Nominative Use: A Three-Way Split

Today, we’ll tackle a trademark problem ripe for picking by SCOTUS—nominative use.

 What Are Trademarks?

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. Unlike patents which require a lengthy registration process to have any legal redress, trademarks can gain some initial legal protection under common law via mere use.

For those individuals wanting to give more protective #oomph to the holder of a mark, one can register their mark with the US Patent and Trademark Office, granting federal trademark protection under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1051 et.seq.

While the Lanham Act covers a wide range of topics ranging from the gamut of procedures for obtaining federal trademark recognition, the various types of marks that the law recognizes, and specific international trademark protections, our focus turns on the causes of action for infringement granted under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1114. Specifically, an individual is liable in a civil action commenced by a trademark registrant whenever any person without the registrant’s consent:

use[s] in commerce any reproduction, counterfeit, copy, or colorable imitation of a registered mark in connection with the sale, offering for sale, distribution, or advertising of any goods or services on or in connection with which such use is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive…

The importance of such a liability rule is plain—absent protection, a third-rate shoe manufacturer could use the Nike “swoosh” at their leisure, marketing their shoes to consumers who might believe that the pair of kicks they are purchasing are name-brand, not knock-offs. While seemingly straightforward, courts take differing stances on how infringement actions are analyzed and ruled on.

A (trade)Marked Split

The Ninth Circuit established nominative use in 1992, in New Kids on the Block v. News America Pub. Inc. New Kids on the Block v. News America Pub. Inc.

In a move to prevent inordinate control of their fans, New Kids on the Block brought suit against News America for use of the term “New Kids” as part of their phone survey hotline (incidentally focused on the members of the band). The Ninth Circuit reasoned that a strict construction of trademark exclusivity would lead to a practical impossibility in describing well-known products by generic names, bringing up examples of using the phrase “the professional basketball team from Chicago” in lieu of the Chicago Bulls. To facilitate fair use of trademarks, the Ninth Circuit posited the doctrine of “nominative use”:

a non-trademark use of a mark . . . [occurs when a]…trademark does not attempt to capitalize on consumer confusion or to appropriate the cachet of one product for a different one. Such nominative use of a mark—where the only word reasonably available to describe a particular thing is pressed into service—lies outside the strictures of trademark law [and cannot be said to promote unfair competition]…a commercial user is entitled [nominative fair use] provided he meets the following . . . (1) the product or service in question must be one not readily identifiable without use of the trademark; (2) only so much of the mark or marks may be used as is reasonably necessary to identify the product or service; and (3) the user must do nothing that would, in conjunction with the mark, suggest sponsorship or endorsement by the trademark holder.

The Third Circuit, in 2005, offered a slightly different formulation:

(1) that the use of plaintiff’s mark is necessary to describe both the plaintiff’s product or service and the defendant’s product or service; (2) that the defendant uses only so much of the plaintiff’s mark as is necessary to describe plaintiff’s product; and (3) that the defendant’s conduct or language reflect the true and accurate relationship between plaintiff and defendant’s products or services.

Keeping these two distinct approaches to trademark infringement analysis in mind, the Second Circuit recently complicated the matter in International Information Systems Sec. Certification Consortium, Inc. v. Security University, LLC (2016).

Information Systems brought suit against Security University for allegedly using a particular certification trademark used by Information Systems to denote passing a certain stage of computer security exams, and on appeal the Second Circuit held that the infringement was erroneously evaluated at trial based on the Ninth Circuit’s test for nominative use and not on the Polaroid factors.

The court noted that Information Systems’s mark was part of a special class of marks that are intended to be used by individuals other than the registrant, explaining that:

[the mark in question] is meant to certify quality and characteristics . . .[despite] the differences between certification marks and other types of marks, the Lanham Act provides that certification marks are generally entitled to the same protection from infringement as are trademarks . . . except when used so as to represent falsely that the owner or a user thereof makes or sells the goods or performs the services on or in connection with which such mark is used . . .

In using only the nominative use test, the trial court apparently failed to take into account other ways that trademarks can be infringed under the Polaroid test even if the test factors do not all apply.

In highlighting the weakness of source confusion in the Ninth Circuit test and the inadequacies found in similar nominative use tests in the Third Circuit, the Second Circuit ultimately overturned its own precedent by adopting a much more expansive test for trademark infringement, stating that:

[while there is] no reason to replace the Polaroid test . . . [we recognize that the] the Polaroid factors are a bad fit here and that we have repeatedly emphasized that the Polaroid factors are non-exclusive . . . [and we] “have recognized that a defendant may lawfully use a plaintiff’s trademark where doing so is necessary to describe the plaintiff’s product and does not imply a false affiliation or endorsement by the plaintiff of the defendant . . . [As a result,] district courts are to consider the Ninth Circuit and Third Circuit’s nominative fair use factors, in addition to the Polaroid factors…

Looking Forward

Based on this ruling by the Second Circuit, there are three (somewhat different, somewhat the same) approaches to nominative use. For litigants in the Second Circuit, the mélange approach could potentially require 15 different factors to be considered. Unfortunately, with the recent denial of certiorari, business owners and trademark attorneys across the country must continue to deal with the confusion.

For further reading, see what firms Morgan Lewis & Bockius and Arent Fox have to say on the matter.

