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 Chilling Effects Clearinghouse > Trademark > Notices > Does a C&D Earn Consortium Five Minutes of Fame? (NoticeID 32369, Printer-friendly version

Does a C&D Earn Consortium Five Minutes of Fame?

January 14, 2010


Sender Information:
The New Media Consortium
Sent by: Chief Executive Officer

Austin, TX, US

Recipient Information:


San Francisco, CA, USA

Sent via: emai
Re: Cease & Desist Order: You are using our trademarked name

Dear sirs,

You are using our registered trademark without license or permission.
Please immediately cease and desist further use of the phrase "Five
Minutes of Fame" in any fashion, including the website at

Our trademark., #75790851, was registered in 1999 and granted in 2001,
and can be verified via the search tools at the US Office of Patents
and Trademarks or at

This communication is an official legal notice, to the email address
of record provided by your website. We are prepared to exercise all
options to protect our trademark.

Please advise me via return email when you have removed uses of our
trademark from your site, from any posters or other forms of
marketing, from any other websites, and any other use.

Chief Executive Officer


The New Media Consortium
sparking innovative learning and creativity

Austin, TX 78730

tel [redacted]
fax [redacted]

email [redacted]

FAQ: Questions and Answers

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Question: How can I find out if someone has a valid trademark?

Answer: It isn't easy. In the United States, a trademark owner isn't required to register the mark anywhere, so there is no single central list of them all. Unlike most other nations, registration here is optional.

Many owners do register their marks with the government, however, to better notify the world of their claims. Each state has its own trademark registry for goods and services sold locally. For companies that sell in more than one state, there is a US federal registry that is accessible online through TESS. TESS is searchable by key word as well as by registration number.

Because registration is not required, however, a word might still be a protected mark even if it doesn't appear in any of these locations.

When a company is selecting a new brand, its trademark attorney will usually conduct a "trademark availability" search which will look in many different locations to try and ferret out competing uses of the desired name. Business directories, Internet search engines, telephone directories are other searched sources. Multi-national vendors will search trademark registries in foreign nations as well.

Even the most exhaustive search will not be conclusive, however, but it will usually indicate that if there is any other commercial use, it is probably limited to a very local area. It is OK to use the same mark as another company, so long as the new use isn't likely to confuse consumers.

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Question: Where can I find federal trademark registrations?

Answer: The United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) keeps the US federal registry of trademarks. It has an online search capability, TESS, which contains more than 3 million pending, registered and dead federal trademarks. This database may not be complete. One should check the News page to see how current the information actually is.

Be aware: not all trademarks are contained in the US federal register. There are state trademarks, unregistered (common law marks) and foreign marks as well. A mark does not have to be registered to be valid.

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Question: What can be protected as a trademark?

Answer: You can protect

  • names (such as company names, product names)
  • domain names if they label a product or service
  • images
  • symbols
  • logos
  • slogans or phrases
  • colors
  • product design
  • product packaging (known as trade dress)

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Question: What exactly are the rights a trademark owner has?

Answer: In the US, trademark rights come from actual use of the mark to label one's services or products or they come from filing an application with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that states an intention to use the mark in future commerce. In most foreign countries, trademarks are valid only upon registration.

There are two trademark rights: the right to use (or authorize use) and the right to register.

The person who establishes priority rights in a mark gains the exclusive right to use it to label or identify their goods or services, and to authorize others to do so. According to the Lanham Act, determining who has priority rights in a mark involves establishing who was the first to use it to identify his/her goods.

The PTO determines who has the right to register the mark. Someone who registers a trademark with the intent to use it gains "constructive use" when he/she begins using it, which entitles him/her to nationwide priority in the mark. However, if two users claim ownership of the same mark (or similar marks) at the same time, and neither has registered it, a court must decide who has the right to the mark. The court can issue an injunction (a ruling that requires other people to stop using the mark) or award damages if people other than the owner use the trademark (infringement).

Trademark owners do not acquire the exclusive ownership of words. They only obtain the right to use the mark in commerce and to prevent competitors in the same line of goods or services from using a confusingly similar mark. The same word can therefore be trademarked by different producers to label different kinds of goods. Examples are Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets.

Owners of famous marks have broader rights to use their marks than do owners of less-well-known marks. They can prevent uses of their marks by others on goods that do not even compete with the famous product.

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Question: What are the limits of trademark rights?

