Have you been sitting in your house, properly adhering to stay-at-home standards, and thinking to yourself, “I can’t wait to get some sweet coronavirus merch?” That is at least what recent trademark filers have assumed you were thinking, anyway. Since the beginning of 2020, fifty-three (53) trademark applications have been filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) containing the word “CORONAVIRUS”, and with one hundred seventy-six (176) more being filed containing “COVID.”
The majority of the trademark applications being filed are for printed materials like t-shirts or bumper stickers. “I SURVIVED THE CORONOAVIRUS,” “I SURVIVED COVID-19,” “CATS AGAINST COVID-19,” and “CORONAVIRUS FREE” are just a few examples. A quick search on the website Redbubble, a place where artists upload their designs to be printed on various items and sold, shows a litany of products already on the market.
While it is understandable that budding entrepreneurs may be looking to the current pandemic as a way to make a profit during this difficult economic time and achieve something positive, not every use of “CORONAVIRUS” or “COVID-19” is entitled to federal trademark protection. So, it seems like a good time to take a brief moment to highlight several of the issues you should consider as you seek federal trademark protection, coronavirus-related or otherwise.
First: what is a trademark? It is not just a clever saying – although that could be the beginning concept– but more is needed to establish trademark rights A trademark is a word, phrase, design or combination of both that is used in connection with goods or services and identifies and distinguishes the source of the good or services of one party from those of others. Consumers, for example, want to know when they’re drinking a genuine COCA-COLA product, not someone else’s inferior product with an infringing name slapped on it. Thus, consumers associate you as the source of a product or a service when your trademark appears on that product or service. By applying your trademark to your products or services, for example on a clothing line or a video game product, or in connection with consulting services or health-related services, you are building rights in your trademark.
Also, at the time you file your trademark application, you must either (1) be using the mark in a trademark sense in interstate commerce (that is, actually selling your goods or rendering services to customers between more than one state or U.S. territory, or in commerce between the U.S. and another country); or (2) have a bona fide good faith intent to do so. You cannot obtain a registered trademark by merely requesting a “place holder” so no one else can use the mark on a particular good or service when you do not have a bona fide good faith intent to use the mark. To show a bona fide good faith intent, you should have documentation to back up your intent, such as marketing plans and internal business meeting memoranda.
Further, prior to filing, it would be in your best interest to make sure the mark is available for registration. If a third party has started using an identical or confusingly similar trademark before you in connection with the same or related goods or services, they would be the senior user of the mark and would have priority rights over you. The United States is a use-based nation, meaning that trademark rights are created through the use of the trademark, and not necessarily through registration. For this reason, a trademark search for the availability of a trademark – although not mandatory – is extremely beneficial in determining if your trademark is eligible for registration.
This brings us to an important point regarding use of the trademark. When a trademark is applied to your goods or services, the mark should be used in a “trademark sense” as opposed to an ornamental sense. For example, a t-shirt design with the trademark placed largely front and center would not be considered a trademark use; rather, it would be seen merely as an ornamental use. To function as a trademark, the mark would need to be displayed in a certain way for example, a properly used trademark would be displayed on clothing on its tag or label. The mark could also be displayed on the clothing item itself, usually in a smaller size above the breast, behind the neck, or son the arm of the shirt). For services, the trademark would be used in connection with the services – for instance, on one’s website or brochures describing the services provided under the trademark. A trademark will not register on the Patent and Trademark Office’s Principal Register (where distinctive marks are registered) if it considered merely decorative or “ornamental.”
Also, when considering whether to seek trademark registration, you may wish to consider how long you intend to use the mark, as the registration process can take 9-12 months if all goes smoothly at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and there are no issues with the mark. During that period, you can use the TM symbol on your trademark, but you cannot use the registration symbol until the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office actually issues a registration certificate. Further, there are continued costs associated with maintaining the trademark after registration. As an example, while we may all be thinking about COVID-19 now, hopefully down the road when we are all allowed to see each other’s bright and shining faces in public again, the initial phase of “covidwear” may fade out (as we hope the virus phases out), and you may no longer have a viable business interest in selling your goods or services under that mark. If you have any questions, please contact Kimberly Grimsley firstname.lastname@example.org or Jennifer Mumm email@example.com at Oliver & Grimsley.