Deep in the Heart of Venue: A Patent Procedure Wrinkle

Before I begin, I should note that it is difficult to pinpoint circuit splits in the intellectual property context, particularly in patent law. Because of the highly specialized subject-matter jurisdiction of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC)—a court empowered to deal with patent matters from both the USPTO & the Federal District courts under 35 USC §141(a) and 28 USC §1295—the rulings released by CAFC are typically binding law, sans Congressional action in changing patent laws. South Corp. v. United States, (Fed. Cir. 1982). CAFC decisions are also not usually granted discretionary review by SCOTUS. Because of this specific scope of CAFC and its weight of authority in patent adjudication, there are often no real circuit splits that arise in patent law that are subject to SCOTUS review like in other areas of US law.

Nevertheless, internal splits do arise, and intellectual property is rife with authorities taking competing positions—particularly when IP law intertwines with other areas of law. This post highlights such a split. Let’s dive in.

What’s “Patent Venue”?

Within the volumes of Title 28 of the United States Code are the (in)famous provisions detailing how one invokes the jurisdiction of the US Federal Court system. While the fountainheads of federal question and diversity of citizenship under §1331 & §1332(a) are certainly important (and draw the ire of your 1L author), our super-juicy bit today centers on 28 USC §1400, which deals with Patent Venues.

Under §1400(b):

any civil action for patent infringement may be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides, or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business.

SCOTUS weighed in on this provision in Fourco Glass Co. v. Transmirra Products Corp. (1957), and held that §1400 is one of several special statutes not subject to the general venue provisions codified in §1391(c). Specifically,

The question is not whether §1391(c) is clear and general . . . [but] whether it supplements §1400 . . . . We think it is clear that §1391(c) is a general corporation venue statute . . . [and] the law is settled that ‘however inclusive may be the general language of a statute, it will not be held to apply to a matter specifically dealt with in another part of the same enactment’ . . . . [As such], §1400(b) is the sole and exclusive provision controlling venue in patent infringement actions, and it is not to be supplemented by the provisions of 28 USC §1391(c).

The rule from Fourco is a relatively unambiguous rule for the world of patent litigation—that as a matter of procedure, the only statute that controls patent venue considerations is codified in §1400(b).

 Solo Split: The Federal Circuit, VE Holding, & TC Heartland

Despite the clarity of the venue provisions for patent litigation in §1400(b), CAFC threw a wrench into the mix with VE Holding Corp. v. Johnson Gas Appliance Co. (1990). The court deviated from SCOTUS’s bright-line test, applying some handy-dandy tools of statutory interpretation to hold that §1400(b) actually IS supplemented by §1391(c). Using both the textual context given by the 1988 revisions to §1391(c), and the clear lack of any expressed Congressional intent to maintain the exclusivity of §1400(b), the court held that §1400(b) is in fact modified by §1391(c). The court reasoned that:

[§1391(c)] as it was in Fourco is [gone, and] Congress could have easily added ‘except for §1400(b)’ . . . . The language of the statute is clear and its meaning is unambiguous . . . . The general rule that a specific statute is not controlled or nullified by a general statute regardless of priority of enactment, absent a clear intention or otherwise, does not govern the present situation. [§1391(c)] expressly reads itself into §1400(b)…[ §1391(c)] only operates to define a term in §1400(b) [nor does it conflict with §1400(b)]. Furthermore, even were the rule applicable . . . the language of the statute would reveal a ‘clear intention’ that §1391(c) is to supplement §1400(b).

In Kraft Food Group Brands, LLC v. TC Heartland, LLC (2015), the District Court of Delaware affirmed the holding in VE Holding Corp. This decision was ultimately affirmed by the CAFC in In re TC Heartland, LLC (2016). In both cases, TC Heartland argued that as part of the 2011 revisions to the US Code, the language in §1391(c) that CAFC relied on in VE Holding was changed, thus no longer modifying §1400(b). CAFC dismissed this in short order on TC Heartland’s appeal from Delaware, claiming that the changes made as part of the 2011 revisions were minor, and merely was a “broadening of the applicability of corporate residence, not a narrowing.” Further, the court assuming arguendo that Congress had intended to capture the meaning of the venue provisions in §1400(b), Fourco was not the precedent that Congress would have captured.

Looking Forward

What’s the Future for Patent Venues?

Based on this ruling by the CAFC, TC Heartland has begun the process of SCOTUS review, relying on the argument that CAFC has unilaterally overturned Supreme Court precedent in neglecting the holding of Fourco. As the amici briefs churn into the SCOTUS docket for this case, it raises the question of just where the Supreme Court will fall on this.

Given other SCOTUS decisions like Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l. (2014) and the affirmation of vague understandings of technology patents by both CAFC and SCOTUS, it is more than a little hazy as to where the Justices will stand on this question of patent venue provisions.

If the court chooses to side with CAFC’s cracking of the precedent in Fourco, it might be the case that more broad venue provisions would create a windfall for patent litigants who would gain the freedom to sue patent infringers anywhere that §1391(c) can be applied. However, if SCOTUS flexes its judicial muscle and overrules CAFC in favor of its 1957 holding in Fourco, we might just get another instance of an appeals court with a bit of egg in its face. Patent cases are a HUGE source of business for firms and agencies across the world, and this case has the potential to change the face of how patent litigation will be undertaken.

For further reading, see what firms Baker Botts and White & Case have to say on the matter.