Upwork Can Use the Term “Freelancer” to Describe an App for Freelancers

In Freelancer International Pty Ltd v. Upwork Global, Inc., the Ninth Circuit recently (June 22, 2021) affirmed the Northern District of California’s denial of a preliminary injunction against Upworks’s use of Freelancer’s registered trademark FREELANCER in the name of its app “Upwork for Freelancers.” Upwork had apps for it clients, called Upwork for Clients and an corresponding app for the freelancers it placed called Upwork for Freelancers:

Once downloaded to a device, Upwork’s “Upwork for Freelancers” provides its display name, listed beneath the app’s “Up” logo icon, as “Freelancer” on iOS devices and as “Freelancer-Upwork” on Android devices — This is what Freelancer objected to.

The district court found that Freelancer lacked the required likelihood of success. Upwork argued that its use of “freelancer” was a fair use under 15 USC 1115(b)(4). The district court said that the fair use defense is applicable in instances where defendants’ alleged infringing use of plaintiff’s mark “is a use, otherwise than as a mark . . . of a term or device which is descriptive of and used fairly and in good faith only to describe the goods or services of such party, or their geographic origin.” The court noted that defendants submitted evidence showing (1) defendants use the word “freelancer” to describe their users and (2) the word “freelancer” is well-known and defined as “someone who is not permanently employed by a particular company, but sells their services to more than one company.” The court found that plaintiffs did not offer a persuasive refutation of defendants’ fair use argument, dismissing the fair use defense as inapplicable because plaintiffs do not challenge defendants’ use of the word “Freelancer” where it is not used “as a mark.”

The court discussed and rejected Freelancer’s arguments, finding that the instances in which Upwork allegedly uses “freelancer” as a mark are proper and descriptive uses of a common word distinguishing Upwork’s freelancer app from its client app. The Court was not persuaded that bold font and a capital letter are sufficient to show defendants use “Freelancer” as a mark versus a descriptive term – especially when Upwork’s distinctive lime green logo or coloring is placed directly alongside the various notifications. The Court noted that Upwork did not list the word “Freelancer” among its own publicly listed trademarks, nor did Upwork implement a stylized font or “TM” symbol when using the word “Freelancer.”

Based on the current record, the court found that Upwork does not use “freelancer” as a mark, rather, Upwork’s used the word in good faith to describe its users, and thus the court agreed that the defendants’ use of the word “freelancer” satisfies the requirements of fair use under 15 U.S.C. § 1115(b)(4).

The 9th Circuit concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that Freelancer could not carry its burden to show likely success on the merits.

The case provides some helpful guidelines to companies trying to use a registered mark descriptively: Avoid presenting the mark in a stylized font and avoid identifying the term with a TM. Capitalization and bolding are not enough to change this, at least where the user’s trademark is also prominently displayed. The case also provides a helpful reminder to brand owners: The more descriptive your mark, the more likely a third party use of the term will be found to be a descriptive use.

Do Lawyers Make Us Rude?

A trending story today is Courtney Love’s accusation that Olivia Rodrigo of copied Love’s Hole album cover:

Love has clarified that her complaint is that she wasn’t asked, calling Rodrigo’s actions “rude.” A lot of people agree with Love that it was rude not to ask.

However, what lawyer would advise a client to ask? We all know that if you ask, you have to accept the answer. There is no coming back from asking for permission, being denied, and going ahead anyway. If you believe what you are doing is appropriate and are definitely proceeding, asking is an unnecessary risk.

Was Rodrigo rude not to ask, was she just following her lawyer’s advice, or both?

