Copyright Tag

Beware Fraudulent Trademark Solicitations

Example of trademark scam letter.

Trademark registration holders have increasingly been receiving deceptive notices soliciting money for services related to the renewal or monitoring of their patent and trademark registrations.  Scammers attempt to make such notices look like authentic government documents and they use official-sounding names like the International Patent and Trademark Register, the U.S. Trademark Compliance Office, and the World Organization for Trademarks.  Some organizations offer useless services like filing a patent or trademark in their own private registry while others do not perform the promised services at all.

Since trademark and patent registrations list applicants’ addresses as public information on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website, scammers can easily access who has filed for intellectual property protection and when their trademark or patent is ready to be renewed.  Therefore, the information on these solicitations is often accurate which can make the documents appear legitimate and, indeed, many sophisticated businesspeople and attorneys have been fooled by these scammers.  (To save clients the confusion, HBA always uses our firm’s address rather than clients’ addresses on trademark applications so that fraudulent solicitations are sent to us directly.)

While some of these solicitations have fine print that disclaims any affiliation with a government entity, others do not, like the example below.

Several federal agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, and the U.S.  Postal Inspection Service, have investigated these widespread scams, but scammers with sophisticated operations can be difficult to track down.  Recently, the Department of Justice successfully convicted five individuals for carrying out a mass mailing scam targeting trademark holders.

Please be advised that any legitimate correspondence about your trademark and patent registrations will either be from your counsel or  from the United States Patent and Trademark Office located in Alexandria, Virginia, and all emails will be from the domain @uspto.gov.   The USPTO will remind registrants of renewal deadlines, but they will not ask for money in these notices.  Never pay money or send anything to someone you have not previously dealt with directly.  If you are not sure whether a notice is authentic, please reach out to our office or another attorney, file a consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, or consult the Trademark Assistance Center.  The USPTO also maintains a list of confirmed fraudulent organizations on their website.

Supreme Court to Resolve Split Regarding Copyright Registration Requirement

Section 411(a) of the U.S. Copyright Act provides that an action for copyright infringement may be brought after “preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title” or “where the deposit, application, and fee required for registration have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form and registration has been refused.”  The courts are split as to whether a copyright claim may be brought once the copyright application, deposit, and fee is delivered to the Copyright Office or whether the plaintiff must wait until the Copyright Office responds to the application. The Fifth and Ninth Circuits have held the former, under the “application approach,” while the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have held the latter, under the “registration approach.”  The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Seventh, and D.C. Circuits have all acknowledged the divide, but refused to decide one way.  The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari to an Eleventh Circuit case, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v. Wall-Street.com, to address this question.

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Spongebob Squarepants’ Fictional Restaurant Granted Real Trademark Rights

One of the bedrock principles of trademark law is that trademark rights stem from actual use of the trademark in commerce.  In recent years, however, courts have been finding that imaginary use of the trademark in fictional works can suffice to create real right in a nonfictional setting.

The latest example of this phenomenon took place in Viacom International Inc. v. IJR Capital Investments, where the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court decision granting trademark protection to the Krusty Krab, a fictional restaurant in the television series SpongeBob SquarePants.  Viacom sued IJR Capital Investment for unfair competition and trademark infringement because IJR had been trying to open up seafood restaurants in California and Texas under the Krusty Krab name since 2014.  IJR Capital claimed that they did not base their name on the fictional restaurant, but rather the crusted glaze applied to cooked seafood.  IJR noted that there was no Krusty Krab trademark already registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

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Important Trademark Litigation Victory For HBA Client Affirmed on Appeal

Essentially concluding over five years of litigation, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on November 2, 2017 upheld the trial court’s determination that the sale of Clipps bag closures by Schutte Bagclosures Inc. (“Schutte”) did not infringe any trademark rights Kwik Lok Corporation (“Kwik Lok”). The court further upheld the lower court’s determination that Kwik Lok’s claimed trademark rights in the shape of bag closures were invalid because the shape was “functional” and that Kwik Lok’s trademark registration for that shape should be cancelled.
The same parties previously faced each other in court in the Netherlands, where the judge also ruled that Kwik Lok did not have valid trademark rights in their bag closures.

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Lululemon Sues Under Armour For Design Patent Infringement Based on Sport Bra Strap Design

On July 7th, athletic apparel company Lululemon Athletica filed suit against competitor Under Armour, alleging that three models of Under Armour sport bras infringed on design patents held by Lululemon as well as Lululemon’s trade dress.  Specifically, Lululemon asserted that the interwoven strap design on Under Armour’s products closely resembled designs protected by patents Lululemon filed in 2014 and 2016, as well as a design first sold by Lululemon in 2011 as part of its Energy Bra model.

Design patents typically do not offer wide protection for fashion products. While relatively cheap to obtain compared to utility patents, design patents typically still cost several thousand dollars to register.  Furthermore, design patents can only be obtained if an item has been on sale for less than a year and fashion designers often do not want to commit to a registration until and unless a design demonstrates that it will be a core product line going forward.  Trade dress, on the other hand, does not require any formal filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). However, those seeking trade dress protection must also prove that the design has no functional component, as well as prove that the item conveys a distinctive secondary meaning to consumers that would be jeopardized by the sale of imitations.

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Designers Are Using Social Media to Fight Knockoffs

The fashion industry is inundated with allegations of copyright violations and copied designs, often occurring when a small designer or brand claims that a large retailer or brand copies its designs. Traditionally, disputes over copied designs have been resolved through the legal system. Increasingly, however, social media and in particular Instagram has become a popular medium for small designers to fight back against larger companies that they believe copied their designs. With the support of passionate followers, these designers take to Instagram to spot and shame duplicates quickly, frequently resulting in the alleged offenders ceasing sales of the design in question.

Instagram has emerged as a channel to fight back against duplicate for several reasons. As HBA lawyer and NYU fashion law professor Douglas Hand stated in the recent article Designers Take Copyright Infringement Into Their Own Hands in the Business of Fashion, “copyright protection for designs, even post Star Athletica [v. Varsity Brands], is relatively thin when compared to Europe and other jurisdictions.” Therefore, the U.S. legal system may be an insufficient means for designers to successfully protect their designs. Additionally, smaller brands and up-and-coming designers often have neither the financial resources nor the time to litigate. Litigation is also undesirable because these small brands and designers frequently just want the offending designs removed from market and do not want a prolonged court battle.

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