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Basics of Trademark Protection in Plain English (Part 3)

Here’s the last installment of “Basics of Trademark Protection in Plain English.” It focuses on “defensive” considerations in protecting trademark rights; remedies; and trademark law resources. 

D.       “Defensive” Considerations

The “offensive” considerations discussed above focus on the things a trademark owner should consider in order to maximize and enforce its rights. There are “defensive” considerations as well, which mainly focus on not infringing a prior user’s trademark rights. This involves not selecting (and wasting money by investing in) a trademark that would cause a likelihood of consumer confusion with a senior user – both at common law in the same geographic market, and through the statewide or nationwide rights that a prior owner might have through registration. This, in turn, requires one to search the PTO’s database, Google, domain name registrations, and industry databases to learn the trademarks that other sellers have selected, and with which goods and services. Truly comprehensive searches can involve engaging a sophisticated vendor like Thomson Reuters to capture a large universe of relevant hits, which trademark attorneys can analyze to determine the risk of triggering a trademark infringement claim. Again, the relevant jurisdiction’s multi-factor test will control, and it’s up to the trademark lawyer to help her client avoid a likelihood of confusion. While it’s impossible to avoid all risk, doing one’s due diligence can minimize the chance that a prior trademark owner will demand that your client stop using the trademark it has adopted.

E.       Remedies

A trademark owner’s main remedy in a lawsuit is the injunction – a court order enjoining the trademark wrong from continuing. A trademark owner can also seek lost profits and to disgorge any wrongful profits the infringer received through the infringement. However, proving damages to the reasonable degree of certainty that a court requires can be difficult. Therefore, damages usually take a back seat to the injunction. A successful litigant (either plaintiff or defendant) can also seek an award of its attorney’s fees and court costs incurred in the litigation, but such awards are not routine. (Under Washington law, they are discretionary, and under federal law they may only be awarded in “exceptional” cases.) For this reason, both sides usually assume they will pay their own freight in trademark litigation, win, lose, or draw.

F.       Resources

At the federal level, trademark law is largely driven by the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1051, et seq. In Washington, the largely parallel trademark statute is RCW 19.77. An obvious and unavoidable place to start when learning about trademark law is the statutes themselves, and the cases that interpret the statutes.  Federal and state case law also flesh out the contours of common law trademark rights, which predate both statutes, are incorporated in them, can operate independent of them. Trademark owners also can look to McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition, and Gilson on Trademarks. Both provide encyclopedic, multi-volume analyses of trademark law, including important subtopics like cybersquatting, false advertising, counterfeiting, fair use, online liability, licensing, international trademark rights, and practice before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the PTO’s administrative law arm. One or both of these invaluable treatises are available at Seattle’s law school libraries, as well as at the law libraries of Washington’s state and federal courts.

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