This is the second part of excerpts from my materials, “Basics of Trademark Protection in Plain English.” It focuses on the “offensive” considerations a trademark owner should think about when selecting a trademark.
C. “Offensive” Considerations
As a trademark owner, you normally want to select a trademark that is both registrable and enforceable against later adopters. Your ability to do these things is heavily influenced by the technical strength of the mark. To determine strength, courts place the mark on the spectrum of trademark distinctiveness most prominently discussed in Abercrombie & Fitch Co. v. Hunting World, 537 F.2d 4 (2d Cir. 1976). In doing so, they categorize each mark as “generic,” “descriptive,” “suggestive,” “arbitrary,” or “fanciful.”
A mark is generic if it denotes the thing itself, or category of thing. Generic marks have no trademark significance because they are incapable of distinguishing one source from another. If a mark is generic – either from inception, or because it has become generic over time, like the once-proprietary brands “elevator,” “escalator,” “nylon,” and “raisin bran” – it is deemed to be always generic and can never be registered or enforced.
Descriptive trademarks immediately convey information about the good or service being sold. In this way, SPEEDY AUTO GLASS is a descriptive trademark because it tells consumers that the company installs auto glass, and that it does so in a hurry. Descriptive trademarks can only be registered on the lesser Supplemental Register (which doesn’t offer all the benefits provided by the Principal Register), and cannot be enforced against third parties, unless the owner can establish that the mark has acquired distinctiveness, or “secondary meaning.” A mark acquires secondary meaning through longstanding use (usually at least five years) and proof of sales, advertising expenditures, or (most persuasively) consumer surveys. A descriptive mark with secondary meaning can be registered on the Principal Register and can be enforced against later-adopters (though third parties can still use descriptive terms to describe their own goods and services even if such terms happen to be your client’s trademark). These limitations make descriptive marks the weakest form of protectable trademark. Surnames and geographic names are classified as descriptive marks, as are self-laudatory “we are the best” words. For this reason, the very descriptive SEATTLE’S BEST COFFEE trademark is technically weak, though it has become commercially strong through its longstanding use, millions of dollars spent on advertising, and millions of cups of coffee sold.
Suggestive trademarks are one rung up the protectability ladder. They suggest a quality or characteristic of the good or service being sold, but require the consumer to exercise at least some degree of imagination to understand the information being conveyed. Take, for example, CHICKEN OF THE SEA. This mark tells consumers that the good sold under the mark is seafood, and it is akin to chicken. The consumer must process this information to understand that the good being hinted at is tuna fish. Marks with double entendres are likewise classified as suggestive. The distinction between descriptive and suggestive marks can be blurry, but it’s an important one, because suggestive marks do not need proof of secondary meaning. Suggestive marks, therefore, are inherently distinctive and are protectable upon adoption.
Arbitrary marks put a familiar word in an unfamiliar context, such as APPLE for computers. While APPLE as a brand name for fruit would be generic, it has no meaning when paired with computers. For this reason, arbitrary marks are considered inherently distinctive and, indeed, are given wide berth as a strong trademark.
Fanciful marks are perhaps the strongest class of mark. They are made-up words, like GOOGLE, EXXON, and POLAROID. They are accorded great protection because they usually leave the defendant with little explanation for adopting a confusingly similar mark. Given the infinite number of possible trademarks, a court can quickly conclude that a search engine named “GAGGLE” was only given that name to benefit from confused consumers. In this way, both arbitrary and fanciful trademarks are thought to “cast a long shadow,” which later trademark adopters need to avoid.
There also are a number of statutory bars to registration or enforcement that don’t stem from technical strength. Under federal law, they are largely set forth in Section 2 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052. These include marks that are primarily surnames, marks that would tend to deceive consumers, marks that include someone’s name without their permission, and marks that include country flags. Other statutes grant exclusive trademark rights to specified owners in the way that OLYMPIC, OLYMPICS, and the five-ring logo may only be used by the U.S. Olympic Committee and its licensees (with a narrow carve-out for longtime users of the OLYMPIC and OLYMPIC names that are located near Washington’s Olympic Mountains). Obviously, one needs to avoid these marks if they want a brand they can register and protect in court.
In summary, owners selecting a new trademark need to appreciate the ramifications of where the mark would likely be placed on the spectrum of distinctiveness, and avoid the statutory bars to registration and enforcement. Only then can they help maximize the scope of their trademark protection.
Hopefully, this discussion is helpful. The third and final installment — regarding “defensive” considerations in selecting a trademark — will come next.