Making Your Mark in the Craft Beer Business, Part One – Identifying and Protecting Your Trademarks

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According to the Brewer’s Association there were over 6,000 craft breweries operating in the United States at the end of 2017. In an increasingly crowded market, how do you ensure that the craft beer consumer is able to distinguish your brewery from your competitors? You should begin by identifying your trademarks.

A trademark is any word, phrase, symbol or design that uniquely identifies the source of one company’s goods from those of other companies. While the law in the United States recognizes a broad range of “source identifiers” as trademarks, most companies focus their intellectual property protection efforts on brand names, slogans and logos. Especially at the early stages of your business, it is important to focus your protection efforts on the essential elements of your brand. For example, your brewery may have a dozen regular varieties of beer, plus several small release or seasonal brews throughout the year. Seeking trademark registrations for each of your beers may quickly deplete your legal budget, and so a more focused approach is usually the best course of action. For most breweries, their primary protection efforts should focus first on their brewery name and logos, and then on the names of one or two of their flagship beers.

In the United States, a brewery’s trademark rights arise at the time it starts using the mark in commerce. This means that the first person to begin using a trademark in connection with the sale of beer owns that mark, and may be able to prevent others from using confusingly similar marks on beer and beer-related goods and services. That is, a registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is not necessary to own a trademark. However, these “common law” rights are limited in that they can only be applied to the geographic area in which you are selling your beer. Any business that is serious about protecting its brand should seriously consider applying for registration of the essential names and logos.

Some of the benefits that federal trademark registration provides to the trademark owner include:

(1) Preventing infringement problems before they begin by making your marks easy to find in a search of marks registered with the USPTO;

(2) Getting the USPTO to do a degree of enforcement on your behalf by preventing the registration of other marks found to be confusingly similar by the USPTO’s examiners;

(3) Giving you nationwide priority when your marks might otherwise be limited to the geographic area in which you are using the mark;

(4) Putting other companies on notice of your trademark rights so that they cannot claim that their subsequent use of your mark was in “good faith;”

(5) Creating a presumption of validity and ownership of your mark in the event that you need to sue another company for infringing your trademark rights;

(6) Providing the ability to recover treble damages and attorney’s fees in “exceptional” cases of trademark infringement;

(7) Providing the ability to recover statutory damages in cases involving counterfeiting;

(8) Giving you the ability to file for “incontestability” after five years of registration, which severely limits other companies’ ability to invalidate your trademark;

(9) Empowering Customs and Border Protection to block imports that infringe your trademark rights, including counterfeit products, once you record your trademark registration with Customs; and

(10) Granting you the right to use the ® symbol in connection with your beer, further putting your competitors on notice of your trademark rights.

Even if you’re in the planning process, and have not begun selling your beer yet, you may apply on an “intent-to-use” basis, meaning that you have concrete plans to begin using your mark in connection with the sale of beer. An intent-to-use application allows you to claim priority over other companies who might begin using your mark or a confusingly similar mark in the period between your application date and the date you start actually using the mark.

Keep in mind that you may not be able to establish exclusive trademark rights in a mark that is generic or descriptive of your products. For example, if you’re selling an IPA called “Hoppy IPA,” you will likely be unable to stop other breweries from using the name “Hoppy” in connection with their hop-forward beers. The “Hoppy” mark would be deemed descriptive because it describes a characteristic of the beer. The only way to establish trademark rights in a descriptive mark is to show that consumers associate the mark with your company. In the “Hoppy IPA” example, that means that consumers who hear “Hoppy” would need to immediately connect that term with your brewery.

On the other hand, you can reference a characteristic of your beer with a suggestive mark that requires consumers to use some imagination to connect your mark to the product. For example, consider Deschutes’ “Fresh Squeezed” mark for their IPA brewed with Citra hops, which alludes to the citrus notes in their beer. Stronger still are arbitrary names that have no direct connection to your beer or its characteristics (think “Stone Brewing” or “Rogue Ales”) or fanciful names you made up that have no literal meaning (like “Mikkeller” or “CANarchy”).

