COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has issued an initial decision on Ohio State’s attempt to trademark the word ‘THE.’
A letter sent to the university Wednesday indicates the patent office has issued an initial refusal of the application, calling it ‘merely ornamental.’
Registration is refused because the applied-for mark as used on the specimen of record is merely a decorative or ornamental feature of applicant’s clothing and, thus, does not function as a trademark to indicate the source of applicant’s clothing and to identify and distinguish applicant’s clothing from others. Trademark Act Sections 1, 2, and 45, 15 U.S.C. §§1051-1052, 1127; see In re Lululemon Athletica Can. Inc., 105 USPQ2d 1684, 1689 (TTAB 2013); In re Pro-Line Corp., 28 USPQ2d 1141, 1142 (TTAB 1993); TMEP §§904.07(b), 1202.03 et seq.
The size, location, dominance, and significance of the alleged mark as used on the goods are all relevant factors in determining the commercial impression of the applied-for mark. See, e.g., In re Peace Love World Live, LLC, 127 USPQ2d 1400, 1403 (TTAB 2018) (quoting In re Hulting, 107 USPQ2d 1175, 1178 (TTAB 2013)); In re Lululemon Athletica Can. Inc., 105 USPQ2d at 1687 (quoting In re Right-On Co., 87 USPQ2d 1152, 1156 (TTAB 2008)); TMEP §1202.03(a).
With respect to clothing, consumers may recognize small designs or discrete wording as trademarks, rather than as merely ornamental features, when located, for example, on the pocket or breast area of a shirt. See TMEP §1202.03(a). Consumers may not, however, perceive larger designs or slogans as trademarks when such matter is prominently displayed across the front of a t-shirt. See In re Pro-Line Corp., 28 USPQ2d at 1142; In re Dimitri’s Inc., 9 USPQ2d 1666, 1667-68 (TTAB 1988); TMEP §1202.03(a), (b), (f)(i), (f)(ii).
In this case, the submitted specimen shows the applied-for mark, THE, located directly on the upper-center area of the front of the shirt and the front portion of the hat, where ornamental elements often appear. See TMEP §1202.03(a), (b). Furthermore, the mark is displayed in a relatively large size on the clothing such that it dominates the overall appearance of the goods. As such, the applied-for mark appears to be used in a merely decorative manner that would be perceived by consumers as having little or no particular source-identifying significance.
Therefore, consumers would view the applied-for mark as a decorative or ornamental feature of the goods, rather than as a trademark to indicate the source of applicant’s goods and to distinguish them from others.
In appropriate circumstances, applicant may overcome this refusal by satisfying one of the following options:
(1) Submit a different specimen (a verified “substitute” specimen) that was in actual use in commerce at least as early as the filing date of the application (or prior to the filing of an amendment to allege use) and that shows proper trademark use for the identified goods in International Class 25. Examples of acceptable specimens that show non-ornamental use on clothing include hang tags and labels used inside a garment.
(2) Amend to the Supplemental Register, which is a second trademark register for marks not yet eligible for registration on the Principal Register, but which may become capable over time of functioning as source indicators.
(3) Claim acquired distinctiveness under Trademark Act Section 2(f) by submitting evidence that the applied-for mark has become distinctive of applicant’s goods; that is, proof that applicant’s extensive use and promotion of the mark allowed consumers now directly to associate the mark with applicant as the source of the goods.
(4) Submit evidence that the applied-for mark is an indicator of secondary source; that is, proof that the mark is already recognized as a source indicator for other goods or services that applicant sells/offers.
(5) Amend the filing basis to intent to use under Section 1(b). This option will later necessitate additional fee(s) and filing requirements.
For an overview of the response options above and instructions on how to satisfy each option online using the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) form, see the Ornamental Refusal webpage.
Josh Gerben, a trademark lawyer, was one of the first to bring attention to the filing in a tweet he posted last month.
In the video tweet, Gerben says it may be difficult for OSU to get the trademark approved.
“In this case, just putting the word ‘THE’ on the front of a hat, or the front of a shirt, is not sufficent trademark use,” claims Gerben.
Gerben predicted that OSU would receive this initial refusal, but said the university will likely be able to make some changes to further the application.