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Don’t Be Fooled by Trademark Spam!

About five to ten times per year, we get a call from a client asking why the USPTO sent them an invoice for hundreds of dollars for their trademark applications. After a few minutes, it becomes clear what they are talking about—trademark spam.

Trademark spam? Trademark spam is an unavoidable and unfortunate result of the information an applicant provides the USPTO in an application, which is publically available. This includes, among other information, the name, address, and email of the party applying for the mark. As a result, spammers have all of the information they need to send fake trademark solicitations that appear to be legitimate. The USPTO is fully aware of trademark spam, but despite its efforts, applicants and registrants continue to be victimized by spammers.

What does trademark spam look like? Trademark spam generally comes in the form of official-looking correspondence—letters or email—that either “requires” the recipient to pay certain fees, or strongly “recommends” that the recipient use a particular company to facilitate the trademark registration process. In the first instance, some fees are completely fabricated, while other fees purport to be real fees, but are grossly inflated by the spammer. Here is a list of the actual USPTO trademark fees and their correct amounts. In the second instance, spammers offer their services to facilitate the registration process, something only licensed attorneys are allowed to do. To give you a better idea of what trademark spam looks like, here are a couple examples of trademark spam, one from the “U.S. Trademark Compliance Office” and another from the “Patent & Trademark Office.” While these may appear to be official USPTO documents, both are actually spam.

How can I distinguish trademark spam from legitimate, USPTO correspondence? Here is a quick, easy, and effective way, recommended by the USPTO, to tell trademark spam from legitimate correspondence: If the correspondence is from (1) the “United States Patent and Trademark Office” in Alexandria, VA; or (2) If by e-mail, specifically from the domain “@uspto.gov,” then it is official, USPTO correspondence. Also, if you hired an attorney to file your application, all legitimate mail should go to them. Remember, if you ever have any doubt as to the legitimacy of any correspondence you receive regarding your trademark application or registration, you should check with the USPTO, or an experienced trademark attorney.

What should I do if I get spammed? If you receive any communications that you believe may be spam, or believe you have been misled by trademark spam in the past, the USPTO encourages you to email a copy of the correspondence and the envelope it came in to tmfeedback@uspto.gov, so that it may assess whether to add the sender to the trademark spam list. While the USPTO will not reimburse you for any money you paid to a spammer, notifying the USPTO may help prevent others from being misled in the future.

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Tito’s Scorecard

scoreI don’t mean to keep harping on the Tito’s Vodka cases — but there sure are a lot of them — and they are important. Because there are so many, it is not easy to keep track of how it’s going, hence this handy Scorecard. Most of the cases are slowly grinding along, with no clear winner or loser (as shown with the ⇔ symbol). At one extreme, the Aliano case went especially well for Tito (⇑). At the other extreme is the Hofmann case (⇓). In late November Judge Miller allowed Hofmann, the first-filed case, to go forward, past the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. It got even worse, five days later, when the court gave the plaintiffs permission to go into the plant and see exactly how Tito’s Vodka is made, despite the company’s strong objections.


 

Plaintiff (State)Status (Filed Date)Notes
Aliano (IL)Closed. Dismissed 9/24/2015. (11/7/2014)⇑⇑ Big win for Tito.
Cabrera (CA)Open. On 11/20/2015 Judge Miller denied Tito's motion for summary judgment. (12/22/2014)⇓ This case is not going well for the defendant.
ConsolidationClosed. The Hofmann lawyers withdrew their motion to consolidate the cases listed on this table on 5/15/2015. (4/6/2015)
Emanuello (MA)Open. (4/3/2015)
Grayson (NV)Open. (1/26/2015)
Hofmann (CA)Open. On 11/20/2015 Judge Miller denied Tito's motion for summary judgment , and on 11/25/2015 the court ok'd a site visit. (9/15/2014)⇓⇓ This case is not going well for the defendant.
McBrearty (NJ)Open. (10/24/2014)
Pye (FL)Open. On 9/23/2015 the federal court dismissed the statutory deception-type claims but let stand the warranty-type claims. (9/25/2014)
Singleton (NY)Open. (4/7/2015)
Terlesky (OH)Open. 11/17/2015 the court dismissed the statutory deception-type claims but let stand the warranty-type claims. (6/4/2015)
Wilson (AL)Closed. Dismissed 9/30/2015. (8/4/2015)⇑ Win for Tito.

 

We reached out to Tito and his lead lawyer to make sure we are not missing anything important, and to ask a few questions, as follows. From early on, Tito said he knew it was going to be a long haul.

