Thursday, September 21, 2017

9th Circuit is sour on sugar-sweetened beverage disclosure

American Beverage Association v. City and County of San Francisco, No. 16-16072 (9th Cir. Sept. 19, 2017)

Plaintiffs challenged a SF ordinance requiring warnings about the health effects of certain sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) on certain fixed advertising (e.g., billboards) in the city. The court of appeals reversed the district court’s refusal to preliminarily enjoin the ordinance, on the grounds that the required disclosure was controversial/misleading and unduly burdensome.

The ordinance required ads to contain this warning: “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.”  Covered ads excluded, inter alia, ads in periodicals, television, electronic media, SSB containers or packaging, menus, shelf tags, vehicles, or logos that occupied an area less than thirty-six square inches.  SSBs were defined to include soda and other non-alcoholic beverages that contain one or more added sweeteners and more than twenty-five calories per twelve fluid ounces of beverage, but not milk, milk alternatives primarily consisting of plant-based ingredients, 100% natural fruit juice, natural vegetable juice, infant formula, medical food, supplements, and certain other products.  The warning had to occupy 20 percent of a covered ad and be set off with a rectangular border. San Francisco’s purposes included the desire to “inform the public of the presence of added sugars and thus promote informed consumer choice that may result in reduced caloric intake and improved diet and health, thereby reducing illnesses to which [sugar-sweetened beverages] contribute and associated economic burdens.”

Zauderer applies to mandatory disclosures, whether or not they are designed to remedy deception.  A “purely factual and uncontroversial disclosure that is not unduly burdensome will withstand First Amendment scrutiny so long as it is reasonably related to a substantial government interest.” The government has the burden of showing that a disclosure is purely factual and uncontroversial, not unduly burdensome, and reasonably related to a substantial government interest.  “[U]ncontroversial” here “refers to the factual accuracy of the compelled disclosure, not to its subjective impact on the audience,” and a “literally true but nonetheless misleading and, in that sense, untrue” disclosure is not purely factual under Zauderer.

The majority concluded that “the factual accuracy of the warning is, at a minimum, controversial.” he unqualified statement that “[d]rinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay” “conveys the message that sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to these health conditions regardless of the quantity consumed or other lifestyle choices.” This message contradicted FDA statements that added sugars are “generally recognized as safe,” and “can be a part of a healthy dietary pattern when not consumed in excess amounts.” SF’s experts concluded that “there is a clear scientific consensus” that sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to obesity and diabetes through “excessive caloric intake” and “by adding extra calories to the diet,” but didn’t directly challenge the conclusion of the plaintiffs’ expert that “when consumed as part of a diet that balances caloric intake with energy output, consuming beverages with added sugar does not contribute to obesity or diabetes.” Because SF’s warning wasn’t about overconsumption, and it said “contributes” instead of “may contribute,” “the accuracy of the warning is in reasonable dispute.”

Furhtermore, the warning was “misleading and, in that sense, untrue.” By focusing on a single product and not on others with an equal or greater amount of added sugars and calories, “the warning conveys the message that sugar-sweetened beverages are less healthy than other sources of added sugars and calories and are more likely to contribute to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay than other foods.”  Borrowing an example from plaintiffs, the court reasoned that “If car dealers were required to post a warning only on Toyota vehicles that said: ‘WARNING: Toyotas contribute to roll-over crashes,’ the common-sense conclusion would be that Toyotas are more likely to cause rollovers than other vehicles.”

[Note: not all courts will apply this interpretive standard, which relies on the ordinary rules of implicature, to false advertising cases. They should.  Second note: under false advertising precedents, misleadingness is a matter of extrinsic evidence, not simple reading.  If the government’s burden is to show that the disclosure is nonmisleading, should it have to provide expert or survey evidence of this?  If the government does provide such evidence of nonmisleadingness, can it rebut the court’s conclusions about the meaning of the disclosure?  I have my own conclusions about this, but more overarchingly I believe that judicial reasoning about how consumers react to information should be consistent across cases, adjusting appropriately for who has the burden of proof.]

The current state of research on this issue indicated that this message was deceptive. According to the FDA, “added sugars, including sugar-sweetened beverages, are no more likely to cause weight gain in adults than any other source of energy.” The American Dental Association likewise cautioned against the “growing popularity of singling-out sugar-sweetened beverages” because “ the evidence is not yet sufficient to single out any one food or beverage product as a key driver of dental caries.” SF argued that an underinclusive warning is okay because it was entitled “to attack problems piecemeal.” But the problem was that the warning was potentially misleading, not because it “does not get at all facets of the problem it is designed to ameliorate.”

SF argued that people were more likely to over-consume sugar-sweetened beverages than other foods. “But even if it were undisputed that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages gives rise to unique behavioral risks, the warning does not communicate that information”—it didn’t mention behavioral risks, “and thus clearly implies that there is something inherent about sugar-sweetened beverages that contributes to these health risks in a way that other sugar-sweetened products do not, regardless of consumer behavior.”  [This is an example of how “inherent” is usually an unhelpful concept when people are involved.]   The district court erred in finding that it would be unreasonable to interpret the warning to mean that sugar-sweetened beverages are uniquely or inherently unhealthy.

Separately, the warning imposed an undue burden because it required a black box, bold warning covering 20 percent of the ads, making it impractical to advertise on covered media.  The court of appeals agreed that “the black box warning overwhelms other visual elements in the advertisement,” thus imposing an undue burden.  Although the district court reasoned that a commercial speaker could use the remaining 80 percent of its advertising space to engage in counter-speech, that wasn’t enough—the speaker was being forced “to tailor its speech to an opponent’s agenda,” and to respond to a one-sided and misleading message when it would “prefer to be silent” (which sounds like it’s going back to point one).  “[C]ountering San Francisco’s misleading message would leave them little room to communicate their intended message. This would defeat the purpose of the advertisement, turning it into a vehicle for a debate about the health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages.”
sample ad submitted by plaintiffs
Plaintiffs submitted unrefuted declarations from major companies manufacturing sugar-sweetened beverages stating that they’d remove advertising from covered media if San Francisco’s ordinance went into effect. Effectively ruling out advertising in a particular medium was evidence of undue burden (consider the effect of this holding on FTC/FDA disclosure rules and Twitter ads).   The district court erred in rejecting this evidence because the declarations were “self-serving,” which alone isn’t enough reason to disregard an affidavit.  The district court also reasoned that tobacco and pharmaceutical companies continued to advertise despite being compelled to provide similar warnings. But SSBs don’t have “the same physiologically addictive qualities as tobacco, nor are they prescribed by doctors to treat health conditions like pharmaceutical products. There is no evidence in the record that advertisers have continued advertising products analogous to sugar-sweetened beverages in the face of compelled disclosures of the sort required here.”  

[While I understand why the payoff from addiction might be enough to get tobacco companies to continue to advertise despite the warnings, I don’t get the second distinction.  If anything, the availability of an alternate means to get to the consumer—advertising to doctors who prescribe drugs—makes it even clearer that the benefits of advertising directly to consumers induce pharmacos to continue to advertise despite onerous disclosure requirements, thus not chilling their speech.  Is the distinction one of care exercised by consumers in choosing?  The profit margin on drugs/payoff per ad dollar, on which no factual findings have been made?  That’s all I can come up with at the moment.]

Though SF had a substantial government interest in the health of its citizens, it failed to meet its burden for these reasons, though the court commented in a footnote that SF might not even be able to establish that providing misleading information through an unduly burdensome disclosure was reasonably related to its substantial interest in the health of its citizens. Indeed, San Francisco “has no legitimate reason to force retailers to affix false information on their products.”

Judge Nelson concurred in the judgment because of the warning’s size.  “[T]he City has not carried its burden in demonstrating that the twenty percent requirement at issue here would not deter certain entities from advertising in their medium of choice.” She wouldn’t have ruled on the “tenuous” ground that the disclosure was misleading.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Herbal" doesn't include animal products

VBS Distribution, Inc. v. Nutrivita Laboratories, Inc., --- Fed.Appx. ----, 2017 WL 4118381, No. 17-55198 (9th Cir. Sept. 15, 2017)

VBS makes a commercial television live auction show named “DAU GIA TREN TRUYEN HINH” (“Fight Price on Television”). It primarily auctions jewelry, particularly diamonds. VBS claimed a unique trade dress made of: a) the unique style and format of the show, b) its time slot and date selection, each week on alternate weekdays, from 5 to 7 p.m., on Tuesdays and Thursdays, c) the price range for its auctioned items, ranging from about $300 to $3000, d) its ‘least to most expensive’ format in which the least expensive items are sold first, ascending to the most expensive items at the end of the show, e) the length of the show, 2 hours, f) its focus on live TV auctions of jewelry, particularly diamonds, g) its carefully selected vendors, who appear on the show with the show’s host, h) unique and proprietary camera angle and special lighting techniques developed by Plaintiffs using an Apple ipad tablet, [and] i) the number and selection of items sold, usually about 30 items.”