Flagging a Potential Issue

Flag Day is an appropriate day to reflect on the use of the American Flag in trademarks and advertising. The Flag Act, 4 USC 3, prohibits the use of the American Flag in advertising in the District of Columbia:

Any person who, within the District of Columbia, in any manner, for exhibition or display, shall place or cause to be placed any word, figure, mark, picture, design, drawing, or any advertisement of any nature upon any flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America; or shall expose or cause to be exposed to public view any such flag, standard, colors, or ensign upon which shall have been printed, painted, or otherwise placed, or to which shall be attached, appended, affixed, or annexed any word, figure, mark, picture, design, or drawing, or any advertisement of any nature; or who, within the District of Columbia, shall manufacture, sell, expose for sale, or to public view, or give away or have in possession for sale, or to be given away or for use for any purpose, any article or substance being an article of merchandise, or a receptacle for merchandise or article or thing for carrying or transporting merchandise, upon which shall have been printed, painted, attached, or otherwise placed a representation of any such flag, standard, colors, or ensign, to advertise, call attention to, decorate, mark, or distinguish the article or substance on which so placed shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $100 or by imprisonment for not more than thirty days, or both, in the discretion of the court. The words “flag, standard, colors, or ensign”, as used herein, shall include any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture or representation of either, or of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance, of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America or a picture or a representation of either, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, colors, standard, or ensign of the United States of America.

Most states have a statute purporting to restrict the commercial use of the flag. Here is a list from 2002. Nebraska’s statute was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1907 in Nebraska v. Halter (which involved the depiction of a flag on a bottle of beer.  However, in a country where modifying and even burning the flag constitutes free speech, it seems likely that such laws would not be found enforceable today — even accounting for the fact that commercial speech is afforded less protection. Given the fact that the USPTO has assigned a special design code for the American flag (24.09.05    American flags in any form), it doesn’t seem that anyone is taking restrictions on the use of the American flag in advertising very seriously.

There is an excellent review of flag protection laws published by the Congressional Research Service here.

Something From “Nothing”

Nothing Bundt Cakes has built a business around bundt cakes. Anyone with a bundt pan can bake a bundt cake — Nothing Bundt Cakes, like any business, needed something to differentiate itself from other bakers, and found it in the way it frosted its cakes:

Nothing Bundt Cakes protected its unique design as its trade dress, and getting a federal trademark registration was the icing on the cake:

Nothing Bundt Cakes now has over 300 franchise locations throughout the United States and Canada, which collectively earn over $100 million annually in revenue. When All About Bundt Cakes opened a bundt cake business in Dallas-Fort Worth, and copied Nothing Bundt Cakes’s distinctive frosting pattern:

Nothing Bundt Cakes couldn’t stop another bakery form selling bundt cakes, but it could protect the distinctive elements that it purposely incorporated into its product, and the 21 franchisees it had in the area. Nothing Bundt Cakes sued All About Bundt Cakes in the Easter District of Texas [4:20-cv-00813-SDJ, filed 10/22/20]. Nothing Bundt Cakes sought a preliminary injunction, and when Anything Bundt Cakes failed to appear at the February 12 hearing, the Court granted the preliminary inunction.

Even a business with a relatively simple product can create value by making its product distinctive, and protecting that distinctiveness. The key is to develop unique, non-functional features that customers can rely upon to identify the business and its products, and protect those features, for example with a federal trademark registration

A Uniform Policy on Trademarks

It behooves a business to establish a uniform policy on trademarks, consistency helps build recognition, and strengthens a mark. However, for businesses in the service industry, it may also behoove the business to have a policy on uniform trademarks. Uniforms can be very powerful indicators of source, readily recognized by customers and prospective customers. Here are a few examples:

® or TM

One of the most common questions trademark owners pose is when to use the ®-symbol, and when to use TM. The answer is relatively straight forward: if the mark is federally registered for a particular product, the mark can (and should) be identified with the ®-symbol when it is used in connection with those products. If the owner of a registered mark fails to use the ®-symbol, or otherwise identify the mark as being federally registered, then the owner’s ability to recover damages from infringers may be limited.

Conversely, if the mark is not registered, the owner should not use the ®-symbol. Using the ®-symbol in connection with an unregistered mark could subject the trademark owner to an action for false marking, although proving damages for this false marking can be difficult.

