Sociology Index

TradeMark Case Law

Trademarks make it easier for consumers to quickly identify the source of a given good. Instead of reading the fine print on a can of cola, consumers can look for the Pepsi trademark. Trademark law furthers these goals by regulating the proper use of trademarks. The trademark "Nike," along with the Nike "swoosh," identify the shoes made by Nike and distinguish Nike shoes from shoes made by other companies, for example Adidas or Reebok. When such marks are used to identify services rather than products, they are called service marks, and they are generally treated just the same as trademarks under Trademark Law.

Trademark protection can extend to symbols and phrases to include other aspects of a product, such as its color or its packaging. Trademarks are governed by both state and federal law. The main federal statute is the Lanham Act. Federal law provides the main, and by and large the most extensive, source of trademark protection, although state common law actions are still available. Most of the discussion in this summary focuses on federal law. A suggestive mark is a mark that evokes or suggests a characteristic of the underlying good. For example, the word "Coppertone" is suggestive of sun-tan lotion, but does not specifically describe the underlying product.

In determining whether a mark is distinctive, the courts group marks into four categories, based on the relationship between the mark and the underlying product: (1) arbitrary or fanciful, (2) suggestive, (3) descriptive, or (4) generic. Because the marks in each of these categories vary with respect to their distinctiveness, the requirements for, and degree of, legal protection afforded a particular trademark will depend upon which category it falls within.

An arbitrary or fanciful mark is a mark that bears no logical relationship to the underlying product. For example, the words "Exxon," "Kodak," and "Apple" bear no inherent relationship to their underlying products (respectively, gasoline, cameras, or computers). Similarly, the Nike "swoosh" bears no inherent relationship to athletic shoes. Arbitrary or fanciful marks are inherently distinctive, i.e. capable of identifying an underlying product, and are given a high degree of protection.

A descriptive mark is a mark that directly describes, rather than suggests, a characteristic or quality of the underlying product, for example its color, odor, function, dimensions, or ingredients. A descriptive mark acquires secondary meaning when the consuming public primarily associates that mark with a particular producer, rather than the underlying product.

When trying to determine whether a given term has acquired secondary meaning, courts will often look to the following factors: (1) the amount and manner of advertising; (2) the volume of sales; (3) the length and manner of the term's use; (4) results of consumer surveys. Zatarain's, Inc. v. Oak Grove Smokehouse, Inc., 698 F.2d 786 (5th Cir. 1983).

A generic mark is a mark that describes the general category to which the underlying product belongs. For example, the term "Computer" is a generic term for computer equipment. Generic marks are entitled to no protection under trademark law. Generic terms are not protected by trademark law because they are simply too useful for identifying a particular product.

Assuming that a trademark qualifies for protection, rights to a trademark can be acquired in one of two ways: (1) by being the first to use the mark in commerce; or (2) by being the first to register the mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO"). 15 U.S.C. 1127(a). Remember, however, that descriptive marks qualify for protection (and can be registered) only after they have acquired secondary meaning.

Unlike use of a mark in commerce, registration of a mark with the PTO gives a party the right to use the mark nationwide, even if actual sales are limited to only a limited area. This right is limited, however, to the extent that the mark is already being used by others within a specific geographic area. If that is the case, then the prior user of the mark retains the right to use that mark within that geographic area; the party registering the mark gets the right to use it everywhere else.