VBS sued over a co-host’s activities advertising on KVLA, VBS’ competitor, for a show entitled “Diamond at a Surprise Low Price,” using the same hostess, some of the same vendors, the same style as provided by the same technician, the same time slot of 5:00 pm–7:00 pm, but on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday instead of Tuesdays and Thursdays, the least to most expensive format, the same auctioning of approximately 30 items each show, the content is virtually identical, and the price range of products is virtually identical ($300–$3,000). KVLA also advertises a supplement, Arthro–7, on its show.

The court of appeals reversed and remanded the denial of a preliminary injunction in this trademark infringement, trade secret, and false advertising case.  TM: Although the overall configuration of VBS’s live auction television show was functional, it could still claim protectable trade dress in its “overall look and feel of VBS’s live auction show, regardless whether individual elements that constitute part of the claimed trade dress are functional.” (Looking at the initial decision, it appears to me that the real problem is the failure to describe the trade dress with reasonable specificity--I don't think anyone could have a TM on the idea of a two-hour timeslot with products presented in order of increasing price; it's possible that other elements in the show might, maybe, be protectable in the presence of secondary meaning, but saying that there are unique camera angles doesn't give enough information about what those angles are to see, not just whether all the claimed aspects are functional, but also if there's a real trade dress at issue, and not just a set of unprotectable ideas.  I think this one might be ripe for re-dismissal with more explanation on remand, though the "same hostess" thing is very interesting--query whether the public policy favoring free job mobility should affect the scope of any rights VBS might have.)

Trade secret: VBS’s customer list contains identifying information that wasn’t readily accessible to the public or to other businesses, including purchase histories, methods of payment, and amounts of payment. Because VBS had the names of people who had already expressed an interest in purchasing jewelry from an auction television show, the customer list had independent economic value o VBS’s competitors. Thus, the district court shouldn’t have rejected trade secret misappropriation claim on the ground that VBS failed to show that a reasonably diligent competitor couldn’t readily get the information in the customer list.

False advertising: The district court erred in failing to find literal falsity for two statements.  Nutrivita advertised that Arthro-7 was “100% herbal,” but its own ingredient list includes animal products, and animals aren’t made of herbs.  (The reasoning below was that both sides just asserted: Ps that herbal isn't animal products, and Ds that the industry accepts animal products as herbal.  At some point, we have to figure out what words mean, and the court of appeals seems right on this point: without anything but the dictionary, you can identify literal falsity.)  Nutrivita’s CEO also admitted that there was no basis for its claim “8 Million Bottles Sold,” making it literally false, though “Doctor Recommended” was not literally false and VBS didn’t put in evidence of misleadingness.  (On the 8 million bottles, the reasoning below was that falsity was plausible but there wasn't evidence of likely success on the merits, which appears to have been too opaque for the court of appeals and is for me as well.)

Remanded for further consideration of the remaining PI elements.

Adding clickbait title isn't false advertising or fraud on author

Dankovich v. Keller, 2017 WL 4081852, No. 16-13395 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 15, 2017)

Interesting dispute: the pro se litigant didn’t like the editing of his essay, including the clickbaity headline added by the editors, and sued for various fraud/false advertising claims. The magistrate judge recommended denial of leave to amend/dismissal of various claims, and the district judge agreed.

Dankovich wrote an essay about his experience as a young prisoner in solitary confinement.  He sent a draft to defendant Eli Hager, an editor at defendant The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that focuses on the criminal justice system. He called the essay The Riving, which dealt with “how quickly solitary confinement can institutionalize and mess with the mind of an adolescent.” Hager requested a few alterations and stated “[j]ust like last time, my higher-up editor will have the final say, so I don’t want to make any promises. But I definitely CAN promise that if you keep working on these pieces and future submissions, you will definitely be published here.” He responded, and then Hager sent him “the latest” version and said that it had moved to the top of the queue for publication. The Marshall Project, in collaboration with defendant VICE, published the essay under the title I’m Losing My Mind after Refusing to Plead Insanity for Murdering My Mom. Dankovich also alleged other changes to the text of his essay, including that he pleaded no contest to the murder of his mother when he pleaded guilty, and that “around”—not “on” — his eleventh birthday he was taken to the hospital for physical abuse by his mother.  (The plea information was apparently later corrected.)  Dankovich objected to the published version but Hager told him that VICE Media wrote the headlines and wouldn’t be changing this one.

Dankovich sued for copyright infringement (not addressed here) and Lanham Act violations, and tried to amend the complaint to add fraud claims.  The court agreed that Dankovich couldn’t adequately plead fraud based on Hager’s statements to Dankovich about the essay: none of Hager’s statements contained a representation that the essay was returned to Dankovich in final version, and thus Dankovich couldn’t allege reliance on a false statement.  The statement, “My editor just informed me that she liked your piece (‘The Riving’) so much that she’s moving it to the top of our production queue,” wasn’t a statement that the piece would be published as submitted, nor was the statement that “[a]ll of the different parts are still yours, but they’ve shifted around a lot of lines to make things pack more of a punch” false in context, which included Hager’s statements that he wanted Dankovich to see the edits “since it’s your piece” but that “this kind of editing happens with all of our pieces.” The statement “[a]ll of the different parts are still yours” was thus, in context, not a representation about the published version would be “all his.”  Dankovich’s subjective interpretation was wrong, but that didn’t make out a fraud claim.

Lanham Act claim: Initially, Dankovich only pled §43(a)(1)(A) claims, but wanted to argue false advertising: “Defendants continue to advertise a completely false statement which Plaintiff has never written or uttered with Plaintiff’s name online, advertisement which furthers The Marshall Project’s business and political goals.”  The initial complaint argued that the headline was falsely attributed to him.  Considered as false advertising, this fell short: there were no facts alleging that any false statements were made in “commercial advertising or promotion.” Even assuming implied falsehood, he didn’t allege facts showing that a “substantial portion” of the 100,000 people who read the essay were deceived by the title, other parts of the essay, or defendants’ attribution of the essay to him, or facts showing materiality to a purchasing decision.  Also, Dastar prevented any “origin”-based claim—an interesting entry into the trend of using Dastar to resolve issues that also might be Rogers v. Grimaldi type cases of affirmative (alleged) misrepresentations of authorship.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reading list: consequences of 1A protections for off-label promotion

Patricia J. Zettler, The Indirect Consequences of Expanded Off-Label Promotion, Ohio State Law Journal, Forthcoming 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) policies have been a battleground for litigation about First Amendment protections for commercial speech. In the last five years, the FDA’s position that “off-label” promotion of approved prescription drugs—when a manufacturer promotes a drug for a use for which the FDA has not approved it—leads to violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act has been subject to successful legal challenges. Although the merits of these off-label promotion decisions are well traversed in the literature, this Article explores the potential indirect consequences of recently-recognized protections for off-label promotion. This Article demonstrates that—as suggested in the dissenting opinion in United States v. Caronia, a high-profile 2012 case regarding off-label promotion—protections for off-label promotion might affect the FDA’s decision-making in areas other than drug promotion, and analyzes precisely what those effects could be in light of the FDA’s current statutory authority.

Reading list: the consumer in TM law

Kimberlee G. Weatherall, The Consumer as the Empirical Measure of Trade Mark Law, The Modern Law Review, Vol. 80, No. 1, pp. 57-87, 2017

Although consumer responses to signs and symbols lie at the heart of trade mark law, courts blow hot and cold on the relevance of empirical evidence – such as surveys and experiments – to establish how consumers respond to alleged infringing marks. This ambivalence is related to deeper rifts between trade mark doctrine and the science around consumer decision‐making. This article engages with an approach in ‘Law and Science’ literature: looking at how cognitive psychology and related disciplines conceptualise consumer decision‐making, and how counterintuitive lawyers’ approaches appear from this perspective. It demonstrates how, especially when proving confusion, decision‐makers in trade mark demand the impossible of empiricists and are simultaneously blind to the weaknesses of other sources of proof. A principled divergence, without seeking to collapse the gaps between legal and scientific approaches, but taking certain small steps, could reduce current problems of proof and contribute to better‐informed, more empirically grounded decisions.

Right of publicity question of the day

Restaurant: Thelonious Monkfish

Thursday, September 14, 2017

SPIRE-inspired TM suit fails to enjoin noncompetitor

Spire, Inc. v. Cellular South, Inc., 2017 WL 3995759, No. 17-00266 (S.D. Ala. Sept. 11, 2017)

Spire, a provider of natural gas fueling services, sought a declaratory judgment against Cellular South, d/b/a C SPIRE, a wireless telecommunications provider that also provides television and internet services, for noninfringement/nondilution, and Cellular South sought a TRO/PI in return. 