Answer: There are many limits, including:

  • Fair Use
    There are two situations where the doctrine of fair use prevents infringement:
    1. The term is a way to describe another good or service, using its descriptive term and not its secondary meaning. The idea behind this fair use is that a trademark holder does not have the exclusive right to use a word that is merely descriptive, since this decreases the words available to describe. If the term is not used to label any particular goods or services at all, but is perhaps used in a literary fashion as part of a narrative, then this is a non-commercial use even if the narrative is commercially sold.
    2. Nominative fair use
      This is when a potential infringer (or defendant) uses the registered trademark to identify the trademark holder's product or service in conjunction with his or her own. To invoke this defense, the defendant must prove the following elements:
      • the product or service cannot be readily identified without the mark
      • he/she only uses as much of the mark as is necessary to identify the goods or services
      • he/she does nothing with the mark to suggest that the trademark holder has given his approval to the defendant
  • Parody Use
    Parodies of trademarked products have traditionally been permitted in print and other media publications. A parody must convey two simultaneous -- and contradictory -- messages: that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody.
  • Non-commercial Use
    If no income is solicited or earned by using someone else's mark, this use is not normally infringement. Trademark rights protect consumers from purchasing inferior goods because of false labeling. If no goods or services are being offered, or the goods would not be confused with those of the mark owner, or if the term is being used in a literary sense, but not to label or otherwise identify the origin of other goods or services, then the term is not being used commercially.
  • Product Comparison and News Reporting
    Even in a commercial use, you can refer to someone else?s goods by their trademarked name when comparing them to other products. News reporting is also exempt.
  • Geographic Limitations
    A trademark is protected only within the geographic area where the mark is used and its reputation is established. For federally registered marks, protection is nationwide. For other marks, geographical use must be considered. For example, if John Doe owns the mark Timothy's Bakery in Boston, there is not likely to be any infringement if Jane Roe uses Timothy's Bakery to describe a bakery in Los Angeles. They don't sell to the same customers, so those customers aren't confused.
  • Non-competing or Non-confusing Use
    Trademark rights only protect the particular type of goods and services that the mark owner is selling under the trademark. Some rights to expansion into related product lines have been recognized, but generally, if you are selling goods or services that do not remotely compete with those of the mark owner, this is generally strong evidence that consumers would not be confused and that no infringement exists. This defense may not exist if the mark is a famous one, however. In dilution cases, confusion is not the standard, so use on any type of good or service might cause infringement by dilution of a famous mark.

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Question: What facts should a C&D include?

Answer: Recitation of Facts. Read this section of the letter carefully. It should contain some or all of the following information:
(1) the trademark that is allegedly being infringed;
(2) the trademark, domain name or other use that is allegedly doing the infringing;
(3) the products and services on which your opponent uses the allegedly infringed mark;
(4) the date your opponent commenced such use; and
(5) the registration numbers, if the trademarks are registered with the Patent & Trademark Office.

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Question: Does the product or service on which I am using the mark matter? Do dates matter?

Answer: It matters if the mark is not famous. The C&D should disclose your opponent?s products and/or services and the date on which it commenced use of the allegedly infringed mark. This will help you guesstimate whether a likelihood of confusion between the marks exists. For instance, if your opponent uses ?opera? on truffles and you use "opera" on silk gloves, consumers are not likely to confuse the products. If the mark is determined by a court to be famous, however, confusion is irrelevant and [non-fair] use on any type of goods may be an infringement.

The date on which your opponent began using the mark is significant because a junior (later) user cannot displace a senior (first) user in the senior user?s geographic region. In other words, if you have owned a chain of donut shops called "Lucky Donuts," with locations in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut since 1943, a national chain called "Lucky Donuts" founded in 1979 has no trademark infringement claim against you in the NJ-NY-CT tri-state area. If your opponent has begun using its allegedly infringed mark after your use, you have another reason to question the merit of the C&D.

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Question: What defenses are there to trademark infringement or dilution?

Answer: Defendants in a trademark infringement or dilution claim can assert basically two types of affirmative defense: fair use or parody.

Fair use occurs when a descriptive mark is used in good faith for its primary, rather than secondary (trademark), meaning, and no consumer confusion is likely to result. So, for example, a cereal manufacturer may be able to describe its cereal as consisting of "all bran," without infringing upon Kelloggs' rights in the mark "All Bran." Such a use is purely descriptive, and does not invoke the secondary meaning of the mark. Similarly, in one case, a court held that the defendant's use of "fish fry" to describe a batter coating for fish was fair use and did not infringe upon the plaintiff's mark "Fish-Fri." Zatarain's, Inc. v. Oak Grove Smokehouse, Inc., 698 F.2d 786 (5th Cir. 1983). Such uses are privileged because they use the terms only in their purely descriptive sense.