Stay tuned for Part Two of our brewery-focused trademark posts, in which we will discuss considerations regarding coexistence agreements.

Conkle, Kremer and Engel has assisted its clients in securing and protecting their trademarks for over thirty years. Whether you’re in the planning stages or already operating your brewery, contact Zachary Page or CK&E’s intellectual property team for help identifying or protecting your trademarks.


What Businesses Can Learn from Motorcycle Gangs

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December 11, 2018 Update:

The front page of the Los Angeles Times today features a new article on this long-lived lawsuit by the U.S. government against a motorcycle gang called the Mongols, which lawsuit has the stated goal of seizing for the U.S. government the Mongols’ storied trademark.  The lawsuit has been up and down the appellate process, and is awaiting a jury verdict after trial.  Some aspects of the case make it a real head-scratcher to trademark lawyers, but it has some lessons that can help more conventional business owners.

There is little doubt that the Mongols’ trademark is valuable, but the question that business owners should relate to is, of what value is the trademark if it is owned by someone other than its originator?  In this particular instance, it seems that transferring this trademark to the U.S. government would be of little or no value even toward accomplishing the prosecutors’ laudable goal to preclude the use of the Mongols’ trademark to continue to operate their gang.

Assuming the government wins and is allowed to seize ownership of the Mongols’ design or word trademark, the first problem is that new ownership of the mark does not prevent people who have lawfully received items using the mark to continue to use genuine products that bear the mark.  The “first sale doctrine” means that as long as the products bearing the Mongols’ trademark (such as patches, posters, shirts and vests) are genuine and unaltered U.S. goods, they can continue to be lawfully used and displayed by their owners.  So the existing Mongols members can continue to wear their Mongols’ apparel, or transfer them lawfully, even if the Mongols’ association cannot issue new products with the trademarks that it no longer owns.

Next, trademarks only have substantial value if they are actually used to promote products or services.  Since the government is not a rival motorcycle gang, what exactly is the government going to do with the Mongols’ trademarks other than retire them?  When trademarks are not used for a legally sufficient amount of time, they are subject to a determination that they have been abandoned and they become available to anyone – including their former owner – to again start using them.  So unless the government also manages to get a permanent injunction against the Mongols’ association ever again using their trademark (which seems unlikely, due to serious first amendment issues), once the trademarks are deemed abandoned the Mongols’ association may well be free to take back the trademarks as a full owner.

The ultimate lesson is that any prospective trademark owner must give thorough strategic consideration to who will own each trademark and what will be done with it, before expending substantial resources to create or acquire the trademark.

May 31, 2015 Blog Post:

The Mongols motorcycle gang has a distinctive registered trademark, which the U.S. government very badly wants to own.  Claiming use that dates back to 1969, the Mongols’ design trademark is an image of a man with sunglasses, mustache, and queue, wearing a black vest, holding a sword, and riding a chopper motorcycle, and includes the words “MONGOLS M.C.”  (USPTO Registration No. 4730806)  The MONGOLS design mark is used extensively by the group, including on jackets and motorcycle accessories, to signify affiliation with the association.  The MONGOLS design mark is owned by the corporation formed by the group, Mongols Nation Motorcycle Club, and it is classed as a Collective Membership Mark “indicating membership in an association dedicated to motorcycle riding appreciation.”

Since 2008, the U.S. has been prosecuting individual members of the Mongols for a wide variety of criminal acts, including extortion, drug dealing and assault.  The government’s stated purpose is to “break the back” of the gang and put it out of business.  What better way to achieve that goal than to seize ownership and control of the MONGOLS design trademark that signifies membership in the gang?  The government’s view is that the trademark is an asset – arguably the single biggest asset – of the motorcycle gang and it can be seized when its members are found guilty of crimes requiring penalties and restitution to be paid to the government.  In focusing on the trademark, the U.S. government recognizes that the organization would become essentially non-functional if its members were stripped of the ability to readily identify themselves as being members of the association.