Cellular South began doing business as C SPIRE in late 2011.  In late 2012, the entity now known as Spire chose the Spire mark and began using it for its natural gas stations, displayed in a combination of gray, blue and white.  In 2013, LXE and Cellular South entered into a coexistence agreement; LXE used “Spire” for antennas for infrastructure, not sold to ordinary consumers.  In 2014, now-Spire’s rebranding as Spire spread, and Spire was registered for fueling stations and used on a national website.  In a 2015 trademark search, now-Spire identified C SPIRE as one of the results in 596 pages of results; now-Spire considered it irrelevant because it wasn’t in the same business.  There were over 150 active registrations for Spire, including 15 in Alabama.  In 2016, Spire began rebranding most of its operations under the Spire brand name, including for promoting, offering and rendering natural gas marketing/fueling in Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Carolina.  Cellular South then sent a C&D and opposed Spire’s pending trademark registration.  Spire’s rebranding continued; as of August 2017, employees were wearing Spire hats and ID badges but had yet to get new uniforms, and vehicles were being updated.

Cellular south cited 2016 and 2017 market surveys for Mississippi indicating C SPIRE has a “high brand preference” and the general health of the brand is “very strong,” with 88% brand awareness in that state.  The court found that the mark was at least “well known” in Mississippi, but evidence didn’t support strength claims for other states.  Spire submitted significant evidence of competing uses in many states, rendering the term “heavily diluted nationwide.” “Cellular South has not established a substantial likelihood of showing that its mark is arbitrary and thus entitled to the highest protection.” [Yes, this conflates conceptual with marketplace strength, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.]

Mark similarity:  Cellular South’s witness testified that Cellular South’s logo will be confused with Spire’s logo because “the average consumer driving down the road at 55 miles per hour seeing a billboard will likely think Cellular South altered its logo and changed its color to orange.” The court found that the marks differed somewhat: Spire’s mark is orange, with block lettering in a specific font, and has a symbol after the lettering (two staggered semi-circles, representing a handshake). Cellular South’s mark is blue, with rounded lettering in a different font, and has a symbol before the lettering (a “c” with beams of varying lengths surrounding it). They were pronounced differently: one versus two syllables, and one using “c” while the other didn’t. Cellular South also made prior representations to the USPTO (in the Honeywell agreement) that its use of the letter “c” in its logo sufficiently distinguished it from another “spire” mark.  The context was distinguishable (businesses involved in infrastructure, not common consumers) but that argument was still relevant.  Overall, the colors differed, the fonts differed slightly, the spacing differed slightly, and the art differed, making the overall impression distinguishable. Similarity weighed slightly in Cellular South’s favor.

Product/service similarity:  Cellular South argued that local and long distance transmission of telecommunications was similar to Spire’s  “local and long distance transmission of gas”: Cellular South has 7,000 miles of fiber cable underground and Spire supplies natural gas through underground pipelines.  Also, “someone may move into a new home or office and need to set up phone, internet, television and gas. In that case, he or she could call C Spire for the first three and Spire for the last.”  Cellular South planned to expand into lighting controls, thermostats, CO2 detectors, etc. for the household, and argued that Cellular South was a utility like Spire.

The court disagreed.  “Spire’s natural gas energy services are distinct and unrelated to Cellular South’s telecommunication goods and services.” They don’t compete, and, as Cellular South told the USPTO, its buyers sign up for phone or computer services not “by mistake” nor “without full knowledge as to the source of those services.”  

There was also no evidence of actual confusion.  Jacob Jacoby did a survey and concluded that “it is highly unlikely that any consumers seeking telecommunications services would call a natural gas company for such services, or think that one is linked with the other – noting only 2.7% of consumers may think the businesses could be associated.” The lack of relation between the parties’ services made confusion less likely.  Most interesting citation: General Motors Corp. v. Cadillac Marine & Boat Co., 226 F. Supp. 716 (W.D. Mich. 1964) (rejecting plaintiff’s theory that “public confusion automatically follows the use of the trademark ‘Cadillac’ upon any other product, no matter how unrelated it may be to Cadillac automobiles” and holding “[w]hile Cadillac cars and defendant’s Cadillac boats are means for transportation....they do not possess the same descriptive properties....This differential makes them void of inherent confusing characteristics.”....).

Indeed, the court, continued, “[c]ase law also suggests that direct or actual competition with the same or similar goods/services is required for an infringement claim to survive.”  V. interesting!  The court pointed to dilution as the appropriate cause of action for unrelated goods/services.  In terms of Cellular South’s claim to its “zone of natural expansion” in services, “the senior user of a mark cannot monopolize markets that neither his trade nor his reputation has reached.”  Being utilities delivered undergraound wasn’t sufficient similarity to weigh in Cellular South’s favor.

Similarity of customers and sales outlets between the entities: Cellular South argued that it used all types of advertising you can think of and sold to the general public, leading to inevitable overlap.  Spire responded that it didn’t use retail stores (consumers have to call Spire or use its website to sign up) and that the public couldn’t select from a long list of competing natural gas providers as it can for telecom providers.  “Cellular South’s advertising and sales argument is based on a faulty premise -- that Cellular South and Spire are using the same available channels of advertising to compete against one another…. Further, apart from stating its customers are homeowners and businesses, Cellular South has not shown how a cell phone or internet customer is similar to a natural gas customer.”  [Well, they probably often are the same person, but they could be thinking about different things for different purchases.]

Similarity of advertising methods: the court found this factor neutral, given Spire’s arguments that the content of its ads were very different, despite the similar media.  “[W]hile both companies may use the same or similar advertising methods and styles, because the companies are not competitors in the telecom industry, they are necessarily communicating distinct and different advertising messages to different audiences.”

Intent: Cellular South didn’t show that Spire had a conscious intent to capitalize on its reputation/goodwill, was intentionally blind, or otherwise manifested improper intent in adopting its mark.

Actual confusion: Cellular South’s confusion arguments were linked to its future plans to “own the home” – it recently applied to register its marks for home automation and security services (alarm services – alarm systems, CO2 detectors, thermostats, garage door openers, lights, AC, door locks, lighting controls, etc). But Spire has no plans to go into the telecom and internet business.  And Cellular South couldn’t show actual confusion; there were no instances of both companies advertising in Alabama and Mississippi.  Its survey found that, after viewing the company’s logos, “just shy of 37%” of consumers were confused, thinking Spire was affiliated with Cellular South.  Spire criticized showing only the bare logos to participants, which the surveyor justified by arguing that Spire wasn’t yet in the marketplace and that isolated logos are common (e.g., on a headset or jumbotron). The surveyor also testified that there might be confusion and inconvenience with customer call centers, and that a Spire catastrophe could affect the image of Cellular South.  Jacoby responded that Cellular South’s expert used the wrong universe (testing Spire’s customer base, not Cellular South’s), wrong stimuli (logos without context), and wrong protocols (no control group!).

The court found no evidence of actual confusion, just conjecture and speculation by Cellular South. “At most, the evidence, per Dr. Jacoby, indicates that 15.3% of consumers thought a telecommunications business and a natural gas business could be associated. Association, however, is not de facto confusion.” On balance, there was no likely success on the merits.

Alabama and Mississippi Trademark dilution: 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(6) states that “[t]he ownership by a person of a valid registration ... on the principal register under this chapter shall be a complete bar to” a state law dilution claim.  But Cellular South is challenging the Spire registration.  While that was pending, the court wouldn’t dismiss the state-law dilution claims as preempted.

Both states protect marks that are “famous and distinctive.”  Fame meaans “widely recognized by the general consuming public of this state or a significant[ ] geographic area in this state as a designation of source of the goods or services or the business[ ] of the mark’s owner.”  For Alabama, there was no evidence that the C SPIRE was “famous” in Alabama before Spire’s first use of the “spire” mark in December 2013. For Mississippi, the evidence of fame was from 2016, years after Spire’s first use of a version of the “spire” mark in December 2013. However, since Spire used other versions of the mark in 2016, there was “some” evidence of C SPIRE’s fame at that time.  “[E]ven assuming arguendo that the C SPIRE mark was famous in Mississippi as of March 2016, Cellular South still has to submit evidence showing that the public associates (or will likely associate) the same mark with both Cellular South and Spire, and that such association infringes on Cellular’ South’s rights ‘by preventing the mark to serve as a unique identifier of the senior user alone.’” While it was a close case, the court found that Cellular South hadn’t shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.  (Could it be a close case overall if the Spire registration might be valid?)