How’s it going? Business has continued to be good. The lawsuits have been a distraction. But our consumer base is growing, and they have been extremely loyal. They appreciate Tito’s Handmade Vodka for what it is:  a premium quality vodka at a price they can afford. That’s what we set out to make, and the fact that our fans appreciate it makes it all worthwhile.

Do you still think you are going to win? Yes, we do believe we will win. So far, the cases that have been decided on the merits have gone our way. The others are still in the early stages.

Anything you want to say and can say that has not already been in the media? As the courts get more into the issues, they are starting to understand that the regulatory process we have to go through to get label approval means something. And when the federal government issues an approval for our labels, it means they have found them to be in compliance and not misleading to consumers. Everyone in the industry should be able to rely on their approved labels to do business.

Why not just settle or compromise? Settling cases like these simply invites more people to bring more cases. Some principles are worth fighting for.

Biggest surprises about our legal system, so far? Things move slowly in the court system. And in the early stages, people can make a lot of baseless accusations and get the benefit of the doubt for a long time, with no real skin in the game and no downside when those accusations are disproven.

How if at all have the cases affected sales? I haven’t had anyone tell me they won’t buy the product because we’ve been sued. To the contrary, I’ve had people tell me that this means I’ve arrived. All I know is we keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for years; we just do more of it.

What else? On the Florida case … continued here.

With so many cases pending, and so much at stake, it won’t be long until this scorecard needs a major update.

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Judge Miller Not Too Impressed With TTB System or Tito Approvals

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There is big news out of a federal court in San Diego. On Friday, the judge in two of the Tito’s labeling cases said it, loud and clear. Words matter — on labels. This is important because it was starting to get very confusing, what with all the label cases floating around, and many dismissals. There are at least eight separate Tito’s cases scattered around the country, and a couple dozen alcohol beverage litigations pending in recent months. Along the way, Judge Miller made it clear he is not too impressed with the rigor of TTB’s label review system, or the fact that the Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka labels have been approved on many occasions.

On Friday, November 20, 2015, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Judge Jeffrey Miller issued two very similar Orders in two separate cases against Tito’s Vodka. The cases are:
   – Hofmann v. Fifth Generation
   – Cabrera v. Fifth Generation

In hindsight, Judge Miller’s November 20th Orders seem obvious. If the claim meant little to nothing, why would Tito spend zillions of dollars to make sure everyone knows his vodka is “handmade”? Why else would it be the main word on the main label, and throughout his marketing? Why else would it work so well, to shoot this brand to the top of a tall and slippery pole? In recent months Tito has argued that the term is mere puff. But I can’t think of any puff term that has a prayer of moving the bottles as well as a term, such as the one at issue, with a little more grit and traction. I don’t see the terms “premium,” “finest,” “smooth,”  or any other agreed-upon puff terms getting anyone far, as compared to a term that is much more likely to actually mean something.

tIn a 17 page Order, Judge Miller denied Tito’s motion for summary judgment in Hofmann v. Fifth Generation, the first of many such cases. The Judge did likewise in a 14 page Order, in the Cabrera case. This means both cases have much greater odds of ending up at trial someday, even though most such cases are settled well before that. This also means the odds are much higher, that a judge or jury might actually tell us, someday in our lifetimes, what this inscrutable term actually means, and whether Tito’s is made thusly. Without having a strong opinion on whether Tito should win or lose, I do have a strong opinion that it is a huge copout to say, the term is simply too hard to define, or, as so many people on the internet like to say about it, “who cares.” For better or worse, my job is more or less about what words do, don’t, should, or shouldn’t mean, hence my deep interest in this case. A term like “bourbon” or “straight” means a lot, and that is good.

The Orders tend to say that TTB approval of the label and term at issue are determinative only to the extent TTB conducted a rigorous review. It is hard to say TTB’s review is other than non-rigorous, inasmuch as TTB quite clearly said they don’t even have any standards or rules around such a term. The plaintiffs argued, and the Judge agreed (in the Hofmann and Cabrera Orders), that “a federal regulator’s actions create a safe harbor only … where the agency’s actions ‘were the result of a formal, deliberative process akin to notice and comment rulemaking or an adjudicative enforcement action,’ and are therefore sufficiently formal to merit Chevron deference.” I have been interacting with TTB’s label review system on a daily basis for more than 25 years now. It would be preposterous to claim that the system has been anything close to formal, deliberative, or similar to an adjudication. Most of the time, no lawyers or neutrals are involved. Most of the time there is no evidence, and there are no evidentiary rules. Many times the system has all the rigor of a bouncer, at the trendiest nightclub, deciding whether you are cool enough to enter the club. Far less often, the system involves knowledgeable people, on opposing sides of an issue, with a plausibly neutral decisionmaker.