The first attack by the government in 2008 was an attempt to seize the MONGOLS word mark (USPTO Registration No. 2916965).  The government obtained a preliminary injunction restraining the transfer of the mark during the pendency of the action.  But the action stalled when the U.S. District Court found that the government was trying to seize the trademark from the wrong person.  In 2008, the government was prosecuting individual members of the gang for alleged criminal acts, but was trying to seize a trademark owned by the corporate entity that constitutes the Mongols association itself.  This governmental drive skidded off the road because it violated one of the basic tenets of trademark law:  The trademark is controlled by its owner, not by those who have non-exclusive licenses to use the mark such as members who are allowed to wear the mark on their jackets.

Not to be stymied, the U.S. Attorney returned to court beginning in 2013, this time with an indictment against the Mongols organization itself as an unincorporated association that is alleged to be racketeering enterprise.  With this new approach, the registered owner of both the MONGOLS word and design marks is considered part of the indictment and the government seeks forfeiture of its assets, including its trademarks, which can be seized if the court allows that remedy.

One thing more conventional businesses can learn from the Mongols is to pay close attention to who owns the business’ marks, which are often its most valuable assets and usually vital to its survival and growth.  Should the marks be owned by the business entity itself?  By a sister entity that licenses it under strictures?  Or perhaps by the individual founder, who can license the mark to the entity and create a revenue stream for herself?

Even for businesses that are not motorcycle gangs, all structures for trademark ownership options have advantages and disadvantages, and business owners would do well to consult counsel familiar with the issues involved.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys advise clients about the most suitable trademark ownership and licensing structures for their circumstances and business plans.


Beware of Scam Trademark Solicitations

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Trademark applicants and registrants take notice:  There are increasing numbers of domestic and international outfits that issue trademark compliance and renewal notices that look like legitimate invoices or governmental requests.  In actuality, these notices are sent by private individuals or entities trying to make a quick buck.  Some of these notices are solicitations from companies offering to file renewals with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) for an exorbitant fee.  Using deceptively official-sounding names such as “United States Trademark Registration Office”, “Trademark and Patent Office” and “Patent & Trademark Agency”, these companies charge excessive fees for routine or unnecessary services or worse, take your money and disappear.  Others, such as IP Data in the Czech Republic, seek to charge a “filing fee” of over $2,400 to publish your trademark in their own private Internet database – an expensive exercise that is not an application for trademark registration and confers no trademark rights.

This problem has become so widespread and severe that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) published a list of known international trademark registration scams.   The USPTO keeps a similar scammer database, identifying the following organizations that sent non-USPTO solicitations, prompting consumer complaints to the USPTO:

  • TM-DB Register of Protected Trademarks
  • Trademark and Patent Office
  • Trademark Compliance Center (See an example of a scam solicitation sent by TCC)
  • Trademark Registration and Monitoring Office
  • United States Trademark Registration Office
  • Patent & Trademark Agency
  • United States Trademark Maintenance Service
  • U.S. Trademark Compliance Service
  • WDTP
  • WIPT
  • TM Collection
  • TM Edition
  • Patent Trademark Register
  • Register of International Patents and Trademarks
  • Trademark Renewal Service
  • Trademark Safeguard – Trademark Monitoring Service
  • Intellectual Property Agency Ltd.
  • IOPR – Intellectual Property Register
  • GBO, Inc.
  • Intellectual Property Services USA Incorporated
  • USTM Information Services
  • Brand Registration Office

In October 2014, a New York firm successfully won a lawsuit against “Patent & Trademark Agency LLC” for unfair competition and deceptive marketing practices, putting the company out of business.  A Final Consent Judgment was entered against Patent & Trademark Agency LLC, by which it agreed to permanently discontinue marketing and selling trademark registration or renewal services in the United States.

If you receive any unexpected email or correspondence regarding a trademark registration, you should immediately contact the USPTO or your counsel to verify the veracity of the sender and the correspondence.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel assists individuals and companies in all aspects of intellectual property protection, including the filing and maintenance of trademark registrations – and we know how to discriminate legitimate vendors from scammers.