There are important issues to consider when assigning U.S. trademark applications and registrations. U.S. trademark law has specific requirements for trademark assignments that must be met in order for the assignment to be valid. This article provides an overview of the requirements applicable to all trademarks, as well as the special requirements for assignment of intent-to-use–based trademark applications and of applications and registrations based on a Madrid Protocol filing. It is critical that assignments of U.S. trademarks meet these requirements. If they do not and the assignment is challenged by a third party in a trademark opposition or cancellation proceeding or in trademark court litigation, the underlying application or registration can and will be invalidated.
Requirements for All Assignments
U.S. trademark law recognizes that the value of a trademark lies in the goodwill associated with the trademark. “Goodwill” is well defined as representing “the desirability of the goods or services which are identified by the trademark or service mark. 1 J. Thomas McCarthy, McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 2:15 (4th ed. 2014) (hereinafter McCarthy). A trademark is not worth much without the consumer recognition it represents. To that end, Section 10 of the U.S. Trademark Act (Lanham Act) requires that any trademark application or registration must be assigned in writing together with the goodwill of the business in which the mark is used in order to be valid, or with the part of the goodwill connected with the use of/symbolized by the mark. See 15 U.S.C. § 1060(a). This requirement applies regardless of the filing or registration basis. This includes both a corresponding foreign registration under Section 44 of the Lanham Act and an International Registration designating the United States under Section 66 of the Lanham Act. For the avoidance of doubt, the term “goodwill” should be included in all written assignments of U.S. trademarks. In addition, it is good practice to include the applicable U.S. trademark registration or application numbers in all written assignments. Suggested language is as follows:
Assignor does hereby assign to Assignee all right, title and interest in and to U.S. Reg. No. ____________,
together with the goodwill of the business symbolized by the trademark.
Additional Requirements for Assignments of Intent-to-Use Trademark Applications
With respect to an intent-to-use trademark application filed under Section 1(b) of the Lanham Act, the legal requirements of the assignment depend upon whether the trademark owner has begun to use the underlying mark. If use has begun, that owner must file an allegation of use with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in connection with the application. The allegation of use can be in the form of either an Amendment to Allege Use (which is submitted before an application is approved for publication) or a Statement of Use (which is submitted after a Notice of Allowance issues). Once the allegation of use has been filed in connection with the application, the assignment rules are the same as those for use-based trademark applications and registrations, namely, the U.S. trademark application must be assigned in writing together with the goodwill of the business in which the mark is used in order to be valid. See 15 U.S.C. § 1060(a)(1).
If, however, the trademark owner has not yet begun to use the mark, then U.S. trademark law requires that the assignment be made to a successor to the business of the applicant, or portion thereof, to which the mark pertains. See 15 U.S.C. § 1060(a)(1). Therefore, a trademark that is not yet in use in the United States and that is the subject of an intent-to-use–based U.S. trademark application must be transferred together with the part of the ongoing and existing business connected with the mark. The intent of this provision is to prevent trafficking in or profiting from the sale of an intent-to-use trademark application. See Clorox Co. v. Chemical Bank, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d 1098 (T.T.A.B. 1996). “That is, one who merely has an intention to use a mark in a business not yet established really has no ‘trademark’ to sell.” 3 McCarthy § 18:13.
Suggested language for an assignment of an intent-to-use trademark application is as follows:
Assignor does hereby assign to Assignee the mark in U.S. Trademark Application No. ____________, together
with the goodwill of the business symbolized by the trademark. This application is being assigned as part of the
entire business or portion thereof to which the mark pertains, as required by Section 10 of the Trademark Act, 15
U.S.C. § 1060.
Additional Requirements for Assignments of Madrid Protocol Filings
As with intent-to-use trademark applications, additional requirements apply to assignments of Madrid Protocol filings, which are U.S. trademark applications and registrations filed under Section 66 of the Lanham Act as extensions of protection from preexisting international applications or registrations filed through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Specifically, Section 72 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1141, states that an extension of protection to the United States of an International Registration may be assigned, together with the goodwill associated with the mark, only to a person who is a national of, is domiciled in or has a bona fide and effective industrial or commercial establishment in a country that is either (1) party to the Madrid Protocol or (2) a member of an intergovernmental organization that is a party to the Madrid Protocol. See USPTO, Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP) § 1904.06. Furthermore, the owner of an International Registration that designates the United States should also be aware that the transfer of goodwill together with the trademark is required, as it is required with the transfer of all U.S. trademark registrations.
Challenging the Validity of Trademark Assignments in the United States
The validity of an assignment of a U.S. trademark application or registration usually will not be reviewed by the USPTO Assignment Division, because the filing and acceptance of an assignment with the USPTO Assignment Division only confirms that the filer met the USPTO’s minimum filing requirements. The filing and acceptance of an assignment with the USPTO does not confirm the validity of the document. See 37 C.F.R. § 3.54. As the validity of assignments is not examined by the USPTO, the validity may be challenged by a third party when a trademark opposition, cancellation or infringement claim arises.
