Trademark Assignability Laid Bare

Crazy Horse was a legendary Native American chief of the Oglala Lakota tribe who lived during the second half of the 1800s.  Unfortunately today, his name may be more familiar as a brand for various products, such as motorcycle gear, whiskey, rifles and strip clubs.  In Russell Road Food & Beverage, LLC v. Spencer, et al., the Ninth Circuit was faced with the issue of the assignability of the trademark “Crazy Horse” in a lawsuit between two strip club operators in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In Paris in 1951, Alain Bernardin, opened the infamous “Crazy Horse Saloon.”  Since that time, the “Crazy Horse” mark has seen numerous trademark battles beginning in 1967 London.  During the 1970’s, Crazy Horse night clubs opened throughout the United States, from Alaska to Florida.

In January 2006, a strip club owner from the Carolinas, Carl Reid, successfully registered the “Crazy Horse” and “Pure Gold’s Crazy Horse” marks with the USPTO for “entertainment services, namely, exotic dance performances.”  Years later, Russell Road and Spencer each attempted to register their respective “Crazy Horse” marks for their strip clubs but the USPTO rejected both of them on the grounds of “a likelihood of confusion with the Reid’s previously registered marks.”  Russell Road and Spencer then pursued different methods to secure the right to use the “Crazy Horse” mark.

Russell Roads obtained the right to use the “Crazy Horse” mark through an agreement with another strip club operator of the “Crazy Horse Too” clubs in Las Vegas.  In September 2007, the owner of that club sought to register the mark “Crazy Horse Too” but like the other “Crazy Horse” marks, the USPTO rejected it. Crazy Horse Too initiated a cancellation proceeding to which Reid, the original owner of the “Crazy Horse” mark, failed to timely respond.  A default was entered but before a default judgment could be rendered in favor of Crazy Horse Too, Reid and the owner of Crazy Horse Too agreed to resolve the dispute through a trademark co-existence agreement.  Under that agreement, Crazy Horse Too agreed to withdraw its challenge to the “Crazy Horse” mark and Reid consented to Crazy Horse Too’s “use and registration” of “any mark that includes the phrase Crazy Horse provided the mark does not contain the phrase pure gold.”  In 2011, Crazy Horse Too encountered financial difficulties and was dissolved.  A year later, Russell Road bought Crazy Horse Too’s rights under the trademark co-existence agreement for $2,500.

Spencer, on the other hand, went straight to the source. In August 201, Spencer formed Crazy Horse Consulting, Inc. (“CHC”) for the purpose of expanding the “Crazy Horse” brand. Later that year, Reid assigned his rights in the “Crazy Horse” trademark to CHC and the assignment was registered with the USPTO.

Following the registration, Spencer learned that Russell Road had a strip club in Las Vegas called Crazy Horse III.  Spencer notified Russell Road that its use of the “Crazy Horse” mark infringed on his trademark rights.  Rather than seeking a license from Spencer, Russell Road entered into a further assignment agreement with the former owner of Crazy Horse Too whereby Crazy Horse Too assigned all of its rights to Russell Road under the September 2009 trademark co-existence agreement.

Russell Road then filed suit against Spencer seeking a declaratory judgment that its use of the “Crazy Horse” mark did not infringe on Spencer’s trademark.  The lower court granted summary judgment to Russell Road finding that it had the right to use the “Crazy Horse” mark under a valid trademark co-existence agreement.  Spencer and CHC appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit began by recognizing that it was undisputed that a trademark owner could assign his or her trademark citing 15 U.S.C. §1060(a)(1).  Furthermore, when a trademark is assigned, the assignee “steps into the shoes of the assignor.”  This means that the assignee not only acquires all of the assignor’s rights, but also assumes any “burdens or limitations” on the use of the mark.  In addition to recognizing the assignability of trademarks, the Ninth Circuit observed that trademark co-existence agreements have long been enforceable.  Furthermore, like other contracts, trademark co-existence agreements could be assignable.

The Ninth Circuit found that the facts showed that it was undisputed that there was a valid trademark co-existence agreement between Reid and Crazy Horse Too.  The Court found that the undisputed evidence showed that Crazy Horse Too had lawfully assigned its rights under that co-existence agreement to Russell Road. Given that Russell Road had obtained the rights that Crazy Horse Too owned, Spencer and CHC had a duty to Russell Road by way of its obligations to Crazy Horse Too “not to oppose each other’s use of the Crazy Horse mark, to make reasonable steps to reduce the likelihood of confusion and so on.” The Ninth Circuit found it significant that the trademark co-existence agreement made it explicit that it would “be binding upon and shall inure to the benefit of the parties hereto, their respective successors, assigns, and licensees.

The Ninth Circuit then turned to various arguments raised by Spencer and rejected each of them in turn.  First, the Ninth Circuit found that the assignment of the trademark rights from Crazy Horse Too to Russell Road was supported by adequate consideration in that Russell Road had paid $2,500 for the assignment.  Next, Spencer argued that because Crazy Horse Too was not using the mark it had essentially “abandoned” it.   The Ninth Circuit found that even if Crazy Horse Too was not using the mark, this did not invalidate the trademark co-existence agreement.  That agreement had no requirement that Crazy Horse Too actually use the mark and therefore the “trademark abandonment” doctrine did not apply.  Spencer also argued that Crazy Horse Too could not assign its rights to Russell Road without Spencer’s consent but the Ninth Circuit rejected this argument finding that Spencer had not raised it with the lower court.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of Russell Road and found that it had properly concluded that there had been a valid assignment of the rights under the trademark co-existence agreement between Reid and Crazy Horse Too.  The Russell Road case is a reminder that parties facing claims of trademark infringement should determine whether there is any basis for their use of a mark, such as through a valid assignment or trademark co-existence agreement.