So when is TM appropriate? Anyone who believes that a term is their trademark can identify the trademark with a TM. There are good reasons to use the TM symbol: it is evidence of “attempts and intent to educate the trade and purchasing public that it regards the term . . . as its trademark for such goods.” In re Mine Safety Appliances Company, Serial No. 75/501,608, 66 U.S.P.Q.2d 1694, 1700 (T.T.A.B. 2002). However, it is well settled that use of TM in connection with otherwise unregistrable matter does not make such matter a trademark. Id. In Eagle Snacks, Inc. v. Nabisco Brands, Inc., 625 F. Supp. 571, 573-4, 228 U.S.P.Q. 625, 628 (D.N.J. 1985), the court noted plaintiff’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to “strengthen” its purported trademark in HONEY ROAST, including causing the letters “TM” to be placed above the word “Roast” and implementing the use of the word “Brand” to modify the mark.

In Self-Realization Fellowship Church v. Ananda Church of Self-Realization, 59 F.3d 902, 907, 35 U.S.P.Q.2d 1342, 1346 (9th Cir. 1995), successfully showed that plaintiff did not use “Paramahansa Yogananda” as a service mark in party by presenting “expert testimony that SRF did not use the term “Paramahansa Yogananda” with any of the traditional trademark indicia (e.g., use of the term with a “TM” sign next to it).

However, the use of TM is an admission that the term is a trademark, and thus before using TM a trademark owner should investigate whether the mark is in fact available. In London v. Carson Pirie Scott & Co., 4 U.S.P.Q.2d 1148, 1151 n. 1, 1987 WL 11382 (N.D. Ill. 1987), London claimed that Samsonite’s use of TM in connection with HANGER LOCK, would cause confusion. Although Samsonite argued that that use of TM was inadvertent, and had been discontinued, it was enough for the court to deny defendants’ motion to dismiss.

BOTTOM LINE: If you mark is registered, use the ®-symbol when the mark is used on any of the products or services for which it is registered. If the mark is not registered, do not use the ®-symbol, and consider using TM to strengthen the mark, but make sure that the mark is available, because TM can be an admission that a term is being used as an trademark.

Posted in Use

It’s OK to Give Less Weight to Suggestive and Descriptive Terms when Comparing Marks as a Whole

In Quiktrip West, Inc., v. Weigel Stores, Inc.,[2020-1304] (January 7, 2021), the Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Quiktrip’s opposition to registration of Weigel’s W WEIGEL’S KITCHEN NOW OPEN:

in view of QuikTrip’s QT KITCHENS mark:

The Board evaluated the likelihood of confusion between the marks by referencing the factors set forth in In re E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. It first found that the parties’ identical-in-part goods and related services, overlapping trade channels, overlapping classes of customers, and similar conditions of purchase pointed to a likelihood of confusion finding. However, the Board found that the dissimilarity of the marks weighed against a likelihood of confusion. In conducting its similarity analysis, the Board acknowledged that both marks include the word “KITCHEN(S)” but determined that customers would not focus on that word for source identification because it is “at least highly suggestive, if not descriptive.

The Federal Circuit agreed that the Board correctly analyzed the marks as a whole, saying that it is not improper for the Board to determine that, for rational reasons, it should give “more or less weight to a particular feature of the mark” provided that its ultimate conclusion regarding the likelihood of confusion rests on a consideration of the marks in their entireties.  The Federal Circuit said that the Board properly found that, when evaluating the similarity of the marks, it should accord less weight to the shared term KITCHEN(S) because “kitchen” is a “highly suggestive, if not descriptive” word.  The Federal Circuit added that the Board was entitled to afford more weight to the dominant, distinct portions of the mark.

Descriptive Use of a Registered Mark is not Infringement

15 USC 1115(b)(4) provides that the use of a registered term, otherwise than as a mark, which is descriptive of, and used fairly and in good faith only to describe your goods or services, is not trademark infringement. The Northern District of California in Freelancer International Pty. Ltd. v. Upwork Global, Inc. [20-cv-06132-SI]https://trademarks.hdp.com/wp-admin/upload.php?item=511, recently provided some helpful guidance on what qualifies as a permissible descriptive use.

