Does a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) decision that there is a likelihood of confusion between two trademarks prevent federal district court trademark litigation?
The purpose of a trademark is two-fold: to identify the owner or “source” of goods and services, and to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. Therefore, the test for trademark infringement under the Trademark Act of 1946 (Lanham Act), is whether use of a trademark is “likely to cause confusion” with an existing, registered mark. A person generally may neither use nor register a mark that would be “likely to cause confusion” with an existing trademark. If a person uses a mark that one believes is likely to cause confusion, the owner of the registered mark may sue in federal court for trademark infringement. 15 U.S.C. § 1114(1). If a person seeks to register a mark that is likely to cause confusion with an existing registered mark, the owner of the existing registered mark may oppose the registration of the new mark before the TTAB. 15 U.S.C. § 1052(d); see id. §§ 1063, 1067(a).
In B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2899 (US 2014), the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the TTAB’s determination of a likelihood of confusion precludes a trademark litigant from re-litigating that issue in a federal court infringement action involving a likelihood of confusion element.
Plaintiff B&B Hardware Inc. (“B&B”) produced industrial fasteners for the aerospace industry under the mark SEALTIGHT since 1990. B&B’s SEALTIGHT mark was registered with the PTO in 1993. Subsequently, Hargis Industries, Inc. (“Hargis”) adopted the mark SEALTITE for its self-drilling, self-taping screws for use in the metal-building industry. Hargis applied to register SEALTITE with in 1996, but its application was initially refused due to the existence of B&B’s registration. Hargis then sought to cancel the B&B registration alleging that the B&B mark had been abandoned. However, prior to a final decision by the Board, B&B sued Hargis in U.S. District Court alleging infringement of its registered SEALTIGHT trademark.
A jury in the District Court found in favor of Hargis that there was no likelihood of confusion between the marks. The parties appealed to the Eighth Circuit which affirmed the District Court decision and the issue was ultimately taken by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Reversing the Circuit Court, the Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that a likelihood of confusion determination by the TTAB should have preclusive effect as long as the ordinary elements of issue preclusion are met and the usages of the marks are materially the same.
“Issue preclusion” or “res judicata” is an important concept for both fairness and judicial economy. Essentially, litigants should not get two bites at the same apple. In the past, the TTAB would suspend its proceedings if a case was simultaneously pending in District Court.
The key take away for trademark practitioners is strategic since trademark oppositions and cancellations do not result in a damages award or determination of infringement. Yet, its decisions can now be used as the basis for finding infringement in District Court where an adverse decision may have far-reaching effects.