Irreparable harm: eBay applied to trademark cases. Cellular South argued that the threat of lost control over its reputation was irreparable harm.  But “Cellular South and Spire do not produce/sell (or associate with) the same goods/services such that one would logically (or necessarily) ‘be at the mercy’ of the nature and quality of the goods/services of the other.”  Cellular South’s evidence was speculative: e.g., “risk of a gas leak,” theoretical “negative customer experiences,” “negative social posts” incorrectly linked to, or associated with, Cellular South. But Cellular South also emphasized the hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours it has invested to to create trust in its brand. Here’s a good quote for defendants in non-competing goods cases: “The Court finds it incongruous for Cellular South to argue how famous and well known its name is and how vested it is with its customers and communities as a trusted brand, yet to simultaneously ask the Court to conclude that Spire’s use of a mark – in a different industry, with a different business, selling/providing different goods/services – is on the verge of causing the imminent loss or destruction of all of those dollars and work hours unless an immediate injunction issues.” 

Plus, Cellular South’s delay in seeking injunctive relief argued against irreparable injury; it knew of Spire’s rebranding plans at the latest in March 2016, when it sent a C&D.  Then Spire sued for declaratory relief in June 2017.  Cellular South only moved for injunctive relief in August 2017.  The potential for a slow rollout of Spire’s rebranding didn’t justify disregarding the March 2016 letter, which “indicates that Cellular South thought the harm or injury was actual or imminent at that time, not prospective, potential or possible, yet failed to seek injunctive relief.” And in February 2017, Spire notified Cellular South that it was already rebranding and that the process would finish by the end of 2017.  Whether Cellular South’s delay was a few months or 18 months, it undercut any urgency.

The balance of harms weighed in favor of Spire, given that it had already started operating under that mark and it had invested substantially in rebranding since 2016. Nor, of course, did the public interest favor an injunction.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Twitter news

An enterprising law student is livetweeting from the ABA's Trademark Day at the PTO, @stemlak 

Also, I'm now Twitter verified, which has yet to change my life, but I have hopes.

“Next Up In Apple/Samsung Smartphone Wars: Design Patent Remedies Following The SCOTUS Decision”

Panel at the National Press Club

RT: Huge debt to Sarah Burstein’s work, the best and most scholarly work on the subject—says things that aren’t clearly on either “side” of the present dispute, but I find persuasive.  Her conclusion based on the history and early caselaw: article of manufacture is a concept distinct from “machines” or “compositions of matter,” and the phrase “article of manufacture” should be interpreted to refer to a tangible item made by humans that has a unitary structure and is complete in itself for use or for sale, as long as it isn’t also a machine or composition of matter. The relevant question is whether anyone manufactures, uses, or sells that kind of item separately.  For example, outer shells are typically the articles of manufacture, not the entire car or other machine.  I strongly recommend her recent articles on the article of manufacture in 1887 and today, especially her description of the temptation to “aggregate different design patents into a single Frankenclaim,” which may be at issue here.  She also suggests that the article of manufacture at issue in any given case is primarily a legal question to be determined by a judge in a way similar to a Markman hearing.

Howard Hogan, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher: Filed amicus brief for Nike on neither side.  SCt decision took a lot of legal community by surprise b/c of its narrowness.  Unanimous court, narrow holding rejecting claim that design patent statute has a rule that the article of manufacture must be the complete device as sold.  Now to figure out the alternative: unlike the Lanham Act, which has an explicit burden-shifting provision, the design patent damages statute says “total profits on the article of manufacture … to which the infringing design has been applied.”  Apple +at least two other cases: courts are wrestling with burden and definition of article of manufacture.

Carl Cecere, Counsel, Hispanic Leadership Fund and the National Grange: amicus of coalition of rural/minority interest groups.  Clients recognized potential for weaponizing design patent damages as threat to competition and innovation.  Clarity is important. Apple’s proposed test is designed to ensure it gets the profits it got in the first trial, but the factors are too squishy for predictability: proposes a test that includes factors such as how the defendant sells the product and how it accounts for the profits internally, as well as visual contribution of patent to design as a whole.  [That’s the Frankenclaim aspect in this case, given the different patents in suit and the findings of infringement that differed per phone.]  Designers will tell you that cupholders are part of the overall design and flow into it/contribute to it—but Apple’s test would encourage the cupholder patent holder to claim profits from the whole.  For the phone: no one would buy the phone if it didn’t make phone calls etc; it can’t really be the whole thing.  Relatedly: the problem of partial claiming: a curve, the bezel. The designer is in the driver’s seat.  If they claim less than the whole, they think there’s functionally severable pieces; when you partially claim, you shouldn’t get the entire product, just the attached article.  Apple’s proposed test adopted most of the gov’ts proposed SCt test, but omitted the first factor: what is the design patent claiming?   If they really want to claim the entire design, they should do so, but if they do less than that, the risk of multiple awards for the same thing—3 different patents covering the front face of the phone.  Apple suggests that an award of triple Samsung’s total profit would be appropriate (at least in theory) and that makes no sense.

Charles Duan, Public Knowledge: Patents affect a lot of people, not just tech/pharma. SCt has a tradition of rejecting Fed. Cir.’s patentee-friendly rules; is there a systemic reason?  Seems unlikely it’s just b/c the Fed. Cir. keeps making mistakes; Fed. Cir. thinks patent ought to be strict rules, while SCt goes back to more foundational, flexible concepts.  History plays a role: SCt has gone back to historical sources for patent law, e.g., Impressions v. Lexmark, TC Heartland.

Josh Landau, CCIA: design patent claim serves as notice to public.  Apple says jury should decide what the article is; how does that correspond to the notice function?   Balancing defendant’s intention & other factors makes it harder to figure out what the article of manufacture is in advance.

CC: yes, also confuses parts of the test—what role does this part play in the entirety of the product?

RT: I want to emphasize that Apple’s premise has clear support in the caselaw, that the article described or illustrated in the patent does not limit the article to which an infringing defendant may apply the patented design (from that, Apple concludes that you should not look at what the design patent claims to determine the article of manufacture, a conclusion that is not logically entailed by the premise, especially where the parties are competitors). Though it’s not vitally important to the outcome here because the parties are in fact competitors, this is an interesting and important argument for two reasons: (1) design patents are currently granted on known designs applied to new objects: a rubber ducky USB.  If you get a design patent on a rubber ducky USB, should that allow you to bring an infringement claim against a manufacturer of ordinary, tub-time rubber duckies?  If the answer is no, then the novelty/anticipation inquiries should probably be very different: you shouldn’t get the design patent just for deciding to put a rubber ducky around a USB core.  (2) 2D designs, such as the icons on the screen, can be fully reproduced by many forms of reporting, including newspapers and online news sources.  Unlike ©, patent has no fair use doctrine.  Did the NYT infringe when it printed a newspaper showing the design patent Samsung was found to infringe?  If yes, we have a number of problems, not least of them a free speech one; if no, we have to somehow adapt the claim about the breadth of potentially infringing articles.

Hogan: The NYT wouldn’t infringe b/c it’s not a design applied to an article of manufacture.

RT: According to what test for article of manufacture?  The paper is definitely sold to me.

Duan: That’s the problem with overlapping IP. This is basically a © type issue.  Recently, © is even more likely to apply to these types of things—Star Athletica—you have ©, TM and patent overlapping.

CC: Samsung’s test could deal w/the NYT problems—look for a severable component.  Apple’s patents don’t cover any possible application of the 16 icons everywhere—just for a screen.  Profits attributable to NYT putting design into the paper are also minimal. The squishier/more subjective the test, the more troublesome it becomes.

Hogan: other tests protect the interests described here: there’s examination and enforcement—requires novelty/lack of anticipation.  Pretty exacting test.  Test for infringement is identical to the obviousness/anticipation test. Whether a reasonable observer would think they’re buying the same item. [but partial claiming]  There’s a difference b/t the point of novelty entitling one to the design patent and the article at issue—appropriate to look at design patent to determine the article: here a screen with a layout like Apple’s.  Might weigh against saying a newspaper can infringe.  SCt wants courts to wrestle with these issues.  Why design patents exist: to encourage design—overlapping is ok, as in the rest of the industrialized world. Most of the rest of the world has separate industrial design.  Design patent is less protective of investment/IP.  We haven’t seen the parade of horribles from design; the current statute was in reaction to a SCt case that limited damages recovery.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Allegedly disingenuous "not for human consumption" label can't avoid supplement false ad. claims

Nutrition Distribution LLC v. PEP Research, LLC, No. 16cv2328, 2017 WL 3972509 (S.D. Cal. Sept. 7, 2017)

Plaintiff sells natural supplements, specifically for bodybuilding.  It alleged that its natural supplements directly competed with PEP’s “Research Chemicals.”  PEP allegedly falsely advertised its “research peptides and chemicals,” including prescription-only drugs such as Sildenafil Citrate (brand name Viagra), Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (‘SARMS’) and synthetic peptides. PEP allegedly mislabeled these products as “not for human consumption” and intended for laboratory research only.  SARMs allegedly pose significant health and safety risks to consumers, which PEP didn’t disclose, nor the fact that SARMs are specifically prohibited for use in sporting events by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, even though PEP marketed its products to bodybuilders, competitive athletes, and other similar consumers for personal use.  [Interesting falsity question: if the falsehood is “not for human consumption,” but you’re not supposed to believe that, can there be any reliance on the falsehood?  It wouldn’t be a problem under California “unlawful” jurisprudence, but under the Lanham Act?  Or is the relevant falsity the alleged implication that these can be safely and legally consumed by humans? The complaint seems a little cagey, claiming that consumers were likely to be deceived “into believing that they are purchasing a product with different characteristics,” and also relies on failure to disclose the serious risks of using the substances.]

