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Limitations on Marks

11 August, 2015 - 10:22

Although trademarks abound, the law limits the subjects that may fall into one of the defined categories. Not every word or shape or symbol will be protected in an infringement action. To qualify for protection, a trademark must be used to identify and distinguish. The courts employ a four-part test: (1) Is the mark so arbitrary and fanciful that it merits the widest protection? (2) Is it “suggestive” enough to warrant protection without proof of secondary meaning? (3) Is it “descriptive,” warranting protection if secondary meaning is proved? (4) Is the mark generic and thus unprotectable?

These tests do not have mechanical answers; they call for judgment. Some marks are wholly fanciful, clearly identify origin of goods, and distinguish them from others—Kodak, for example. Other marks may not be so arbitrary but may nevertheless be distinctive, either when adopted or as a result of advertising—for example, Crest, as the name of a toothpaste.

Marks that are merely descriptive of the product are entitled to protection only if it can be shown that the mark has acquired secondary meaning. This term reflects a process of identification on the mark in the public mind with the originator of the product. Holiday Inn was initially deemed too descriptive: an inn where people might go on holiday. But over time, travelers came to identify the source of the Great Sign and the name Holiday Inn as the Holiday Inn Corporation in Memphis, and secondary meaning was granted. Holiday Inn could thus protect its mark against other innkeepers, hoteliers, and such; however, the trademark protection for the words Holiday Inn was limited to the corporation’s hotel and motel business, and no other.

Certain words and phrases may not qualify at all for trademark protection. These include generic terms like “straw broom” (for a broom made of straw) and ordinary words like “fast food.” In one case, a federal appeals court held that the word “Lite” is generic and cannot be protected by a beer manufacturer to describe a low-calorie brew. 1Donald Trump’s effort to trademark “You’re fired!” and Paris Hilton’s desire to trademark “That’s hot!” were also dismissed as being generic.

Deceptive words will not be accepted for registration. Thus the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied registration to the word Vynahydebecause it suggested that the plastic material to which it was applied came from animal skin. Geographic terms are descriptive words and may not be used as protected trademarks unless they have acquired a secondary meaning, such as Hershey when used for chocolates. (Hershey’s chocolates are made in Hershey, Pennsylvania.) A design that reflects a common style cannot be protected in a trademark to exclude other similar designs in the same tradition. Thus the courts have ruled that a silverware pattern that is a “functional feature” of the “baroque style” does not qualify for trademark protection. Finally, the Lanham Act denies federal registration to certain marks that fall within categories of words and shapes, including the following: the flag; the name, portrait, or signature of any living person without consent, or of a deceased US president during the lifetime of his widow; and immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter (in an earlier era, the phrase “Bubby Trap” for brassieres was denied registration).