The notion of ornamental trademark use is one that many of my clients are initially unaware of when they come to me seeking guidance on how to protect their brands. This is unfortunate, because it’s an important issue to understand in the cannabis industry, where the only federal trademark protection we can obtain is for ancillary goods and services. (See here for the limitations of federal trademark protection in the cannabis industry.) The issue of ornamental use comes up frequently in the context of trademarks for apparel.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) may reject a trademark application if the specimen indicates that the use of the mark is merely ornamental or a decorative feature on the goods and does not function as a trademark to indicate the source of the goods. Here is an example of ornamental use provided by the USPTO:
“[A] slogan prominently displayed on the front of a t-shirt may be considered merely ornamental use and not trademark use. That is, most purchasers of the t-shirts would not automatically think the slogan identified the source of the goods but would view the slogan only as a decoration on the goods.”
Of course, not everything displayed on the front of a t-shirt would be considered ornamental and be ineligible for trademark protection. There are a number of factors an examining attorney will consider in determining whether a logo is ornamental or functioning as a source-identifier. The USPTO has explained that,
“a small, neat, and discrete wording/design located on the pocket or breast portion of a garment (for example, a small design of an animal) may create the commercial impression of a trademark, whereas a larger depiction of the same wording/design prominently displayed across the front of a garment may be more likely to be seen as a purely decorative or ornamental feature of the goods. The size, location, dominance, and significance of your mark as applied to the goods are factors used to determine whether your mark functions as a trademark to identify the source of your goods or is merely ornamental. Although there is no definitive method or place to affix a mark to the goods, the location and size of a mark on the goods is part of the environment in which the public perceives the mark and may influence how the mark is perceived.”
It is also important to keep in mind that common expressions and symbols (like the peace symbol or the phrase “Have a Nice Day”) are normally not the type of matter perceived as a trademark. There are three ways in which an applicant can overcome a refusal based on ornamentality:
- By proving inherent distinctiveness;
- By establishing acquired distinctiveness; or
- By showing that the mark is registered for other goods or services, and thus that the applied-for mark serves as a secondary source indicator.
It is possible for an ornamental design to be inherently distinctive if its primary function is to identify the source of the goods, with its ornamental aspect being only incidental.
In building your cannabis brand, it is important to pursue a trademark strategy that does not open any of your marks up to refusal for merely ornamental use. If you intend to pursue trademark protection for ancillary goods like apparel, be certain that your mark is functioning as a source-identifier for that clothing, and isn’t just ornamental in nature. We’ve seen many instances recently of trademark applications that appear ornamental, and those applications will likely be vulnerable to rejection or challenge.