Freelancer Technology Pty Limited sued Upwork for infringement of U.S. Reg. No. 4,284,314 on FREELANCER, complaining about Upworks’ use of Freelance in connection with its software:

Defendants argued they use the plain meaning of the word “freelancer” on their app display names and elsewhere to describe the appropriate users: freelancers. Defendants further argued they use the word “freelancer” in good faith because they trade on Upwork’s own considerable goodwill and have not sought to trademark the words “Freelance” or “Freelancers.” Finally, defendants argue they use the word “freelancer” “otherwise than as a mark” and rely on defendants’ own Upwork trademark.

The court noted that the Ninth Circuit has identified at least two factors to consider when determining whether a term is being used as a mark: (1) “whether the term is used as a symbol to attract public attention, which can be demonstrated by the lettering, type style, size and visual placement and prominence of the challenged words”; and (2) “whether the allegedly infringing user undertook precautionary measures such as labeling or other devices designed to minimize the risk that the term will be understood in its trademark sense.”

The Court found that all of Upwork’s uses of Freelancer were proper and descriptive. The court specifically said it was not “persuaded that bold font and a capital letter are sufficient to show defendants use “Freelancer” as a mark versus a descriptive term – especially when Upwork’s distinctive lime green logo or coloring is placed directly alongside the various notifications.” The Court Defendants do not list the word “Freelancer” among defendants’ own publicly listed trademarks, nor do defendants implement a stylized font or “TM” symbol when using the word “Freelancer.”

The case is notable for its guidance that merely capitalizing the word, or using a bold typeface does not turn a descriptive use into a trademark use. However, it is advisable to avoid a distinctive typeface, and obviously avoid identifying the mark with a TM.

Overwhelming Differences Lead to Summary Judgment of No Trade Dress Infringement

Topps Co. sued Koko’s Confectionery & Novelty for patent infringement and trade dress infringement.

The district court granted summary judgment of non-infringement of the patent, and of non-infringement of the trade dress.

As to the trade dress infringement claim, the district court said no reasonable jury could find that the trade dresses of the Juicy Drop Pop and the Squeezy Squire Pop are confusingly similar because the lack of similarity between the two products is “overwhelming.” The district court noted that (1) in SSP, the nozzle cap and candy handle are adjacent to each other, while the nozzle and the handle in JDP are located on opposite ends, (2) SSP’s nozzle cap has a plastic “geyser” of the liquid candy in the same color as the nozzle cap, whereas JDP lacks an analogous feature and its nozzle and nozzle cap are a different color from that of the rest of the trade dress. (3) SSP’s nozzle cap and handle are far larger and in different shapes from those of JDP. (4) Lastly, SSP’s bottle has an oval-shaped compressible portion with concentric ovals; JDP ‘s compressible bottle has a round compressible portion with a swirl design. The district court said “[t]aking these features into account, the overall impression of the two products are dissimilar.

Goodwill Hunting

Hot N’ Sweet Concepts, LLC sued Nextbite Brands, LLC, in the Western District of Oklahoma for infringing its MOTHER CLUCKER trademark. In addition to the inexplicable popularity of MOTHER CLUCKER as a name for a restaurant, this case potentially has another important lesson for trademark practitioners.

Among other things, Hot N’ Sweet Concepts is asserting a U.S. Reg. No. 5,288,452 on MOTHER CLUCKERS, that Hot N’s Sweet acquired from Pass Restaurant Group, LLC after Hot N’ Sweet opened for business. The assignment states that the assignment came with the goodwill:

The question is, “did the goodwill in fact pass?” First, the Missouri entity uses MOTHER CLUCKER, while the Mississippi entity used MOTHER CLUCKERS. Second the logos of the two restaurants are quite different:

Third, the menus of the two restaurants are different:

The appearance of the restaurants are different:

Finally, being 809 miles apart, it seems unlikely that there is any overlap in customers. So while the assignment said that the goodwill passed with the registration, will MOTHER CLUCKER be able to show that it actually did?

Goodwill is more than a magic incantation to recite when transferring the mark, there must be some basis to conclude that the meaning of the mark to consumers also passed with the assignment. It’s one thing to acquire a potentially blocking mark to remove it as an obstancle,, but quite another to try to enforce it.