PEP allegedly advertised that its “research chemical” Sermorelin was commonly used as a “doping substance in sports,” and assures consumers of the product’s safety for personal use: “Sermorelin alone or combined with GHRP-2 and GHRP-6 is a harmless and efficient way to stimulate and enhance your body’s growth hormone production.”  Similarly, PEP advertised, “Clenbuterol has been popularized in the public mind recently by media potrayals of off-label use for fat loss, as well as some professional athlete doping scandals involving the drug.”  A contest for a free bottle ended with a bottle given to a fitness instructor—not a researcher (query whether winning your research substances in a contest is a valid/reproducible method).

PEP challenged standing, but the court accepted the plaintiff’s argument that PEP’s customers “have little incentive to use Plaintiff’s natural nutritional supplements until they are hurt or the ‘Research Chemicals’ are taken off the market.”  The "we really are competitors" argument seems quite sensible, given the allegations.

The court also declined to apply the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  Determining whether PEP’s ads were false and misleading because they market “research chemicals” for personal use and consumption despite also labeling the products as “not for human consumption” would not require the FDA’s technical and policy expertise.

The RICO claims failed because they were RICO claims.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Panel on design patent remedies, Sept. 13

“Next Up In Apple/Samsung Smartphone Wars: Design Patent Remedies Following The SCOTUS Decision”

Wednesday, September 13th
9:00am – 10:30am

The National Press Club
Zenger Room
529 14th Street NW

Speakers include:

Carl Cecere, Counsel, Hispanic Leadership Fund and the National Grange
Charles Duan, Director, Patent Reform Project, Public Knowledge
Howard Hogan, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
Joshua Landau, Patent Counsel, CCIA (moderator)
Rebecca Tushnet, Frank Stanton Professor of First Amendment Law, Harvard Law School
Please Note: Due to National Press Club security measures, RSVPs are strongly encouraged. This will allow identification information to be entered into the system in advance of the event.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

False indication of Hawaiian origin might violate consumer protection law, not warranty

Broomfield v. Craft Brew Alliance, Inc., No. 17-cv-01027, 2017 WL 3838453 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 1, 2017)

“Hawaii is a state as well as a state of mind. When adults want to escape the mainland, they can go to their local grocery store, purchase a package of Kona Brewing Company beer, and feel as though they are transported to the beaches of Hawaii. This case is about the importance of where that beer actually is brewed.” Defendant CBA, d/b/a Kona Brewing Co., allegedly intentionally misled consumers into believing that Kona Brewing Company beer was exclusively brewed in Hawaii.  The court granted in part and denied in part CBA’s motion to dismiss the resulting claims.

The Kona brand includes a variety of beer that references Kona’s Hawaiian origins, including “Longboard Island Lager,” “Big Wave Golden Ale,” “Fire Rock Pale Ale,” “Wailua Wheat Ale,” “Hanalei Island IPA,” “Castaway IPA,” “Lavaman Red Ale,” “Lemongrass Luau,” “Koko Brown,” and “Pipeline Porter.” Kona has a Hawaiian brewery that makes its draft beer sold in Hawaii, but all of its bottled and canned beer, as well as its draft beer sold outside of Hawaii, are brewed in Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, and Tennessee.  Despite this, on the top of the box for twelve-packs of Kona beer there is an image of a map of Hawaii which marks the location of the Kona Brewing Co. Brewery on the Big Island. The packaging also includes the statement: “We invite you to visit our brewery and pubs whenever you are in Hawaii.” An image of the Hawaiian island chain and the phrase “Liquid Aloha” are embossed on the front of each bottle, and each variety’s packaging has its own Hawaiian-related images, including orchid flowers, volcanoes, palm trees, surfers, canoes, waterfalls, and hula dancers. The bottom of the package for the six-pack includes the image of a Hawaiian island, such as Oahu, the Big Island, or Molokai. Plaintiffs alleged that the only address listed on the packaging was “75-5629 Kuakini Highway, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740,” though CBA indicated that its Island Hopper Variety twelve-pack included a list of five brewing locations next to the address in Kona.

Plaintiffs also allged that CBA misrepresented Kona as “craft beer” when it isn’t, though they argued that this claim went to CBA’s intent to deceive rather than to a deception that they relied upon.

First, CBA argued that the words and images on the packaging were “mere puffery,” and that no reasonable consumer would be misled into believing that the Kona beer he or she purchased was brewed exclusively in Hawaii. The court disagreed.  Deceptiveness is usually a question of fact.  CBA argued that none of its “references” to Hawaii was “ a specific and measurable factual statement about where the beer is made.” The labels disclosde five locations where the beer is brewed, only one of which is Hawaii, so representations on the six- and twelve-pack packaging couldn’t amount to actionable misrepresentations. While “pictures of surfboards and the vague phrase ‘Liquid Aloha’ on the beer packaging” would be insufficient, the fact that the only listed address on the outer packaging was Hawaiian, the image of the Hawaiian map identifying the location of Kona’s Big Island Brewery, and the invitation to visit “our brewery” whenever you are in Hawaii were “specific and measurable representations of fact that could deceive a reasonable consumer into believing that the six- and twelve-packs of Kona beer were brewed in Hawaii.” “[M]erely referencing Hawaii and its culture on the packaging is not enough on its own to confuse a reasonable consumer regarding the origin of the beer” (citing Pernod Ricard USA, LLC v. Bacardi U.S.A., Inc., 653 F.3d 241 (3d Cir. 2011)).  But the address, map, and invitation went beyond those references to spirit or style.

CBA argued that the disclaimer on the labels of Kona beer was enough to contradict the representations on the outer packaging. But reasonable consumers are “not required to open a carton or remove a product from its outer packaging in order to ascertain whether representations made on the face of the packaging are misleading.” There was no disclaimer identifying Kona’s brewing locations on the packaging except on the Island Hopper Variety twelve-pack.  Plus, the disclaimer on the beer label listed five locations, including “Kona, HI, Portland, OR, Woodinville, WA, Portsmouth, NH, and Memphis, TN” which encompass “all locations where the beers are brewed.” “A list of multiple locations on a product label does not amount to an explicit statement that the beer is brewed and packaged at a particular location.” A reasonable consumer could easily think that the beer was brewed in Kona—and plaintiffs alleged that no bottled or canned beer bearing the Kona label was actually brewed in Kona. Thus, even consumers who read this “vague” disclaimer could be deceived.
Label, with locations listed on left side
While the consumer protection claims survived, the express warranty claims failed because the representations weren’t “an unequivocal statement or promise to the consumer that Kona beer is brewed exclusively in Hawaii.” The implied warranty claim also failed without an affirmative misrepresentation; the factual claims on the label were true, albeit potentially misleading.

Injunctive relief claims were dismissed for lack of standing (noting that, even if plaintiffs would be willing to buy properly labeled beer in the future, they alleged they wouldn’t have bought it at Kona’s price/they paid extra for beer they thought was from Hawaii.)

Friday, September 01, 2017

More outlet cases: traditional price claims survive; value claims are harder

Two cases:

Dennis v. Ralph Lauren Corp., 2017 WL 3732103, No. 16cv1056 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 29, 2017)

Plaintiff stated a consumer protection claim by alleging that Polo Ralph Lauren’s clothing sold at factory stores uses a price tag which represents two prices to the consumer, the “Value Was” price, and the “Our Price” price,” conveying to the consumer that the clothing previously sold at the “Value Was” price, when in fact that was never the prevailing market price, at the factory store or otherwise.  Comment: I don’t see the sense in trying to use “Value” to evade falsity about prices; among other things, if you distinguish “Value” from market price, “Value Was” suggests that the “value” has now diminished.

Marino v. Coach, Inc., 2017 WL 3731954, No. 16-CV-1122 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 28, 2017)

Plaintiffs alleged that Coach misled consumers into believing that products sold at Coach outlet and factory stores were deeply discounted, when, in fact, the goods are manufactured exclusively for Coach Factory stores and are not being sold at a discounted price at all. They brought claims for fraud, breach of express warranty, unjust enrichment, and violations of at least twenty state consumer protection statutes.