It is quite easy to illustrate this. Take a competing vodka; let’s call it Pedro’s. Pretend Pedro’s Vodka is demonstrably distilled in a humongous vodka plant, outside Texas, and shipped to Dallas in railroad …

Continued here

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A Courtroom Cocktail: Gosling Brothers and a Dark, Stormy Message

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We have been following various cocktail controversies in recent months, and we again thought of this one today because it appears that it got settled in recent days. Regardless of the exact, current, status, the main point remains — it really is possible to get into a full-blown trademark dispute over cocktail names, as this situation shows.

This tempest in a mug is all about … What do you need to make a real Dark ‘N Stormy®? According to Gosling Brothers Ltd.—the owner of several registered trademarks over DARK ‘N STORMY—any brand of ginger beer will do, but you better use Gosling’s Black Seal® Rum. Those planning to do otherwise may want to garnish their cocktail with a large wedge of trademark-infringement-defense.

By Frank Knizner, J.D. and Michael Volz, Attorney

A Dark ‘N Stormy®, like a Painkiller®, or a Sazerac™, is one of a handful of trademarked cocktails. On September 15, 2015, Gosling sued Pernod Ricard USA, LLC alleging that Pernod’s use of “Dark N’ Stormy” and “Black Stormy” in recipes and advertising containing Pernod’s Malibu line of rums infringed several of Gosling’s DARK ‘N STORMY registered trademarks. The case—Gosling Brothers Ltd. et. al. v. Pernod Ricard USA, LLC.—was filed in federal district court in Massachusetts.

The alleged trademark infringement stemmed from Pernod including cocktail recipes on its website for a “Dark N’ Stormy” containing Malibu Island Spiced Rum, and a “Black Stormy” containing Malibu Black Rum. Further, Pernod released a YouTube video demonstrating how to make a “Dark N’ Stormy” using Malibu Island Spiced Rum. (A lot of the links seem to be now removed.)

As with all trademark infringement claims, the issue here boils down to whether the allegedly infringing marks are likely to confuse consumers. While “Black Stormy” is similar to Gosling’s mark, “Dark N’ Stormy” is nearly identical to “Dark ‘N Stormy®”—the only difference being the location of the apostrophe. According to Gosling, the subtle differences between the marks were not enough to avoid consumer confusion. Specifically, Gosling contended that Pernod’s use of “Dark N’ Stormy” and “Black Stormy” was likely to confuse customers as to the source of Pernod’s goods, and as to whether Gosling approves, sponsors, or endorses Pernod’s goods. Gosling claimed that Pernod’s use of these phrases was “knowing, willful, [and] deliberate” and was “performed with the intent to trade off of Gosling’s goodwill and reputation tied to the iconic … [m]arks.” Gosling was seeking treble damages (i.e., three times any actual damages suffered by Gosling), preliminary and permanent injunctions barring Pernod from using the marks, and for Pernod to relinquish any materials bearing the marks.

Pernod’s decision to use “Dark N’ Stormy” and “Black Stormy” is particularly interesting because Gosling is known to police their trademarks relatively vigorously. Back in 2009, Gosling went after rum producer Zaya for an advertisement suggesting that Zaya Rum could be substituted for Gosling’s Black Seal® Rum in a Dark ‘N Stormy®. That same year, Gosling sent a cease and desist letter to the blog Inu Ā Kena after it asked readers “what’s the best rum for a Dark and Stormy?”

The “cocktail trademark enforcers”—Gosling, Sazerac, and Pusser’s—have typically gone after smaller producers, bars, and blogs for trademark infringement. So far, all of these disputes have been resolved well before reaching court. Until this week, this dispute seemed to be headed in a different direction. What’s more, unlike its prior enforcement measures, Gosling’s Complaint gives no indication that Gosling sent Pernod a cease and desist letter before filing suit.

Until the next sign of a dispute about cocktail names, this controversy should serve as a reminder that it’s not just brand names that can cause so many intellectual property disputes in the crowded beer, wine and spirits fields. It is also every part of your website, advertising and yes — indeed — even those cute and witty cocktail names.

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Webinar Today

lorman

This webinar is today. I should have put this up a long time ago to give you all a chance to sign up. Anyway, it should be great because where else can you get some Tom Cunningham and Simon Fleischmann for less than the cost of a few rounds of fancy cocktails? The signup link is here and it’s not too late to sign up. The topic is all the recent lawsuits like Tito’s, Maker’s Mark, Beam, etc. Tom and Simon are seasoned trial lawyers on the defense side, and I will cover the regulatory issues.

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