Last month, Guest Kat Mike Mireles published a post— “The USPTO Moves to Clear ‘Trademark Deadwood’.” Mike reported on the latest steps intended by the United States Patent and Trademark Office to clean “deadwood” from the trademark registry. For several years, the claim has been expressed (not just in the U.S.) that there are too many unused registered trademarks, with the result that the registry suffers from trademark clutter. Moreover, it is claimed, unless we get control of the deadwood issue, the task of trademark clearance will one day become well-nigh impossible.
The impetus for this interest in trademark deadwood seems to have come from an attempt to make big data relevant to trademark policy—what better subject than deadwood and clutter to do so. The proposed solution in the U.S. is to tighten the evidentiary requirements supporting proof of use. In this way, it is presumed, the deadwood problem will be ameliorated. (There has also been discussion on shortening the period after registration by which evidence of use must be filed, but this change does not appear be part of the current intended rules.)
Sorry, but this Kat has difficulty in understanding these claims. There is, in principle, a virtually limitless number of inherently distinctive marks that can meet the test for registration. (We will call them “fanciful” marks, as the term has been developed in U.S. practice.) This is especially so when one also takes into account that a mark is protectable with respect to specified goods or services. The prime limitation on the reservoir of fanciful marks is the creativity of the person charged with coming up with a new mark. True, as more fanciful marks are registered, the task of creating a new fanciful mark may be marginally more difficult, but the basic principle remains: there is virtually no limit on the number of potential fanciful marks.
This means that when the claim is made that deadwood and resulting clutter on the registry place an increasingly heavy burden on clearance, what is really being said is that the mark under consideration is straddling the divide between being descriptive and suggestive. As trademark Kat readers will know, U.S. practice has rested for decades on the principle that “descriptive” marks, which are not inherently distinctive, require proof of sufficient use as a prerequisite for registration (so-called “secondary meaning”) On the other hand, “suggestive” marks are deemed inherently distinctive, obviating the need for evidence of sufficient use to support registration.
Thus, when we focus on the real issue, the alleged problem of deadwood is another way of saying that too many of this type of mark is being accepted without the need to prove secondary meaning, i.e., the mark has been found to be suggestive and not descriptive. It is presumed that a mark for which secondary meaning has been proved will not likely fall into rapid disuse, i.e., it will not become trademark deadwood. Seen in this way, trademark deadwood is really about registry practice in distinguishing between inherent and acquired distinctiveness. (The renewal process serves as an additional check on this, by requiring the periodic payment of a renewal fee. A trademark owner will likely pay such a fee only if the mark is actually being used.) All of this points to the conclusion—the alleged issue of deadwood and trademark clutter is a solution in search of a problem.
That means putting “deadwood” in its proper perspective. There were few U.S. frontier settlements that enjoyed the aura of Deadwood, South Dakota. The discovery of gold and the flourishing of brothels that followed the prospectors; General George Armstrong Custer (of “Last Stand” infamy); the near-by Black Hills; and the female adventurer and gunslinger, Calamity Jane, all contributed to this small town punching above its weight as an American icon. And then there is the legendary 19th century rascal, “Wild Bill” Hickok, who was shot to death in Deadwood over a round of poker. For poker Kats, the notion of the “dead man’s hand”—black aces and eights-- comes from this event; it was the hand held by Hickok at the time of his death (in Deadwood, of course).
All of this well and good, even interesting. One thing though—please keep “Deadwood” in South Dakota and far away from trademark policy and practice.