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.

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.