Fraud On The Trademark Office Isn’t What It Used To Be — In re Bose Corp.

With the stroke of a quill pen pulled from their cap or with the tap of a keyboard, the Federal Circuit may have relegated an intensely litigated and debated line of fraud cases to the ancient history books.  Likewise, it may yet send the stock price of Novartis, makers of Maalox, downward.  More on stock prices and Maalox later . . . .

Starting with the seminal case, Medinol Ltd. v. Neuro Vasx, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has held that the trademark applicant or registrant commits fraud by claiming the use of a mark in connection with identified products or services when it actually did not use the mark on all of the claimed products or services.  The standard that the Board applied was whether the applicant or registrant made a material representation of fact that it knew or should have known to be false.  The penalty for such fraud was typically death to the trademark registration or at least to the registration of the offending class of products or services.  From 2003 until as late as June of this year with theEsprit IP Limited v. Mellbeck Ltd decision (visit Christina Frangiosa’s Privacy and IP Law Blog for more on the case), this had been the state of the law with a few tweaks here and there as the Board soften the impact of the Medinol cases.

This line of cases kept many a trademark attorney up at night wondering what would happen to their clients’ valuable portfolios of trademarks registrations if subjected to a Medinol challenge.  Trademark attorneys and their clients implemented a number of creative strategies, but the concern that the registrations might be canceled must have caused many to gulp down untold amounts of Maalox that surely sent the stock price soaring.

Perhaps it was this health concern that caused the Federal Circuit in In re Bose to strongly state that the Board was applying the wrong standard to establish fraud and effectively applying a negligence standard.    The Federal Circuit was perhaps a bit harsh in its criticism given that the Board had lifted the “knew or should have known” standard from a prior Federal Circuit decision, but it is true that the standard that the Board applied was different than anyone else’s standard for fraud.

Some have argued that after In re Bose, the only penalty for getting caught listing goods or services that are never used with the mark is to correct the registration because: 1) it is difficult to prove fraud and 2) it will be difficult to justify the cost of pursuing fraud claims given the limited relief that  the Board can award.  If the only realistic penalty is to correct the registration, the argument goes, then it will be much more difficult to keep applicants honest.

Even the “reckless disregard” standard that may have been left open is still a high standard to meet in a Board proceeding and although the PTO’s rules prohibit an applicant from making a false statement, until the Board loosens its interpretation of this rule, it provides little comfort to those who are concerned that applicants may cheat if not checked.

John Welch of the TTABlog suggests that one way “to focus an applicant’s or a registrant’s attention on the issue of use would be to . . . require a specimen of use of every item listed in the application or registration.”  He suggests that submitting a catalog or pages printed from the Internet could be deemed sufficient.  I am not sure of the extent legal costs might increase if registration required a specimen showing use of each product or service, but the suggestion is worthy of further discussion.

First, having to submit something — even if the bar of what the PTO will accept is low — will ensure that the applicant does some investigation before claiming use on a multitude of goods and services.  Second, the “I didn’t know” defense to fraud becomes more suspect if the applicant submits a specimen showing use of the mark on a product when the applicant never sold such products or never used the mark on such products.

For now, however, given that attorneys and their clients have less fear of their trademark registrations being canceled, fewer will be gulping down bottles of Maalox.  Perhaps Novartis should offer to fund an appeal of the Federal Circuit’s decision?

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About Dave Rein

Dave Rein focuses on and will continue to focus on copyright, trademark and patent litigation until the National Geographic adds him to its staff of photographers. In addition to counseling and litigating on behalf of the firm’s clients, he also helps clients through the Kansas City Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts where he also serves as a board member. Prior to representing clients, Dave clerked for a federal district court judge who kindly provided invaluable advice and mentorship
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