In an interesting case for intellectual property lawyers specializing in craft beer, distilled spirits, and wine, the trademark dispute between a dozen law firms over the use of the phrase “CRAFT BEER ATTORNEY” is now over.
Craft beer attorneys everywhere are relieved. They can go back to describing themselves as CRAFT BEER ATTORNEYS without the threat of a lawsuit due to a pending application to federally register the trademark for the phrase that describes their legal services.
Like other descriptive terms in the craft brewing industry, such as BREWING COMPANY, BREWERY, ALE, or NE IPA, and descriptive terms in the legal industry, such as ATTORNEY, ESQ. or LAW FIRM, these terms may be used without the apprehension of suit for trademark infringement when used to accurately describe one’s goods or services. Typically, an attempt to register as a trademark a generic and merely descriptive word or phrase will be refused by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). The public policy behind refusing registration of these words and phrases – or disclaiming them – is to permit individuals and companies to describe their goods and services in fair competition. In addition, such words and phrases do not indicate a single source of those goods and services, so they do not function as a trademark.
Here, the applicant, the law firm of The Craft Beer Attorney, APC, filed an application to register the trademark CRAFT BEER ATTORNEY in connection with legal services. The application was filed almost three years ago, on January 15, 2015 (Serial No. 86504533). The USPTO sent an office action refusing the mark as (1) generic, and, alternatively, (2) merely descriptive, and (3) lacking sufficient evidence of acquired distinctiveness. This was followed by the Applicant’s response, which overcame the refusals, and a notification of publication was issued on December 16, 2015. On January 5, 2016, the mark was published in the Official Gazette for the purpose of opposition “by any person who believes he will be damaged by the registration of the mark.”
Who would file an opposition? It turns out that eleven law firms filed oppositions in the allotted time: (1) Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman & Dunn Ltd.; (2) Nossaman LLP; (3) GrayRobinson, PA; (4) Tannenbaum Helpern Syracuse & Hirschtritt LLP; (5) Lehrman Beverage Law, PLLC; (6) Davis Wright Tremaine LLP; (7) Ward and Smith PA; (8) Strike & Techel LLP; (9) Martin Frost & Hill PC; (10) Spaulding Mccullough & Tansil LLP; and (11) Wendel Rosen Black & Dean LLP (See USPTO Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) Opposition No. 91227647 (parent)).
In their Oppositions, the other law firms argued that the trademark CRAFT BEER ATTORNEY was generic and/or descriptive, among other things. A generic name is entitled to no trademark protection, as it is part of the common language that we need to identify such services or goods. A generic name refers to the services or goods, rather than to the mark owner’s brand for the services or goods. A descriptive name is a word or phrase that identifies or describes some aspect, characteristic, or quality of the services or goods to which the mark is affixed in a straightforward way that requires no exercise of imagination to be understood. Descriptive words must acquire distinctiveness or secondary meaning to be protectable as a trademark. In other words, the consumers must come to recognize the mark as designating a single source.
As the Ninth Circuit’s jury instructions state: “Descriptive marks are entitled to protection only as broad as the secondary meaning they have acquired, if any. If they have acquired no secondary meaning, they are entitled to no protection and cannot be considered a valid mark.” Ninth Circuit Manual of Model Civil Jury Instructions, 15.11(last modified September 2017).
These twelve parties litigated before the TTAB for more than a year and a half, and participated in discovery.
On October 31, 2017, the Applicant’s representative, Candace L. Moon, filed an Express Abandonment of Application Serial No. 86504533, seeking to withdraw the application and end the dispute over the name. As a result of the Applicant’s abandonment, judgment was entered against applicant. In a November 7, 2017 Board decision sustaining the oppositions filed by the eleven law firms, the TTAB held that oppositions were sustained and registration to applicant was refused.
Now, all of these attorneys can get back to work representing their craft beer clients and describing themselves as CRAFT BEER ATTORNEYS without the potential threat of a lawsuit.
For more information about Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP’s Intellectual Property Practice Group, including the firm’s specialization in the craft beer industry, please visit www.grsm.com/practices/food-beverage/craft-breweries intellectual property law. Mr. Kanach is a Partner in the firm’s Intellectual Property and Food & Beverage practice groups, and a frequent speaker and writer on craft beer trademark law.