Some courts have recognized a somewhat different, but closely-related, fair-use defense, called nominative use. Nominative use occurs when use of a term is necessary for purposes of identifying another producer's product, not the user's own product. For example, in a recent case, the newspaper USA Today ran a telephone poll, asking its readers to vote for their favorite member of the music group New Kids on the Block. The New Kids on the Block sued USA Today for trademark infringement. The court held that the use of the trademark "New Kids on the Block" was a privileged nominative use because: (1) the group was not readily identifiable without using the mark; (2) USA Today used only so much of the mark as reasonably necessary to identify it; and (3) there was no suggestion of endorsement or sponsorship by the group. The basic idea is that use of a trademark is sometimes necessary to identify and talk about another party's products and services. When the above conditions are met, such a use will be privileged. New Kids on the Block v. News America Publishing, Inc., 971 F.2d 302 (9th Cir. 1992).

Finally, certain parodies of or using trademarks may be permissible if they are not too directly tied to commercial use. The basic idea here is that artistic and editorial parodies of trademarks serve a valuable critical function, and that this critical function is entitled to some degree of First Amendment protection. The courts have adopted different ways of incorporating such First Amendment interests into the analysis. For example, some courts have applied the general "likelihood of confusion" analysis, using the First Amendment as a factor in the analysis. Other courts have expressly balanced First Amendment considerations against the degree of likely confusion. Still other courts have held that the First Amendment effectively trumps trademark law, under certain circumstances. In general, however, the courts appear to be more sympathetic to the extent that parodies are less commercial, and less sympathetic to the extent that parodies involve commercial use of the mark.

So, for example, a risqu? parody of an L.L. Bean magazine advertisement (L.L. Beam's "Back to School Sex Catalog") was found not to constitute infringement. L.L. Bean, Inc. v. Drake Publishers, Inc., 811 F.2d 26, 28 (1st Cir. 1987). Similarly, the use of a pig-like character named "Spa'am" in a Muppet movie was found not to violate Hormel's rights in the trademark "Spam." Hormel Foods Corp. v. Jim Henson Prods., 73 F.3d 497 (2d Cir. 1996). On the other hand, "Gucchie Goo" diaper bags were found not to be protected under the parody defense, Gucci Shops, Inc. v. R.H. Macy & Co., 446 F. Supp. 838 (S.D.N.Y. 1977). Similarly, posters bearing the logo "Enjoy Cocaine" were found to violate the rights of Coca-Cola in the slogan "Enjoy Coca-Cola", Coca-Cola Co. v. Gemini Rising, Inc., 346 F. Supp. 1183 (E.D.N.Y. 1972). In short -- although the courts recognize a parody defense, the precise contours of that defense are difficult to outline with any precision.

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Question: What about common words that are used for many purposes?

Answer: Common words and alphabetical letters can be protectable trademarks if they are used in arbitrary or unusual ways. One cannot trademark DIESEL to sell that generic type of fuel, otherwise no other diesel fuel dealer could use the word to identify the product. However, one could trademark DIESEL as a brand of ice cream. The owner of the ice cream mark can't use its rights to prevent fuel dealers from using the word on their station pumps nor can it prevent anyone else from using the word for non-trademark purposes, such as a website listing diesel fuel dealers.

In general, the more a mark describes the good or service that it labels, the less strong the trademark protection it gets and the more freedom others have to use the same word for other purposes.

See also this question on the strength of trademarks.

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Question: What is non-commercial use of a trademark? Is non-commercial use infringment of a trademark?

Answer: Non-commercial use of a trademark is generally that use which is not related to the sale of goods or services. If no funds are solicited or earned by using someone else's mark, this use is not normally infringement.

Trademark rights protect consumers from purchasing inferior goods because of false labeling. If no goods or services are being offered, or the goods would not be confused with those of the mark owner, or if the term is being used in a literary sense, but not to label or otherwise identify the origin of other goods or services, then the term is not being used commercially.

One example of non-commercial use is descriptive use (where the name is used to describe something, such as "He went to MacDonald's for lunch" or "She was wearing the MacDonald tartan.")

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Question: Can I use a trademark in my blog's name or in the title of a blog post?

Answer: Yes, if it is relevant to the subject of your discussion and does not confuse people into thinking the trademark holder endorses your content. Courts have found that non-misleading use of trademarks in URLs and domain names of critical websites is fair. (Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp. v. Faber, URL; Bosley Medical Institute v. Kremer, domain name Companies can get particularly annoyed about these uses because they may make your post appear in search results relating to the company, but that doesn't give them a right to stop you.

Sometimes, you might use a trademark without even knowing someone claims it as a trademark. That is permitted as long as you're not making commercial use in the same category of goods or services for which the trademark applies. Anyone can sell diesel fuel even though one company has trademarked DIESEL for jeans. Only holders of "famous" trademarks, like CocaCola, can stop use in all categories, but even they can't block non-commercial uses of their marks.

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