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A Surprisingly High Number of Virginia Wineries Are Not Registering their Trademarks

Several wineries in the Commonwealth of Virginia are not federally registering their wine brands as trademarks. We compared the number of wineries in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) to the number of federal wine trademark applications/registrations, and here are the results. As you will see, while Virginia comes in eighth place among all states regarding the total number of wineries (360 wineries according to TTB), Virginia wineries are in tradethe bottom half of all states (28th place) when it comes to federal trademark applications and registrations per winery (409 applications/registrations, or just above 1 trademark application/registration per winery). This rate drops to about 7 applications/registrations per 10 wineries when you add in pending winery licensees (573, according to Virginia ABC). This rate would be even lower if we considered the almost certainty that some of the applicants/registrants are private label brand owners that do not themselves own a winery.

This begs the question, “Why are so many Virginia wineries foregoing federal trademark applications?” There are some legitimate reasons why a company should not try to federally register its brands as trademarks. Read more on that here. In our experience, these situations are few and far between. More likely, we expect that many Virginia wineries may not understand the benefits of trademark registration, may overestimate the costs of trademark registrations and applications, or may simply be too busy dealing with the day-to-day duties of running a winery. In such cases, the wineries may be missing out on what is often a fleeting opportunity to stake an early claim to exclusive rights in their brands.

Read the rest of this article here.

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Branding Your Marijuana Business

One of the predominant ways businesses protect their brands is through Federal trademark registration at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In order to federally register a trademark, the trademark must be used in interstate commerce—lawfully. Because marijuana is federally illegal, it is impossible for a marijuana business to lawfully use a trademark in connection with marijuana and/or marijuana-specific goods and services in interstate commerce. Since Federal trademark registration is not an option, marijuana businesses need to get creative in how they protect their brands. Here are some alternative options for how a marijuana business can protect its brands.

Obtaining Federal Registration for Analogous Goods and Services

One tactic marijuana businesses have used to try and protect their brands is to obtain federal trademark registration for goods and services analogous to marijuana goods and services. These businesses might apply for trademark registration in connection with goods and services like tobacco, smoking devices, rolling papers, vaporizers, clothing, hats, and retail tobacco stores or services. The idea behind this tactic is rooted in trademark law which recognizes that similar marks used on related goods/services can cause consumer confusion as to the origin of those goods/services. By obtaining a federal registration for related goods and services, these businesses believe that they will be able to prevent third parties from using or obtaining registrations for confusingly similar trademarks in connection with marijuana goods and services if and when marijuana is legalized. They’re taking a gamble that their rights to, for example, a tobacco-related trademark will keep others from using that name in connection with marijuana.  

The logic is, at least in theory, sound, and we see this type of thing quite often with alcohol beverage trademarks. The USPTO routinely refuses trademark applications for beer that are similar to existing registrations for wine or spirits. Alcohol beverage trademarks are also commonly refused in light of similar prior registrations for restaurants and bars, or even glassware.

There are, of course, some caveats with this approach. First, to apply for a trademark for analogous goods/services, you must have a bona fide intent to use the trademark in connection with those analogous goods/services, and/or (ultimately) actually use the trademark in connection with those analogous goods/services in order for the trademark to register. Someone who is merely trying to reserve a right in a name for marijuana is likely vulnerable to opposition or cancellation. Second, we don’t know whether (or the degree to which) the USPTO or courts will treat tobacco and tobacco-related goods/services and marijuana and marijuana-related goods/services as related goods. We can predict that these bodies will treat them as related goods, but this has not yet been tested. Finally, there are other factors at play, too, such as the difference in the trade channels in which tobacco and marijuana do (or will) travel, and possibly differences in consumer sophistication.

Due to this uncertainty, marijuana businesses should consider additional tactics to protect their brands.