Coach allegedly manufactures certain goods exclusively for sale in Coach Factory stores, identified by a style number beginning with “F,” whereas mainline or retail products have five-digit style numbers with no letters. Coach Factory goods are marketed with an “MFSRP” or “Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price,” which is allegedly “illusory” because Coach Factory goods are never actually sold for the MFSRP.  Coach apparently agreed that the MFSRPs were intended to give an impression of quality. According Coach’s own declaration, disclaimers posted in Coach Factory stores state that the MFSRPs are “an indication of value based on the quality of the material used, our commitment to craftsmanship and the high standards demanded by Coach.”  (Uh-hunh.  I thought modern economics indicated that price reflects value in an efficient marketplace.) Plaintiffs allegedly purchased accessories – wristlets, sunglasses, and a handbag – and paid prices ranging between 40% and 70% less than the purported MFSRPs.  These labels allegedly created a false impression of the existence of a discount, as well as a false impression of quality, enhanced by comparison to Coach retail products and prices given that at least some of Coach’s factory-only products are designed to appear similar to Coach goods sold in retail stores. For example, the CAC includes a side-by-side comparison of the Coach Factory “Phoebe” handbag is visually similar to the “Edie” bag sold in Coach retail stores. The Phoebe bag is sold in Coach Factory stores with a hangtag showing an MFSRP of $395, while the Edie bag is sold in retail stores for $325. Consumers viewing the two similar bags allegedly base their expectations for the quality of the Phoebe bag on its similarity to the Edie, but the Phoebe bag is actually of lesser quality, made from “fabric remnants” rather than a larger, more desirable, single piece of fabric.

Coach challenged plaintiffs’ standing under Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, __ U.S. __, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), arguing that the plaintiffs alleged, at best, bare procedural violations that didn’t amount to cognizable injury under Article III. Nope. Plaintiffs alleged that they wouldn’t have bought the products without the allegedly false advertising; that’s a concrete injury in fact.  However, they didn’t have standing to seek injunctive relief.  Coach also argued that plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims on behalf of a multi-state subclass because they didn’t personally possess claims under the consumer protection laws of any other state. That depended on what law applies to the absent class members’ claims and whether the injury recognized by those laws was sufficiently similar to plaintiffs’ injury that class treatment is appropriate, so the court deferred consideration of this until certification.

The court analyzed the consumer protection claims under Rule 9(b); plaintiffs didn’t disagree that Rule 9(b) applied.  The court found that the “how” and “why” of the fraud was in part inadequately alleged. The straightforward theory of deception was that MFSRPs were deceptive because consumers understand them to represent former prices, but they don’t; that was adequately pleaded.  The “more nuanced” theory of deception was that Coach designs outlet-only goods that appear similar to retail products and tags the outlet-only products with MFSRPs that are similar to the prices of the retail goods, causing consumers to believe they are buying products of similar quality to the similar retail products.  The court found that the complaint didn’t adequately allege the “how” or “why” of this product-confusion theory. Plaintiffs didn’t allege that they bought the Phoebe bag, or identify any Coach mainline products – or family of products – to which plaintiffs believed the outlet goods that they purchased were similar. To proceed on this theory, plaintiffs would have to identify the retail goods that are deceptively similar to the outlet goods that the Plaintiffs actually purchased.

Under New York’s consumer protection law, it isn’t enough to allege that one wouldn’t have bought an item but for the appearance of a discount; that’s not injury under New York law, or Massachusetts law.  It is sufficient injury under California law.  Assuming that New Hampshire followed the East Coast model, it was still possible that the New Hampshire plaintiff could amend her complaint to allege injury distinguishable from such “ephemeral” injury, if the MFSRP’s caused her to believe that she was purchasing a product of higher quality than she received.  It wasn’t enough if she merely believed she was getting a bargain.

The New Hampshire plaintiff also plausibly alleged that the MFSRPs were misleading. Coach argued that disclaimers in its stores explain that the MFSRPs are intended to be indicators of “value.” “Whether, in the face of such disclaimers, a reasonable consumer could nonetheless believe that the MFSRPs are former prices is an issue of fact to be resolved at a later stage of this litigation, as is the significance of Coach’s disclaimers.” Further, unlike “compare at” advertising, MFSRPs – “Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices” – allude directly to a price for the item, “which makes it more plausible that a reasonable consumer could believe that the MFSRP on the hangtag represents a former price.”

The express warranty claim failed, because at best  the MFSRPs were “implicit” warranties of a former price. They also weren’t warranties of product quality, because an inference that the Coach Factory products are of better quality than they actually are was “too vague and general to be actionable as an express warranty of anything related to the actual goods.”

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Outlet sales of outlet-only clothes under brand name aren't inherently deceptive

Rubenstein v. The Gap, Inc., --- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, No. B272356, 2017 WL 3634212 (Ct. App. Aug. 24, 2017)

The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a claim against the Gap for selling lesser-quality products at its Gap and Banana Republic factory/outlet stores that were never sold at its ordinary stores.  Rubenstein didn’t sufficiently allege a misrepresentation or actionable omission. Rubenstein didn’t identify any advertising or promotional materials or any Gap other statements that its factory store clothing items “were previously for sale in traditional Gap stores or were of a certain quality.” The mere use of its own brand names wasn’t deceptive just because the apparel wasn’t of the quality that Rubenstein had come to expect. “As a matter of law, Gap’s use of its own brand name labels on clothing that it manufactures and sells at Gap-owned stores is not deceptive, regardless of the quality of the merchandise or whether it was ever for sale at other Gap-owned stores. Retailers may harm the value of their brands by selling inferior merchandise at factory stores, but doing so does not constitute false advertising.”  [This line of cases directly addresses, perhaps for the first time in litigation, the occasional debate in the literature about whether trademark owners should be responsible to consumers when they break their own promises about consistent quality that are communicated by a trademark with secondary meaning.] 

Plaintiff alleged that “[r]easonable consumers believe outlet stores sell products that were previously available for purchase at retail stores,” but didn’t allege specific facts showing this to be true.

Moreover, a consumer for whom the retail history of factory store items is material can ask Gap employees about this. A reasonable consumer would also inspect the quality of factory store clothing items before buying them and could return items after purchase if they turn out to be unsatisfactory. In the end, the allegation that Gap is not living up to the quality standards it has set for Gap and Banana Republic brands fails to state a cause of action for a fraudulent business practice under the UCL.

There was also no duty to disclose; the use of the brand name didn’t constitute a partial representation “even if the products are alleged to be inferior to other brand name products.”

Nor was selling nonidentical brand-name clothing in a factory store “unfair.”  In particular, “[t]he injury alleged is not substantial because consumers are getting Gap and Banana Republic brand name items for low prices.”  This interestingly suggests that there’s no quality differential to the extent that consumers are just buying the brand name, not the clothes.  Plus, consumers could have asked sales associates about the items’ history and examined their quality before purchase.

name alone doesn't ID average people in internet search ROP case, court rules

Dobrowolski v. Intelius, Inc., No. 17 CV 1406, 2017 WL 3720170 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 29, 2017)

Defendants sell online reports on people using information compiled from public records and other sources.  When a consumer uses a search engine to search a person’s first and last names, dynamic keyword ads appear, with the first and last name automatically plugged into an otherwise generic ad.  The ads “give the appearance that the reports contain valuable information about the searched-for person, such as arrest records, background check, phone number, and address.” Plaintiffs sued Intelius and other entities under the Illinois Right of Publicity Act for this advertising; Intelius got out for lack of personal jurisdiction but the others got out on a motion to dismiss on the merits.

The Illinois Right of Publicity Act prohibits the use of “an individual’s identity for commercial purposes during the individual’s lifetime without having obtained previous written consent from the appropriate person.” IRPA defines “identity” as “any attribute of an individual that serves to identify that individual to an ordinary, reasonable viewer or listener, including but not limited to (i) name, (ii) signature, (iii) photograph, (iv) image, (v) likeness, or (vi) voice.”  Defendants argued that they didn’t use plaintiffs’ “identities” because the ads only reflect the coincidental result of a third-party’s internet search for their names, without any additional information to identify one “Anna Dobrowolski” or “Nicole Vinci” over another. Even though IRPA specifically uses “name,” that’s in the context of identifying a particular individual; a name alone isn’t necessarily sufficient to identify an individual, since many people have the same name. The use at issue must serve “to identify that individual to a reasonable audience.”

Plaintiffs argued that defendants designed their ads to make a person searching the internet for “Nicole Vinci” or “Anna Dobrowolski” believe that the defendants had located the plaintiffs and had information on them. But that wasn’t enough.  Though a plaintiff need not allege facts sufficient to show that she was identified to the exclusion of all other persons bearing their name or likeness, she must still allege facts to plausibly infer that she was identified to a reasonable audience by the defendant’s use. Without any additional context, “Anna Dobrowolski” or “Nicole Vinci” didn’t identify the plaintiffs. The complaints do not suggest that the ads identify the plaintiffs in any manner except for name. The fact that the defendants benefited from designing their ads in the way they did still didn’t mean they identified the plaintiffs in particular.

