As most business owners know, running a business is extremely difficult. Aside from all the internal decisions that must be made in order to operate a company successfully, business owners must also handle a wide variety of external problems that arise. One external issue that companies often deal with relates to its trademarks. It is not uncommon for new, competing businesses to try and exploit an established brand’s reputation by using a similar name or logo in order to gain recognition and grow its own brand within a marketplace. This infringement activity can be damaging to an existing brand’s reputation, as consumers may associate and confuse the two brands when making a purchase or utilizing its services. This post will explain what trademark infringement is and how deal with infringing activity should it take place.
What is trademark infringement?
Trademark infringement occurs when an unauthorized party uses a trademark or service mark, or a substantially similar mark, in connection with goods and/or services in a manner that is likely to cause confusion as to the actual company that produced the product or service. In a trademark infringement matter, a junior mark holder – the second business to adopt and use a particular mark with its goods or services – attempts to use a mark that is confusingly similar to senior mark holder’s – the first business to adopt and use a particular mark with its goods or services – mark without the senior mark holder’s approval. This confusion between the companies is problematic to the senior mark holder, as it can lead consumers to buy the junior mark holder’s products or services, resulting in lost profits or damage to the senior mark holder’s brand.
Do I have a claim for trademark infringement?
When determining whether you have a viable claim for trademark infringement, you should first ask yourself if you hold the rights to the specific mark. For maximum protection, it is best to have your mark registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), but trademark owners are still afforded some limited protections under common law. Common law trademark rights start once a mark is used in commerce for the first time within a geographic region. These rights allow to trademark owners to stop competing businesses in their area from using a confusingly similar mark, but it is much more difficult to recover any monetary damages without federal protection. Sophisticated business owners should strongly consider registering their mark with the USPTO, as there are a number of benefits to completing this process.
Next, trademark owners should ask themselves, at a basic level, if there is a likelihood of confusion between the alleged infringing mark and their mark. Would consumers in the relevant markets confuse the two marks? In most situations, trademark owners who ask this question already believe that the similarity between the marks causes a degree of confusion, but it is prudent to ask an independent party (or multiple) for an impartial perspective. This basic assessment should further solidify a trademark owner’s belief in any potential infringement claim.
Having an understanding of how courts evaluate claims for trademark infringement will also help trademark owners analyze their situation, and allow them to evaluate their claim more thoroughly. Courts use an eight-factor balancing test when determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion between two marks. Each factor used in the test is important when measuring the possibility of trademark infringement; however, the first three factors are arguably the most heavily weighed in a court’s evaluation:
Other factors include: (4) evidence of actual confusion; (5) the likelihood that the prior owner will “bridge the gap” in the marketplace; (6) intent of the junior user; (7) sophistication of buyers in the marketplace; and (8) quality of the junior user’s products or services. All of these factors will play a significant role in the court’s evaluation since no single factor is determinative, but doing an elementary assessment using first three factors should provide trademark owners with a strong foundation in assessing the strength of their own potential infringement case.
What do I do now?
If a trademark owner believes that someone is infringing upon its mark, there are a couple of options available to facilitate a resolution. Generally, the first step that can be taken to stop the infringement is to send the infringing party a cease and desist letter. The goal of this letter is to inform the infringing party that the use of its mark infringes upon the trademark owner’s rights and to ask it to discontinue its use. This letter should describe any ownership rights in a specific mark and explain how the junior mark is infringing upon these rights. The letter should also clarify what remedy is sought. Along with the request to stop the use of an infringing mark, some parties may also ask for compensation for past use or pose an offer to license the mark for future use.
Typically, a cease and desist letter will at least start a conversation between the two parties. However, this method is not always well received and can be ineffective, as the letter poses no immediate legal implication on the infringing party. Oftentimes, trademark owners will reach out to the infringing party multiple times before deciding to escalate the matter to its next step - litigation. Once litigation proceedings have commenced, trademark owners will then be able to ask the court for a preliminary or temporary injunction, which if granted, will order the alleged infringer to stop using the mark in question pending the outcome of the lawsuit. As with most litigation, fees for trademark infringement cases can be costly, so trademark owners should consider exhausting all available options before filing a claim.
Trademark infringement can be extremely harmful to a brand and must be dealt with as soon as a trademark owner becomes aware of any infringing activity. After analyzing the infringing activity to determine whether it is actually infringement, trademark owners should try to communicate with the infringing party and inform it of its unlawful activity. In order to make sure there is a record of these correspondences, a cease and desist letter would likely be the most effective form of communication. If these attempts are unfruitful, litigation may be imminent to in order to stop the infringing activity. While this may be a costly endeavor, it is necessary to prevent any further damage from being done to your brand by the infringing party.
Analyzing and fighting trademark infringement claims tend to be a complicated matter. If you have any questions regarding trademarks or potential trademark infringement, please feel free to contact us.
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