Hidden Trademark Landmines in Comparative and Compatibility Advertisements

Nespresso has filed a lawsuit against Jones Brothers Coffee Distribution Company alleging trademark and trade dress infringement. In support of its trademark infringement claim, Nespresso alleges that Jones Brothers’ use of the words “Nespresso Compatible” in connection with its coffee capsules will cause consumers to believe that the Jones Brothers product is endorsed and/or sponsored by Nespresso because “Nespresso Compatible” is used prominently and without a disclaimer nearby.

Generally a trademark owner can stop others from using its trademark in order to prevent the public from being confused about the source of the goods or services. However, “fair use” presents a circumstance under which a third party can legally use another’s trademark. There are two types of trademark fair use. The first is the classic fair use situation where the mark itself has a descriptive meaning and the third party uses the term descriptively to describe its products or services.

The other type of trademark fair use is called nominative fair use. Nominative fair use involves the use of a trademark to refer to the actual mark owner’s goods or services. Where a third party’s product or service cannot be readily identified without using another party’s trademarks, this is a good indication that the use may be nominative fair use. In order to rely on nominative fair use as a defense, the user would need to have only used as much of the mark as was necessary and did nothing to suggest an endorsement or approval by the trademark owner.

Nominative fair use comes up in a variety of situations.

One situation involves compatibility advertising; use a third party’s trademark in order to inform the consuming public about a product’s fit with another product. The Supreme Court encourages the use of third party trademarks in compatibility advertising because it “assists consumers and furthers the societal interest in the fullest possible dissemination of information.” Whether compatibility advertising has morphed into an ad that creates the likelihood of consumer confusion is in the detail of the advertisement copy itself and whether it is factually ambiguous. This is why, in the case of comparative or compatibility advertising, courts consider factors such as the following: (1) whether the use of the plaintiff’s mark is necessary to describe both the plaintiff’s product or service and the defendant’s product or service, that is, whether the product or service is not readily identifiable without use of the mark; (2) whether the defendant uses only so much of the plaintiff’s mark as is necessary to identify the product or service; and (3) whether the defendant did anything that would, in conjunction with the mark, suggest sponsorship or endorsement by the plaintiff holder, that is, whether the defendant’s conduct or language reflects the true or accurate relationship between plaintiff’s and defendant’s products or services.  (Depending on what Circuit you are in, these factors may be in addition to the factors normally considered when engaging in a likelihood of confusion analysis).

In the case of comparative or compatibility advertising, it seems that the first factor would almost always be answered in the affirmative; how can one describe how a product is compatible with a competitor’s product without mentioning the competitor’s product by name.

It is in analyzing the second nominative fair use factor that the issue of prominence comes into play; how prominently was the competitor’s mark featured on the defendant’s products. If the defendant uses the competitor’s mark too prominently – places too much of an emphasis on the competitor’s mark – the defendant will have stepped over the line into likelihood of confusion. This was the case in Nespresso USA, Inc v. Africa America Coffee Trading Co.; a prior case Nespresso brought (and won by default judgment) based on Africa America’s use of “Nespresso compatible” in connection with the sale of single serving coffee capsules.

It is in connection with the third nominative fair use factor that disclaimers come into play. Disclaimers can weigh against a finding of likelihood of confusion, but not always.  This was the case in Weight Watchers Int’l, Inc. v. Stouffer Corp., which dealt with advertisements for Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine product and its compatibility with the Weight Watchers points exchange diet program. In its advertisements, Stouffer mounted a campaign based on the Weight Watchers point exchange compatibility of certain of its Lean Cuisine frozen food products. In particular, the court noted one Stouffer magazine ad which read: “Lean Cuisine Entrees Present 25 Ways To Get More Satisfaction From Your Weight Watchers Program,” and then in smaller letters, “Weight Watchers Exchanges For Lean Cuisine Entrees.” The Stouffer ad contained a disclaimer that the exchanges it lists are based solely on published Weight Watchers information, and that the list of exchanges does not imply approval or endorsement of the Lean Cuisine entrees by Weight Watchers. Disclaimers often can reduce or eliminate consumer confusion; however each disclaimer must be judged by considering the business and its consumers, as well as the proximity of the disclaimer to the infringing statements. Here the court noted that Stouffer’s disclaimer appeared in minuscule print on the very bottom of the ad and because of the location and size of the disclaimer, it does not effectively eliminate the misleading impression conveyed in the ad’s large headline.

A good comparative or compatibility advertisement requires solid legal analysis as well as compelling copy. The lesson here is that brands and advertising agencies should get legal input before using a third party’s trademark in advertisements or otherwise in connection with its products or services.