Challenges Based on No Transfer of Goodwill
If ownership of a U.S. trademark is transferred without the associated goodwill, the transfer is determined to be an “assignment in gross” and can result in an assignee’s losing rights to the assigned trademark. See Sugar Busters LLC v. Brennan, 177 F.3d 258, 265, 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1821, 1824 (5th Cir. 1999). In Sugar Busters, the court of appeals recognized that a transfer of goodwill not only requires a recitation of the required language but also requires that the assignee use the mark on a product or for a service having substantially the same characteristics as the assignor’s services. The U.S. trademark registration that was assigned covered retail store services featuring products and supplies for diabetic people, and the assignee used the mark on diet books only. As such, the court of appeals ruled that there was no goodwill transferred in the assignment in question because the assignor’s SUGAR-BUSTERS retail store services were not sufficiently similar to the assignee’s SUGAR BUSTERS! book to prevent consumer confusion. Thus, the court upheld the invalidation of the underlying registration.
An “assignment in gross” may also be found when the assignor abandons a mark prior to the assignment. In Osmosis Technology, Inc. v. GE Osmonics, Inc., 2004 WL 725457 (T.T.A.B. Mar. 30, 2004), the court ruled that although the written assignment in question included a recitation of a transfer of goodwill, there was no transfer of goodwill because the assignor had abandoned rights in the trademark as a result of its non-use of the mark for six years and no intent to resume use. Therefore, the petitioner could not establish priority from the assignment of an abandoned mark, and its petition to cancel was denied.
It is interesting to note that the petitioner’s registration was not invalidated by the proceeding, as invalidation was not pled by the opposed party.
Challenges Based on Transferring an ITU Application Apart from the Underlying Business
With regard to an intent-to-use U.S. trademark application in which proof of use has not yet been submitted, if ownership of a trademark is transferred without the ongoing and existing business to which the mark pertains, this results in the U.S. trademark application’s being void. If the application itself is void, it is subject to opposition by a third party based on its being void and consequently the resulting registration is subject to cancellation by a third party on the basis of being void. This result was confirmed in the recent case of Central Garden & Pet Co. v. Doskocil Manufacturing Co. 108 U.S.P.Q.2d 1134 (T.T.A.B. 2013). There, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board cancelled a U.S. trademark registration because the underlying application was an intent-to-use application in which use had not yet been submitted and was transferred without the portion of the ongoing and existing business to which the mark pertained. Therefore, the assignment was “contrary to the anti-assignment provision of Trademark Act § 10.” 108 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1150. Furthermore, although the trademark was actually in commercial use at the time of the assignment, the TTAB found this to be irrelevant because the Lanham Act restricts assignments until the filing of an allegation of use with the USPTO. Id. at 1147.
There was a similar finding in Creative Arts by Calloway, LLC v. Christopher Brooks, d/b/a/ The Cab Calloway Orchestra, Civil Action No. 09-CIV-10488 (CS) (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 27, 2012). In Creative Arts, the widow of the late jazz musician Cab Calloway, Mrs. Zulme Calloway, filed an intent-to-use trademark application for the mark CAB CALLOWAY. Shortly after filing the application, and prior to filing proof of use, Mrs. Calloway assigned the application to a company formed by Mrs. Calloway and her children. The assignment did not include a transfer of the ongoing and existing business to which the trademark pertained. The district court concluded that because the assignment of the intent-to-use trademark application did not include a transfer of the business or portion thereof to which the mark pertained, the transfer was void and the underlying trademark application was invalid.
On the other hand, in the case of Philip Restifo v. Power Beverages, LLC, Opposition No. 91181671 (T.T.A.B. Sept. 21, 2011), although there was no specific language in the assignment document that stated the transfer included the “ongoing and existing business” to which the intent-to-use application pertained, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board reviewed the transfer language and other documents I the record and inferred that such a transfer occurred. As a result, the assignment of an intent-to-use trademark application was found to be valid because it included a transfer of the business to which the mark pertained. The TTAB in the Central Garden decision did not address Restifo, but Restifo can be distinguished from Central Garden in that the TTAB in Restifo had additional documents that showed that there was a relationship between the assignor and assignee, including that the assignor was one of the founding members of the assignee company, that helped prove a transfer of the business. On the other hand, in Central Garden, there was no additional evidence in the record to infer a transfer of the business. The case of Amazon Technologies, Inc. v. Wax, 95 U.S.P.Q.2d 1865 (T.T.A.B. 2010), points out that whether an assignment of an intent-to-use U.S. trademark application must meet the requirements of a transfer of the business depends on whether the transfer is truly an assignment. In Amazon, the Board did not invalidate an intent-to-use trademark application in which one joint applicant assigned to the other joint applicant his rights in the trademark, even though the assignment did not include a transfer of the business to which the mark pertained. That was because the transfer was ruled not an assignment that lacked a transfer of the business, but, rather, a relinquishment of rights by one joint owner.
In conclusion, assignments of U.S. trademarks should be drafted and reviewed with attention to detail. What is and is not included with the transfer of the mark itself, as well as to whom the mark is transferred, may jeopardize the validity of the transfer, and the validity of the application or registration being assigned. Likewise, defendants in TTAB proceedings and civil litigation should closely scrutinize the assignment history of plaintiffs trademarks and not hesitate to challenge any improperly assigned trademark.
Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of items in the INTA Bulletin, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.
© 2014 International Trademark Association