To deal with a possible amended complaint, the court also addressed defendants’ arguments that because the names “Anna Dobrowolski” and “Nicole Vinci” were automatically populated into defendants’ generic ads as the result of a third-party’s search, the plaintiffs could not show that the defendants intended to appropriate the names “Anna Dobrowolski” and “Nicole Vinci.” But the requisite intent is simply “to use the material about the plaintiff for trade purposes”; the defendants’ intent to use full names in their otherwise generic ads was enough.

Defendants also argued that a ROP claim required the plaintiff’s identity to have intrinsic or commercial value before the defendant’s use. Though some pre-IRPA case law required this, IRPA did not—it’s about each individual’s “right to control and to choose whether and how to use [their] identity for commercial purposes” and isn’t limited to protecting celebrities or public figures.  [Query, as usual, how this is at all compatible with the First Amendment in the absence of falsity/misleadingness.]

Nor did an IRPA claim require an apparent endorsement. Even if ads stating “Anna Dobrowolski Located” or “We Found Nicole Vinci” don’t suggest to a reasonable viewer that Anna Dobrowolski or Nicole Vinci endorse defendants’ products, IRPA doesn’t require that the defendant’s commercial purpose be an apparent endorsement. “IRPA’s definition of ‘commercial purpose’ is broad, and the act contains no endorsement requirement. Neither does IRPA have a falsity requirement.”  Which is why it’s unconstitutional, especially as applied to services like this one.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Comparison to former licensor's products isn't trademark infringement

Alpha Pro Tech, Inc. v. VWR Int’l, LLC, No. 12-1615, 2017 WL 3671264 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 23, 2017)

APT sued VWR, a competitor in the market for nonwoven, disposable laboratory apparel for use in clean rooms and similar environments. VWR formerly carried APT’s Critical Cover line of laboratory apparel products, but transitioned to its own private line of products, prompting this lawsuit, which survived a motion to dismiss but not summary judgment.

APT used a proprietary fabric coating method to produce its products.  For a time, the parties agreed that VWR would be APT’s exclusive distributor of Critical Cover, and that VWR had the exclusive license to use the Critical Cover trademark and promotional literature.  APT began outsourcing components of Critical Cover products in the early 2000s, using XXPC, a company that made lab apparel for other competitors.  APT disclosed its resins and recipe for the extrusion coating with XXPC, under an oral confidentiality agreement.

VWR sought bids from suppliers in China to use as comparators with the APT garments, and XXPC submitted a successful bid. APT ran tests and monitored the resins it sent to XXPC and concluded that XXPC didn’t use APT’s materials to produce VWR’s products.

In 2010, VWR launched its private label line, branded Basic, Advanced, and Maximum Protection. The marketing materials explained that it was transitioning from the Critical Cover line to its new line and explained that VWR “ha[d] not changed the manufacturer, manufacturing location, or the manufacturing process for 95% of the products in [the] new line. For the majority of the portfolio, only the brand name and part numbers w[ould] change.” It also certified that some of the new private label products did not experience a change in raw materials from the Critical Cover line. VWR referred to a number of APT marks as points of comparison for VWR’s new Basic, Advanced, and Maximum protection lines, including a comparison chart with specs and drawings.

There were initial concerns about VWR’s shoe covers flaking more than Critical Cover shoe covers, and XXPC produced a second generation of shoe covers that addressed those issues. Independent testing established that the performance specifications of VWR’s new line were superior to APT’s in some respects and used a different combination of resins. VWR issued a correction letter advising end users to conduct their own testing, as it could no longer verify that the raw materials it used were exact.

The court found that APT couldn’t show misappropriation of trade secrets, because its resin recipe could be reverse engineered, which precludes trade secret protection in Pennsylvania.

Trademark infringement/false designation of origin: APT argued that VWR’s representations caused customers to believe that VWR’s new product line was comprised of Critical Cover products under a different brand name, thereby falsely representing its origin/causing initial interest confusion.  The court accepted the basic theory to avoid a situation in which “a defendant could escape liability for passing off simply by using another’s mark—a false designation of origin—to establish the equivalency of the other’s mark and the defendant’s new mark, and then shift to using only its new mark.”  [Of course, that description is an overgeneralization: if the products are equivalent, then an equivalence claim is not false; it’s just comparative advertising.]

VWR argued that Dastar barred this claim, but the court disagreed; the case could be analyzed as a regular passing off case.  Still, on summary judgment, APT didn’t raise a triable issue on likely confusion.  Customer care and attention “casts great doubt on any likelihood of confusion,” given that the relevant purchasers were experienced professionals buying apparel for use in clean room/controlled environments, “where customers’ validating procedures tend to be thorough.”

Likewise, the evidence of actual confusion and the length of time the mark was used without actual confusion weighed against a likelihood of confusion. Three customers “engaged in conversation with APT about the transition, asking APT for further explanation of the differences between VWR’s new product line and the Critical Cover products.” This wasn’t trademark confusion, but rather confusion about “whether a VWR-produced product they purchased was equivalent to APT’s Critical Cover products.”  Other communications identified by APT didn’t indicate any confusion.  For example, communications noting problems with VWR’s first generation of shoe covers “might support that the customers believed they were receiving an equivalent product that would perform in the same manner as APT’s products,” that again wasn’t trademark confusion. 

VWR’s intent also weighed against finding likely confusion.  VWR knew that it could be easier to proceed through certification and testing procedures if it represented that was the same product that APT produced, but that’s different from adopting a similar mark.  It didn’t “adopt” a similar mark at all; it compared its products to those of APT.  (Again, “use as a mark” is a shortcut/an explanation for why there’s no confusion.)

False advertising: This is a better theory, but it fares no better in the end.  APT argued that VWR falsely equated the parties’ products, causing customers to believe that VWR’s products were Critical Cover products under a different brand name (because they had the same components and processes).  APT tried to rely on a presumption of causation and materiality based on literal falsity, but those presumptions don’t apply when a plaintiff seeks only monetary damages, not an injunction.  (I’d think the customer complaints about the first generation might tend to show materiality, even without a presumption.  Separately, I haven’t seen this distinction articulated for actual deception before—it seems to get rid of the literal falsity/misleadingness distinction for money damages cases, requiring evidence of deception, probably a consumer survey, no matter what the theory is—which doesn’t make a lot of sense for a straight-up literal falsity case.)  Even if some of VWR’s statements were literally false, APT failed to show (1) actual deception or a tendency to deceive and (2) materiality. “These requirements are not easily satisfied.” There was no non-hearsay customer testimony that the statements misled customers or influenced their purchasing decisions.  

"100% grated parmesan cheese" doesn't have to be all cheese, court rules

In re: 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese Marketing & Sales Practices Litig., 2017 WL 3642076, No. 16 C 5802, MDL 2705 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 24, 2017)

Ah, implicature, how I wish judges understood you.  A product labeled “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” is, apparently, ambiguous—it could mean the product has a bunch of different ingredients, but the parmesan component is 100% grated, rather than only partially grated.  This is nonsense for a product that purports to be cheese, though it would make sense for a non-cheese-only product with a “made with 100% grated parmesan cheese” label.  In fact, the common-sense comparison is the challenged phrase with or without “made with”—on its own, the “100%” naturally applies to all the words following it.

Anyway, plaintiffs alleged that they were misled by the labels because the products contained a nontrivial amount of cellulose.  Each product’s ingredient list disclosed the non-cheese ingredients, in smaller, less conspicuous print. Each ingredient list states that the cellulose is added “to prevent caking.”

The court agreed that plaintiffs had Article III standing, having purchased a product allegedly worth less than what they paid and what they were promised. 

Synthesizing consumer protection precedents from multiple jurisdictions, the court concluded that “[w]here a plaintiff contends that certain aspects of a product’s packaging are misleading in isolation, but an ingredient label or other disclaimer would dispel any confusion, the crucial issue is whether the misleading content is ambiguous; if so, context can cure the ambiguity and defeat the claim, but if not, then context will not cure the deception and the claim may proceed.”  This isn’t entirely consistent with the cases the court quotes, such as the 9th Circuit’s Williams—here’s the quote the court pulls from Williams: deceptive marketing claims survived a motion to dismiss where there were “a number of features of the [front of the packaging] … which could likely deceive a reasonable consumer,” and a consumer thus “should [not] be expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list” (emphasis added).  The question is whether a consumer might rely on the product name without checking the ingredient list, and ambiguity can certainly play a role there, but a consumer might make inferences even from a theoretically “ambiguous” claim and not check the label.  Of course, the larger problem here is that there’s nothing ambiguous about “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” in context.

