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The USPTO Takes Steps to Implement the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020

By: Kean Miller LLP | Published 12/23/2021

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The Trademark Modernization Act of 2020 (“TMA”) becomes effective on December 27, 2021 and makes several important amendments to federal trademark law (the Lanham Act) intended to modernize trademark application examinations and clean house of trademark registrations for marks not used in commerce. USPTO announced on December 21, 2021, that it has created a new Petition for Expungement or Reexamination form to be used in TMA actions. In preparation for the go-live, we reshare our prior article on the metes and bounds of these actions.

Ex Parte Challenges to Current Trademark Registrations

A significant impetus for the TMA was comments during a 2019 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet concerning “clutter” and “deadwood” on the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) trademark registers. As of July 18, 2019, the USPTO trademark register comprised approximately 2.4 million registrations.[1]  As testified by Commissioner for Trademarks Mary Boney Denison, the USPTO had seen an increase in trademark applications or registration maintenance filings that contained false or misleading claims and information, particularly with regard to specimens of use.[2] Trademark applicants are required to submit evidence with their applications that the applied-for trademark is actually being used in commerce in the class of goods or services listed on their respective application. Trademark owners are required to regularly submit similar evidence to maintain their registrations. Commissioner Denison testified that the USPTO has increasingly received fake or digitally altered specimens that do not actually show use of the mark in commerce as required by the Lanham Act.[3] These false submissions, as well as excessive registrations for marks no longer in use, limit the usefulness of Trademark Register and significantly increase trademark clearance costs.

The TMA seeks to address these issues through two new ex parte proceedings. The first mechanism, an ex parte reexamination, permits third parties to challenge use-based registrations where the trademark owner swore that the marks were used in commerce, either in the application itself or in a statement of use. This mechanism allows the USPTO to reexamine the accuracy of the applicant’s claim of use at the time the averment was made. The second mechanism primarily targets foreign applications that claim use under Lanham Act section 44(e) or 66(a)—which allows foreign applicants to bypass submitting a statement of use in lieu of providing evidence of trademark registration in another country—and allows challenges to marks that have never been used in commerce. These proceedings can each be initiated by submitting testimony or evidence establishing a prima facie case of non-use, or the Director of the USPTO may determine on his or her own initiative that a prima facie case of nonuse exists. The registrant will then have the opportunity to respond to the alleged prima facie case. The registration will then either be cancelled, subject to the registrant’s right of appeal to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, or confirmed valid. A validity decision will preclude all further ex parte challenges to the registration.

These ex parte mechanisms add renewed focus to the Lanham Act’s requirement of “use” for trademark rights. The Lanham Act requires “bona fide use of a trademark in the ordinary course of trade.” For goods, that can include consistently placing the trademark on the product or its packaging, labels, or tags or, if it is impractical to use on the product itself, invoices and documents associated with the sale of the goods. For services, use can include advertising in connection with actual offers for the services.[4] Given these new mechanisms and an increase in fraudulent applications, USPTO trademark examiners may more strictly scrutinize specimens of use for compliance with trademark use requirements. To avoid unnecessary delays in trademark applications, applicants should take care to ensure specimens meet the requirements of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (“TMEP”) and that their use actually qualifies as trademark use. Experience intellectual property counsel can help clients navigate the TMEP and trademark application procedures.

Changes to Trademark Registration Examination Procedures

The Lanham Act currently requires trademark applicants to respond to office actions issued during the examination within 6 months. The TMA now allows the USPTO increased flexibility to set shorter response deadlines. Specifically, the USPTO can, through regulations, set shorter response periods between 60 days to 6 months, provided applicants can receive extensions of time to respond up to the standard 6 months. Much like extensions of time granted by the USPTO for patent applications, any such extension requests will incur additional fees.

Formalization of the Informal Protest Procedure

Though not a formal process, the USPTO has long allowed third parties to submit evidence regarding registrability of a mark during examination of a trademark application. Section 3 of the TMA now formalizes that process by: (1) expressly allowing third party evidence submissions; (2) setting requirements that the submission include identification of the grounds for refusal to which the submission relates; and (3) authorizing the USPTO to charge a fee for the submission. The USPTO is required to act on that submission within two months of its filing. The decision on the submission is final, but the applicant may raise any issue regarding the grounds for refusal in the application or any other proceeding.

Presumption of Irreparable Harm for Trademark Infringement Plaintiffs

The primary goal of most trademark infringement litigation is to stop the infringing behavior, typically through injunctions. Section 6 of the TMA provides that a “plaintiff seeking an injunction shall be entitled to a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm.” This language codifies a standard that most courts had applied to establish harm before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in eBay v. MercExchange, LLC.[5] In eBay, the Supreme Court held that patent owners were no different than any other litigant seeking equitable relief, so those owners must demonstrate irreparable harm to be entitled to a permanent injunction. Several courts then applied eBay’s holding by extension to trademark owners, finding they also must demonstrate irreparable harm for an injunction to be warranted.[6] Some courts, like the Fifth Circuit, have struggled in their application of eBay to trademark infringement disputes, leading to confusion and disagreement among lower district courts.[7] The eBay decision thus ultimately led to a circuit split on whether the rule presuming irreparable harm remained valid in Lanham Act cases.[8]

The TMA makes clear that trademark infringement plaintiffs are entitled to the presumption that they will be irreparably harmed if the infringer is allowed to continue use of the infringing trademark. Section 6(b) further confirms the retroactivity of this presumption, stating that Section 6’s amendment “shall not be construed to mean that a plaintiff seeking an injunction was not entitled to a presumption of irreparable harm before the date of enactment of this Act.” This change increases the likelihood that trademark infringement plaintiffs will be awarded preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, decreasing overall litigation costs and evidentiary burdens on plaintiffs.

The Trademark Modernization Act of 2020 addresses a grab-bag of challenging trademark issues that together provide additional protections for trademark owners and, ultimately, consumers. Trademark owners seeking to register their marks will soon have expedited procedures to tackle fraudulent or “deadwood” registrations that block their trademark applications. The Act further resolves a circuit split for awarding an injunction, easing the burden on trademark owners to show harm. While the ultimate effect of the TMA remains to be seen, these changes should empower trademark holders with additional tools to combat problematic registrations and ease litigation burdens.

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[1] Statement of the Commissioner for Trademarks Mary Boney Denison before the United States House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet Committee on the Judiciary, Jul. 18, 2019 (available at https://www.uspto.gov/about-us/news-updates/statement-commissioner-trademarks-mary-boney-denison-united-states-house_).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Services must actually be offered in connection with the advertisement to qualify as “use.” Couture v. Playdom, Inc., 778 F.3d 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

[5] 547 U.S. 388 (2006).

[6] See Peter J. Karol, Trademark’s eBay Problem, 26 Fordham Intell. Prop. Media & Ent. L.J. 625, 636–653 (2016) (available at https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1623&context=iplj); Mark A. Lemley, Did eBay Irreparably Injury Trademark Law?, 92 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1795 (2017) . See also Gene Quinn, “Why eBay v. MercExchange Should, But Won’t, Be Overruled”, IPWatchdog.com (Feb. 16, 2020) (https://www.ipwatchdog.com/2020/02/16/ebay-v-mercexchange-wont-overruled/id=118929/).

[7] See Karol, supra n. 5 at 646–47.

[8] Testimony of Douglas A. Rettew, “Fraudulent Trademarks: How They Undermine the Trademark System and Harm American Consumers and Businesses” at p. 13, Hearing Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Intellectual Property (Dec. 3, 2019) (available at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Rettew%20Testimony.pdf).

By Jessica Engler & R. Devin Ricci 

 

 

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