Relying on Common Law Rights

Are you currently (and lawfully) selling marijuana under a brand name in a state in which marijuana has been legalized? If so, chances are you already have some “common law” trademark rights to that brand name. Common law trademark rights require no registration–they arise out of, and rely on continued and substantially exclusive use of, a trademark in connection with the sale of goods or services. These rights are limited to the goods/services in connection with which the trademark is used, and the geographic areas in which the mark is used (including the areas of “reasonable expansion”). So long as you maintain these common law rights by continuing to use your trademark, you can enforce these rights against junior users of confusingly similar marks on confusingly similar goods/services within your geographic area. If you have a mark you are selling products under, you should  put third parties on notice of your claim to a the mark by placing the letters TM (e.g. HANGRY BUDS™) next to the mark everywhere you use it (on packaging, advertising, etc.). Also, you should take care to use your mark in a consistent manner (same spelling, same capitalization, etc.) to strengthen your claim to the mark.

Relying on common-law trademark rights can be a good fallback solution for preventing third parties in your geographic area from using confusingly similar marijuana trademarks. But, common-law rights have limitations, and require excellent recordkeeping and proof to substantiate a claim to a mark, as of a certain date.

Obtaining State Trademark Registration

As illustrated above, common-law rights provide some fallback rights to a mark, but are somewhat limited. A much better solution is to seek a state trademark registration. Generally speaking, a state trademark registration provides you with the exclusive right to use a mark in connection with the described goods as of the date of filing. Each state has their own requirements for registration, but in general, they can be obtained by applying, paying a fee, and showing use of a trademark in connection with certain goods in the particular state. Here is a list of states where marijuana trademark registration is possible, as of late 2017 (the list is growing):

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California (January 1, 2018)
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

As mentioned above, state trademark registrations entitle the registrant to the exclusive right to use the trademark within the entire state, and are prima facie evidence of the validity of the registration and the registrant’s ownership of the registration. Extending the example from above, a state trademark registrant based in San Francisco could rely on her state trademark registration to go after a junior user of a confusingly similar trademark in Los Angeles (or anywhere else that may be outside the registrant’s geographic area).

Conclusion

Just like other businesses, Marijuana businesses should prioritize protecting their brands, but due to various restrictions, must get creative in doing so. While federal trademark registration for marijuana and marijuana-specific goods/services is unavailable currently, obtaining federal registration for analogous goods may allow you to prevent others from using or registering the trademark in connection with marijuana. Relying on common law rights alone provides limited rights but might cause headaches down the road if you plan to expand beyond your initial territory, or if you have a difficult time substantiating your rights to an early sale date. Obtaining a state trademark registration is likely the best bet for most Marijuana businesses, at least until federal law changes and federal registration becomes a possibility.

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Johnny Love Vodka Wins “Sexy Lips” Trademark Appeal Against Jim Beam

Johnny Love Beverage Company LLC (“JL”) and Jim Beam Brands Co. (“Beam”) are fighting over the right to use “sexy lips” imagery on flavored vodkas. JL’s logo (the subject of U.S. trademark registration no. 4,044,182; shown below left) dates back to 2005, and is described by Johnny Love’s creator and namesake Johnny Metheny as “definitely sexy.” Metheny apparently felt the same way about Beam’s new logo, adopted in 2011, (shown below right), and sued Beam in federal district court for trademark infringement, false designation of origin, and unfair competition.

jllips After filing suit, JL promptly moved for preliminary injunctive relief, essentially requesting that the court order Beam to stop selling products with Beam’s new logo during the pendency of the trial. Beam cross moved for summary judgment. The district court denied JL’s motion, and, in a surprise move, sustained Beam’s motion, dismissing the case and holding, “For reasons articulated in the Order denying the Preliminary Injunction, the Court determines that no issues of material fact remain which could provide Plaintiff a basis for success on any of its claims.”

beamlipsJL appealed the district court’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and, on July 14, 2016, the 9th circuit court issued its ruling, reversing the district court. The circuit court held that the district court improperly applied the preliminary injunction standard to Beam’s motion for summary judgment. The circuit court pointed out that “both [logos] have puckered, human lips as the focal point of their design; the lips have a similar angle and shape; and the lips are color-coordinated with the flavor of the vodka.” Accordingly, the circuit court found that a reasonable fact-finder could determine that Beam’s logo was confusingly similar to JL’s logo and that summary judgment was, therefore, inappropriate.

