is Mission Products Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC N/K/A Old Cold LLC, which was decided by the First Circuit early this year in favor of the trademark licensor, Tempnology.  The First Circuit held that Tempnology’s rejection of its licensing agreement with Mission Products Holdings caused the latter to lose its trademark rights under the parties’ agreement in light of Tempnology’s bankruptcy.  Now Mission Products Holdings, Inc., the trademark licensee, has filed a petition seeking review by the Supreme Court and a ruling that a trademark licensee’s rights to use a trademark cannot be revoked upon the trademark owner/licensor filing for bankruptcy.

The International Trademark Association (INTA) has already filed an amicus brief asking that the Supreme Court take the case and resolve the dispute in favor of trademark licensees, who make significant investments in their businesses using the licensed marks.  According to INTA’s brief, trademarks “are the most widely used form of registered intellectual property” and a ruling in favor of trademark licensees “enhances the value of trademark licenses and promotes the stability of the trademark system.”  Tempnology’s response to Mission Product Holdings’ petition is due in early September, and the case is set for conference in late September, after which the justices may decide to hear the case (or not).

The FTC has amended its Jewelry Guides (formally, the “Guides for the Jewelry, Precious Metals, and Pewter Industries”) which aim to help prevent deception in jewelry marketing by providing clear standards.

The Jewelry Guides, like other industry guides published by the FTC, are intended to help marketers understand their responsibilities with respect to avoiding consumer deception.  The Guides themselves are not binding law, but instead offer the FTC’s interpretation of how Section 5 of the FTC Act applies to certain practices within the industry.

For those in the jewelry industry, the issuance of these changes suggests it may be a good time for a compliance check.  Some noteworthy changes include:

  1. No more thresholds for describing alloys as “gold” or “silver.”

Under the old Guides, marketers were prohibited from using the terms “gold” and “silver” to describe a product made of a gold or silver alloy (combination of gold or silver and one or more other precious metals) unless the ratio of gold/silver to other metals met certain minimum thresholds.

The revisions eliminate these requirements.  From now on, any gold alloy may be marketed as “gold” as long as the marketing contains “an equally conspicuous, accurate karat fineness disclosure.”  The same goes for silver alloys as long as the marketing contains a conspicuous and accurate disclosure of the parts-per-thousand measurement.

  1. New requirements for describing silver- and platinum-coated products.

A preexisting rule advises against using the term “gold” to describe a product that is merely gold-coated.  The revised Guides extend this rule to silver and platinum products.

  1. New rule prohibiting the use of incorrect varietal names to describe gemstones.

The FTC now expressly prohibits the use of incorrect varietal names like “yellow emerald” or “green amethyst” to describe gemstones.  Instead, marketers should use scientifically-correct terms like “heliodor” and “prasiolite.”

  1. Relaxed rules for lab-grown diamonds and gemstones.

The revisions make several changes to the rules for marketing lab-grown diamonds and gemstones.  For the most part, these changes benefit the lab-grown sector.  For instance, the FTC now cautions marketers not to use the terms “real, genuine, natural, or synthetic” to imply that a lab-grown diamond “is not, in fact, an actual diamond.”

The Guides still prohibit the use of terms like “real” and “natural” to describe lab-grown diamonds and gemstones, but the FTC indicated that it might be willing to reconsider this position.

When evaluating how to address what you believe constitutes infringement, false advertising, or unfair competition, the decision to send a cease and desist letter or to file a lawsuit becomes an important one.  Is there a right approach in each instance?  No.  There are pros and cons to each and, in a typical lawyer answer, the best approach “depends.”

On the one hand, sending a cease and desist letter has the potential of resolving the issue outside of court, with fewer legal fees and on a quicker timeline.  It also has the effect of placing the other party on notice of your claim and allowing you to make an argument for willfulness down the road (if the party continues the conduct despite the allegations).

On the other hand, filing a lawsuit shows the seriousness of the allegations and preserves your choice of venue—i.e. which court you want to be in.  Sending a cease and desist letter first would let the other party know that there is a potential of a lawsuit, which would allow that party to file a declaratory judgment action in its own choice of venue before you have the chance to do so.  As a reminder, under the Declaratory Judgment Act, a party who has been accused of illegal conduct like infringement, false advertising, or unfair competition can affirmatively file suit and ask that a court declare its conduct lawful.

Deciding which approach to take will depend on the situation and any prior history with the alleged infringer or advertiser.  Make sure to weigh all of your options and discuss with your legal counsel if necessary.