Consumers Have Standing to Challenge Trademark Registrations
January 3 2019
The Trademark Trial and Appeals Board recently issued an interesting decision regarding standing to oppose the registration of trademark applications. United Trademark Holdings, Inc. filed for registration of the mark RAPUNZEL for use in conjunction with dolls and toy figures. However, after the USPTO’s examining attorney published the mark for opposition, a law professor filed a notice of opposition, alleging that Applicant’s mark failed to function as a trademark on the grounds that it is synonymous with the name of a well-known childhood fairytale character, which has long been in the public domain.
In response to the notice of opposition, the applicant filed a motion to dismiss claiming the opposer lacks standing because she is not a competitor and has not used the mark in connection with the manufacturer or sale of dolls. The TTAB disagreed, stating that “Consumers, like competitors, may have a real interest in keeping merely descriptive or generic words in the public domain.” Apparently, the TTAB was receptive to the opposer’s argument that “she has purchased and continues to purchase said goods and that registration of the applied-for mark by applicant would constrain the marketplace of such goods sold under the name ‘Rapunzel,’ raise prices of ‘Rapunzel’ dolls offered by other manufacturers.” Accepting this argument, the TTAB held the opposer’s allegations sufficient to establish that she has a direct and personal interest in the outcome of the proceeding, in accordance with the “liberal threshold” established in Ritchie v. Simpson, a precedential opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
The TTAB reiterated the Federal Circuit’s holding that, “In no case has this court ever held that one must have a specific commercial interest, not shared by the general public, in order to have standing as an opposer.” Instead, “the crux of the matter is not how many others share one’s belief that one will be damaged by the registration, but whether that belief is reasonable and reflects a real interest in the issue.” “Consumers, like competitors, may have a real interest in keeping merely descriptive or generic words in the public domain, (1) to prevent the owner of a mark from inhibiting competition in the sale of particular goods; and (2) to maintain freedom of the public to use the language involved, thus avoiding the possibility of harassing infringement suits by the registrant against others who use the mark when advertising or describing their own products.”
In light of the above, members of the consuming public may have a real interest in preventing exclusive appropriation of merely descriptive or generic terms by trademark owners. As such, consumers are entitled to challenge the registration of trademarks through opposition proceedings before the TTAB.