The urban legend says, “If you don’t protect your trademark rights, you’ll lose them.” Like most urban legends, there is a kernel of truth lurking at the base, although the proposition is not literally and universally true.
If mark owners do not enforce their rights against third-party uses of the same or similar marks or names for goods or services, the mark owner’s rights to object to such uses and similar ones can be diminished if not extinguished. This is true particularly when the goods or services are the same as or closely related to those of the mark owner, and when the activities of the parties overlap in geographic area or other market segmentation.
But if mark owners seek to enforce their rights when either the marks or the goods and services are so significantly different that no confusion is likely, they face different risks with a similar result. These include publicizing the third-party use, being unsuccessful in attacking the use, encouraging additional uses and potentially having their rights diminished if not extinguished.
Often mark owners send a cease and desist letter to third parties who use the same or similar marks or names for goods or services. When a cease and desist letter is sent, the typical response is a return letter stating that there can be no reasonable probability of confusion (probability here equating to likelihood, rather than a possibility of confusion) because of the nature and extent of third party use of similar marks on the same and related goods and services, thus demonstrating that the relevant public is not likely to be confused by use of the accused party’s mark. The impact of this response depends on the number and nature of the third party uses that the accused party can find.
However, if mark owners seek to enforce their rights for a mark that is subject to challenge based on a registration that is subject to challenge, they likewis risks the diminishment if not the extinction of their rights. Such extinction of rights can occur based on several different arguments: that the asserted mark is generic for the goods (such as “footlong” for 12” sandwiches); that the mark is deceptive or merely descriptive and has not acquired distinctiveness; that the mark is the configuration of the goods and that the configuration is functional; or that the claim of use was defective and the evidence of use insufficient to support the claim to registration.
Given these scenarios, it looks like mark owners could be damned if they do try to enforce their rights and damned if they don’t. So, what are mark owners to do? That decision should be made by assessing the answers to the following questions and considerations, which fall into two general categories: diligence and identification of options.
It’s essential to research all the relevant information by answering these questions. Who has priority? What is the nature and extent of use of each mark? Has there been any confusion? Granted the conditions of purchase trade channels and strength of the senior mark, is there a real likelihood of confusion that is commercially meaningful or a hypothetical “if-then” concern? Is the accused company one that might be a business partner or customer? How vulnerable is the senior mark (or registration) to attack? What counterclaims might be brought against the client? Does the accused party have superior rights in another jurisdiction of interest? How important is the matter to the client? Is the business at issue profitable, justifying the expense of potential litigation? Will the mark be in use into the foreseeable future, will it be phased out in a matter of months, or is it otherwise at the end of its lifecycle?
Identification of options
Sending a cease and desist demand letter or filing a complaint are common remedies used to protect a mark. But there are other approaches worthy of consideration that may be more effective. These include the following: taking no action; communicating with the third-party user by having a business person to business person conversation by telephone or otherwise; or having an initial expression of concern made by in-house counsel to in-house counsel with an invitation to discuss how those concerns might be addressed. On the other extreme, if the conduct is egregious and appears to be deliberate, there is no requirement for a cease and desist letter to be sent. The first communication to the adverse party may be the service of the complaint, with or without a demand for interlocutory injunctive relief.
If, after consideration of all the options, the decision is made to send a cease and desist letter, the next step is to determine what the demand is going to be, how much support will be provided for the demand and what the tone of the demand will be.
In making these determinations it is important to remember that how the message is conveyed will impact the response, which may include a resort by the recipient to social media. This is where the Streisand effect (that is, the capacity of an attempt to shut down a communication to generate even wider distribution of the communication) may come into play. Having a demand letter to cease and desist made public on social or other media by an accused entity seeking to generate public sympathy and support against a “bully” may generate more notoriety for the mark owner’s conduct than the accused party’s mark or product ever would have received, if the dispute had not become public. What this suggests is, first, that the demand be written as if it will be read by the client’s customers, as well as the general public, and second, that if the misuse is likely to be short-lived and little noticed, a different kind of letter may be called for. In the latter instance, the letter will have a less formal and less strident tone, as it is intended to educate and persuade. It’s also important to realize that search engine optimization can address any number of issues without recourse to legal demands.
Generally, the objective should be: first, to provide a factual and legal basis for the claim, especially if the recipient is an individual or small enterprise that may not have done a comprehensive search or may not have any real understanding of trademark law; and second, to demand what is feasible and what the client is entitled to. Overblown demands and demands that cannot reasonably be met are more likely to generate resistance than to secure compliance.