Monday, February 11, 2019

WIPIP 2019, Trademark panel

On Gripe Sites and Trademark Rights: Taking Stock of Cooperstock, Carys Craig
United Airlines v. Cooperstock, United complaint site with an altered/sadface logo and a popup disclaimer. Sued for © and TM infringement, and initially held liable for infringement of both—couldn’t have lost the case more emphatically. He represented himself; it’s now on appeal with actual representation and intervention by civil liberties groups.

TM use: services is to be interpreted broadly, and includes providing info to the public. Even if they were noncommercial, there’s no requirement of monetary/commercial element for info services to be covered. D argued he hadn’t used it as a mark, but the position of the logo on the website is where the consumer would expect it to be. There was evidence of actual confusion: one witness had lodged a complaint on the website, thinking it went to United, and that was enough.  Also, confusion was likely because the services were the same: “post-flight engagement services” and the market was identical: the services were both offered through the internet. And they were similar because the D wanted people to recognize the subject matter. Parody and satire aren’t defenses.  An obvious spoof is still cashing in on the goodwill of the mark.

Dilution/depreciation of goodwill: United invested and Cooperstock used the mark to disparage the company so it was depreciation of the mark. No internal limits.  The court also dismisses external limits—freedom of speech—out of hand. Each step of analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that use of a mark to criticize the mark owner leads to an injunction.

Property right/right of the owner to reap profits from use without interference.  That’s where we are in Canada: Michelin & Cie v. CAW (1997): © is private property and so there’s no right to use it in the service of freedom of expression (but even that found no TM infringement b/c no commercial use).  Source Perrier v. Fira-Less (1983) says the same thing for TM. 

Lessons: Canada needs explicit statutory limitations and exceptions. Could be clarifying of infringement provisions or (better) standalone fair use provisions. The absence of explicit exceptions/user rights creates an invitation for overreach/lack of cues to courts to constrain scope of “use” of TM.

Need a real account of “user rights” transcending the boundaries of IP.  Established for © in Canada; TM shouldn’t override them, preventing exactly what fair dealing is designed to protect. The user is central to TM law but appears only in shape of consumer; need fuller conception of public as consumers and citizens.

Lesson for TM theory: we need to change how we think about TM. The communicative function provides both the justification for TM rights and their necessary limits.  Dialogism: the mark is a textual utterance, which always invites a response. The mark as text is never static/stable/univocal. The mark owner is privileged in the public discourse but does not have a monopoly on meaning-making.

RT: Carol Rose: real property communicates too: keep off—so the response from TM owners at a theoretical level may well be that dialogue = invitation to bargain/create one’s own mark to intervene in the flow of meaning, not invitation to act w/o consent.

A: Property based methodology can still be used to disrupt the notion of control over the property.  Dev Ganjee: notion of property in the brand v. property in the mark implies and relies on consumer sociality/communities of brands built through public discourse. Then there’s a sort of appropriation/co-ownership of the brand [but maybe that’s just the voluntary allowance of the brand owner for us to hang out there; we can always be kicked out]. The property paradigm may be pretty hostile to real understanding of TM.

Lunney: how bad is it? Would unitedsucks have been ok? Is there any way to avoid the need to spend lots of $ on lawyers to figure out what you can and can’t do?

A: Answer unclear; try again later.

Protectable Trademark Subject Matter in Common Law Countries and the Problem with Flexibility,  Lisa Ramsey
Nontraditional TMs: colors, sounds, positions, etc. Lanham Act’s provision on the supplemental register goes into more detail about what can be on the SR than the Principal: configuration of goods, packaging, etc. but doesn’t mention sound or smell (or taste).  Canada has the most detailed provision that would allow sound, scent, taste, texture, positioning of a sign.  All of these lists are nonexclusive—e.g., hand gestures. Benefits for potential registrants: you can look at what you’re doing and almost any part of it could be a TM so you go from there.

Not every common law country has functionality (e.g., NZ).  TM examiners often use lack of distinctiveness instead but that can be defeated w/evidence of secondary meaning, so that’s a problem.

Flexibility’s costs: uncertainty about the scope of the resulting right.  TM registration for vodka in the shape of a skull=successful threats against sale of tequila (and more disturbingly, hot sauce) in similar bottles.  Nontraditional subject matter may make determining scope less clear. [The example I use: does registration for the texture of velvet on a wine bottle—a real US registration—give rights to preclude the use of RED VELVET as a word mark for wine?  What about the sale of bourbon in a velvet sack?]

Lunney: Congress tried to prevent the Lanham Act from allowing registration of trade dress, and courts and PTO just ignored that. What makes you think it could be more successful now?

A: would have to be very clear: no smells. (Another factor here is anticompetitive nature of the operation—big firms are better at getting over the hurdles to register nontraditional marks and there are competitive concerns.)

Rosenblatt: scents are potentially infinite (though you wouldn’t want to use all of them); are you treating all nontraditional marks the same?

A: No, wants nuance in different classes.

Fromer: one of the problems is acquired distinctiveness: it is less likely that the person using them is thinking of the arrangement of features as having a specific defined nature when initially adopted; the fact that it’s chosen/defined later is a problem of its own.

Abdul-Khalik: mandate for a chemical listing or other definitive description in order to claim the mark to limit scent?  Another concern: even if you exclude things/have an exclusive list in the statute, courts will want to provide common law protection, exactly as California did w/its right of publicity.

1 comment:

Carys Craig said...

Thanks for posting, Rebecca. In an effort to better answer Glynn Lunney’s question :) ...I expect that even would have been caught in the web of Justice Phelan’s logic here, if not for confusion or passing off then still for depreciation. To be clear, it shouldn't be caught: depreciation liability requires a technical use of the trademark in association with services, which has long been understood to require a commercial element. In this respect, the Cooperstock ruling is a departure from precedent and may ultimately (hopefully) turn out to be just one aberrant decision.
On the other hand, the property-based view of the trademark owner’s rights and the accompanying disregard for the speech interests of the defendant are not anomalous in Canadian case law. The shift in Canada towards a concern with the public interest and users’ rights in the copyright context has yet to be fully matched in the trademarks realm (and Cooperstock is also a major step backwards for copyright jurisprudence in this regard). Unless overturned, then, this case will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on complaints websites and other critical and parodic uses of protected marks.
It's also worth mentioning that trademark litigation is less frequent in Canada, and is always a risky proposition. We have very few parody cases in particular (the Source-Perrier case was 1983 and Michelin in 1996), so Federal Court rulings can stick around for many years as relevant precedents.
All of this is to say, in answer to Lunney: it’s pretty bad! That's why imo it's vital that the decision is overturned on appeal. (And, even if it is, it should be remembered in Canada and beyond as a striking example of the risk that the over-protection of trademark owners--and the almost absolutist approach to trademark rights--can pose to the expressive freedoms of consumers and citizens...)