The court continued: “consumers who interpret ambiguous statements in an unnatural or debatable manner do so unreasonably if an ingredient label would set them straight.”  The court conflates “unnatural” with “debatable” here, I think—if a substantial portion of consumers are confused by a claim, the fact that others aren’t, and that the question in general is “debatable,” shouldn’t matter (absent some cost-benefit analysis, at least—so if there’s a good way of communicating the truth to avoid deceiving the relevant subset of consumers, that should be used). 

The court analogized people who thought that “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” meant that the product was 100% parmesan cheese to people who thought that Froot Loops were made with fruit.  The phrase was ambiguous because “it also might be an assertion that 100% of the cheese is parmesan cheese, or that the parmesan cheese is 100% grated. Reasonable consumers would thus need more information before concluding that the labels promised only cheese and nothing more, and they would know exactly where to look to investigate—the ingredient list.” Thus, the labels weren’t deceptive. 

Comment: that statement might avoid perjury because of this equivocation, but that’s not the standard for consumer protection cases.  A reasonable consumer shouldn’t have to ask follow-up questions when the product says on the front that it’s 100% one thing.

The court thought that the nothing-but-cheese reading was the least plausible of its three possible interpretations, because it thought that consumers should know that a product that was packaged and shelf-stable at room temperature could not be pure cheese. Really?  Because I buy parmesan in unrefrigerated-but-sealed chunks, and I’ve also been known to buy Parmalat, a shelf-stable unrefrigerated milk.  We live in an age of miracles and wonders; I’m not saying I’d expect cheese to last centuries, but leaving a dry cheese like parmesan sealed but unrefrigerated seems plausible to me. Still, I’m apparently unreasonable, because reasonable consumers “would still suspect that something other than cheese might be in the container [of unrefrigerated, shelf-stable cheese], and so would turn it around, enabling them to learn the truth from a quick skim of the ingredient label.”

Anyway, warranty and unjust enrichment claims failed for the same reason.

Advertising question of the day: Honeycrisp or honey crisp?

Assuming this alcoholic beverage is not made from honeycrisp apples--but that it does contain honey--would the product name be false or misleading?  H/T Adam Levitin.  Note that the manufacturer doesn't disclose the apple variety one way or another, as far as I can tell.

"universal" is generic for churches

Universal Church, Inc. v. Universal Life Church/ULC Monastery,  2017 WL 3669625, No. 14 Civ. 5213 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 8, 2017)

The Universal Church, Inc., is a Pentecostal/Charismatic church with “around 30,000 members,” while its Brazilian affiliate has millions of members. Defendant ULC is a nonprofit that offers free ordinations to its members; it’s an offshoot of a church founded in California in the 1950s that was initially called the “Universal Church.”  The plaintiff registered “Universal Church,” “The Universal Church,” and “Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.” The first and third were registered for use in “evangelistic and ministerial services, namely, conducting religious worship services” and became incontestable in 2012. “The Universal Church” was registered in 2012 for use in “religious counseling and ministerial services,” “newsletters and informational brochures all about religious beliefs and practices,” and “t-shirts distributed in connection with religious groups.”

In 2009, defendants attempted to register “Universal Life Church” and several similar marks; they were rejected on 2(d) grounds and the cited marks included “Universal Church” and “Life Church.” They abandoned the applications.

Plaintiff challenged five types of uses: (1) 17 domain names, including (registered in 2010), containing the phrase “universal church”; (2) use of “Universal Church” on the website;

(3) use of “Universal Church” in the website’s metadata so that the website’s name shows up as “The Universal Church” in search results;

 (4) bidding on advertising keywords, including “the universal church,” so that defendants’ websites appear in Internet search engine ads; and (5) “hijacking” map-based searches so that defendants’ website is associated with the location of plaintiff’s churches. For example, the Google Maps search result for plaintiff’s church at 1077 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx was linked to defendants’ website,, as shown below:

The court found that “Universal Church” was generic for the services at issue—in a useful point that reminds me of the Seventh Circuit’s Car Freshner case on descriptive fair use, the court noted that the question of who bears the burden of proof on protectability “turns on whether plaintiff is attempting to enforce its trademark within the class of services for which it was registered.”  The court interpreted “evangelistic and ministerial services, namely conducting religious worship services,” broadly, since ordaining ministers as defendants do is a “ministerial service.”  Also, plaintiff had apparently objected to many other uses by other religious and even non-religious organizations, indicating the breadth of its interpretation of the class.  Thus, plaintiff was entitled to a presumption of validity.

Still, “universal” was generic for churches.  There was lots of evidence, dictionary and historical, that “universal” is understood as referring to the entire Christian Church or all Christians collectively. “Universal” for churches has a similar meaning to “catholic,” which is simply the transliteration of the Greek word for “universal,” “καθολικóς” or “katholikos.” (The court later says it isn’t opining on whether Catholic is itself generic.)  The parties agreed that this meaning was “well-established within the Roman Catholic Church and that at least some non-Catholics understand and use the term in this sense.”  The use had existed for hundreds of years, or thousands if you add in the original Latin and Greek versions.  Defendants also presented evidence that numerous churches use “universal” and “universal church” in their name.  It’s even part of the name of a denomination, Unitarian Universalism.

Plaintiff’s evidence of trademark meaning was minimal.  It claimed that it used the mark in connection with its 230 physical locations and weekly broadcasts that reach 800,000 people. But this was based on testimony from its own employees, which had little probative value; it couldn’t substantiate the viewership claims with documentary evidence.  Even if the court accepted the plaintiff’s claim to use the “Universal Church” mark in connection with its physical churches and broadcasts, that didn’t show how the mark is understood by the vast majority of the “relevant public” who don’t belong to the church. The only evidence about that public was two articles referring to plaintiff as the “Universal Church.”

Based on this record, “the primary significance of ‘universal church’ to the relevant public is a type of church rather than plaintiff, namely one that considers itself to be universal in the sense of representing the entire Christian church.”  The court declined to grant the plaintiff a monopoly over “universal” in church names, “a monopoly which plaintiff has already indicated that it would enforce aggressively. We are persuaded that the trademark law is simply not intended to allow the mark to be weaponized by plaintiff in this way.”

Even if the court found that “Universal Church” was descriptive, it would still reject the plaintiff’s claim, due to the weakness of the mark and other factors.  As to actual confusion, “plaintiff’s evidence suggests that someone searching the Internet for ‘universal church’ will sometimes land on defendants’ website.”  But the evidence didn’t show that this was because of defendants’ use of the mark, or that people conducting such a search were actually looking for the plaintiff.  And there was no evidence that  anyone purchasing ordination services was confused by defendants’ use of “Universal Church.”  Plaintiff’s survey allegedly showing likely confusion “attempts to measure the extent to which someone googling ‘the universal church’ would believe that he had landed on a website for an entity called “The Universal Church.”  (Googling!)  But that was of limited value because the survey takers were just told they were searching “for a generic entity named ‘The Universal Church,’ without any attempt to measure whether the survey takers associated such an entity with plaintiff.”

Plaintiff’s VP testified that “many” of its pastors and members “had a hard time trying to reach our correct Web site while they were searching for our domain.” This was too vague to show actual confusion, or that such confusion “resulted from defendants’ use of plaintiff’s trademarks, as opposed to, for example, defendants’ non-infringing search optimization strategies.”  Neither party discussed IIC separately, but the court doubted whether initial interest confusion is even relevant here, because IIC requires confusion, not mere diversion.  Similarly, instances where individuals “refer[red] to the defendants by the misnomer Universal Church” weren’t relevant to confusion claim because “universal church” wasn’t being used to refer to the plaintiff.

The court did note that a reasonable juror could come out either way on defendants’ intent; it just didn’t matter, even if intent favored the plaintiff.

The quality of defendants’ services, which the Second Circuit hasn’t gotten around to eliminating, was interesting if only because the court was called on to judge the quality of religious services.   “Plaintiff argues that defendants’ ordination services are inferior because they allow anyone to become ordained online without committing to a particular teaching or faith, without formal education, without training, and without committing to attend to the spiritual needs of others. On the other hand, the features that plaintiff views disparagingly are likely the very features that defendants’ customers value. Thus, we find that defendants’ services are not inherently inferior.”

Cybersquatting claims failed too, of course; even if the mark weren’t generic, the primary cybersquatting claim would still  have failed because the mark was not distinctive at the time was registered, in 2010, before the “Universal Church” registration became inconstestable and before it acquired any secondary meaning.

The court granted summary judgment sua sponte on the NYGBL claims because they couldn’t succeed; ordinary trademark or trade dress infringement claims are not cognizable under §§ 349 and 350 unless there is a “specific and substantial injury to the public interest over and above ordinary trademark infringement or dilution.”  The plaintiff argued that there would be harm from getting the wrong religious services, but “the injury is precisely the type of injury that results from ordinary trademark confusion and does not constitute a separate public injury.”