Most observers know that a lot of the good words are taken, when it comes to that delicious intersection of beverages, brands and trademarks. This case is a useful reminder that a lot of the good images (some but not all sexy lips!) are taken, as well. It is also a prime example of a little guy scoring big points on a behemoth. Judge Wallace mentioned:  “Jim Beam instructed its legal counsel to perform a clearance search for lips designs. The legal department found 40 references to lips for alcohol-related products.”

Note: With JL having now ultimately survived Beam’s motion for summary judgment, experience tells us that it would not be surprising to see the case quietly settle in the near future, with Beam moving to a design less similar to JL’s (not less sexy, just different sexy).

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alcohol beverages generally


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Trademarks All Over the Atlas

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A few months ago, big law firm Foley Hoag compiled a marvelous list of trademark scuffles, within the alcohol beverage category, during the past year. We already knew there were scores of tussles, and the list was growing ever longer, but we never quite realized how fast the casualties are stacking up. The article shows at least 50 such disputes.

Of all those, the Atlas dispute is the one that caught my eye. Because it’s local, must be crushing news for whoever lost, recent, and I had not heard about it but for the Foley article. Foley explained:

The Atlas Brewing Company of Chicago opposed Atlas Brew Works’ application to register ATLAS for beer. The Opposer alleged that “Atlas” was primarily descriptive of a geographic area within Washington D.C., which is where the Applicant is located (“Atlas” is apparently an unofficial nickname of the H Street District). The TTAB rejected this argument, finding that consumers were unlikely to make the connection. The TTAB agreed with the Opposer that there was a likelihood of confusion between the marks, but it found that the Applicant was the senior user (the TTAB did not accept the launch dates of the Opposer’s Twitter and Facebook accounts as establishing priority). The petition was dismissed. Atlas Brewing Company, LLC v. Atlas Brew Works LLC.

Upon reading the opinion, my main takeaway is that the Washington, D.C. brewer tried earnestly and in good faith to find a good brand name, but still had to contend with this expensive dispute. First, they tried VOLSTEAD but House Spirits Distillery shut that down. The Atlas tale and the Foley article further underscore the need to do no less than look around, Google it, conduct a thorough trademark search, engage a specialized lawyer, check TESS, check TTB’s Public COLA Registry, and check LabelVision, when selecting a brand name in a crowded sector. There is not much sign that either party did a particularly good job of scoping out the things that ought to be scoped out, before putting so much sweat and money into a brand, especially since it is getting so clear that disputes are common. In any event, because the Chicago brewer’s opposition was dismissed by the TTAB, it looks like the Washington brewer can shrug this off and move forward with ATLAS as their brand name.

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alcohol beverages generally, malt beverage


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Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Wine

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At USBevX a few days ago I heard lots of questions about various wines aged in Bourbon barrels. But I did not hear lots of answers so I thought I would take a look and see what’s going on. This Fetzer example, above, seems like a good place to start.

It tends to show that it is okay to mention Bourbon on a vintage- and varietal-designated wine. I am a little surprised I don’t see any reference to a formula approval, or to the amount of aging in said barrel. This Fetzer label is also noteworthy because it quickly drew the ire of the big Buffalo, as in Buffalo Trace; Sazerac charged at Fetzer for attempting to graze on land staked out long ago by the whiskey company. This really good article discusses the trademark dispute, about 1/3 of the way down the page.

I see about 64 wine labels with reference to Bourbon as approved by TTB during the past five years. Another representative one, from another big company, is this Robert Mondavi approval. I don’t really see any comparable labels, in the prior five year period. From these two examples, and a bit of asking around, it sounds like the reference to Bourbon should not appear on the same line as the wine’s class/type statement. Also, you are more likely to need aging details (e.g., Aged 6 Months) on the label if the age reference appears on the “brand label.”

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whisky, wine


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