One of my favorite pastimes is perusing the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Trademark Trial and Appeals Board’s (TTAB) records for disputes involving cannabis, hemp and CBD because there are often valuable lessons to be learned. One such record is the pending Notice of Opposition filed by Heineken Asia Pacific against Hemp Beer Inc., a Colorado company making hemp beer.
As a little bit of background on the trademark opposition process, the owner of a registered trademark can file a Notice of Opposition against a trademark applicant when the opposer believes that the applicant’s pending mark infringes on the opposer’s registered trademark rights. In this case, Heineken owns eight U.S. federal trademark registrations for TIGER, TIGER WHITE, TIGER BLACK, and multiple other variations on the “tiger” marks for “beer, ale, lager, stout, pilsner, porter, and non-alcoholic [malt beverages] beer.”
The applicant in this case, Hemp Beer Inc., makes a hemp beer called “Tiger Hemp Beer,” and has filed for trademark protection with the USPTO for GET THE EYE OF THE TIGER for “beer; beer, ale and lager; craft beers; flavored beer.”
Heineken alleges in its Opposition that “[t]he mark shown in the Opposed Application so resembles the “TIGER” word or design marks previously used in the United States by the Plaintiff, when used or in connection with the goods identified in the Opposed Application, to cause confusion, to cause mistake, or to deceive, and Applicant’s mark is thus unregistrable under § 2(d) of the United States Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §1052(d), as amended.”
Now, perhaps the applicant did a search of the TESS database prior to filing its application, and came up with no hits for “get the eye of the tiger” in Class 32 (the class that covers beer). However, a hard lesson that many applicants have learned is that one mark does not need to be identical to another in order to infringe that other mark. And a quick look at Hemp Beer’s branding quickly reveals that they are using a mark (“Tiger Hemp Beer”) that is even more similar to Heineken’s TIGER registrations than the mark for which they’ve filed for federal trademark protection (and it is possible that Heineken has taken separate action on this account).
This serves as a good reminder to conduct a trademark clearance search prior to filing your federal trademark application to make sure that there are no existing “confusingly similar” trademarks to the mark you propose to use. It is also helpful to keep in mind the factors a court will consider in determining whether two marks are confusingly similar (AMF Inc. v. Sleekcraft Boats):
- Strength of the mark;
- Proximity of the goods;
- Similarity of the marks;
- Evidence of actual confusion;
- Marketing channels used;
- Type of goods and degree of care likely to be exercised by the purchaser;
- Defendant’s intent in selecting the mark; and
- Likelihood of expansion of the product lines.
“Similarity of the marks” is only one factor, and where the goods are very similar, or where the marketing channels and consumer base is the same, a registered mark may be given a broader scope of protection. The analysis for likelihood of confusion can be quite complex.
Before adopting a new cannabis brand name, we recommend consulting with an experienced cannabis trademark attorney and we also recommend having them perform a trademark clearance search to ensure your brand won’t be infringing any existing registrations. Even if you manage to avoid litigation over trademark infringement, you could still open yourself up to an opposition proceeding with the TTAB months or years down the line, which can be expensive and time-intensive, and should be avoided at all costs.