TMEP 1207.01(d)(viii): Consent Agreements

This is the October 2015 Edition of the TMEP

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1207.01(d)(viii)    Consent Agreements

The term “consent agreement” generally refers to an agreement between parties in which one party (e.g., a prior registrant) consents to the registration of a mark by the other party (e.g., an applicant for registration of the same mark or a similar mark), or in which each party consents to the registration of an identical or similar mark by the other party.

An applicant may submit a consent agreement in an attempt to overcome a refusal of registration under §2(d) of the Act, or in anticipation of a refusal to register. However, an examining attorney may not solicit a consent agreement.

A consent agreement may take a number of different forms and arise under a variety of circumstances, but, when present, it is “but one factor to be taken into account with all of the other relevant circumstances bearing on the likelihood of confusion referred to in §2(d).” In re N.A.D. Inc., 754 F.2d 996, 224 USPQ 969, 971 (Fed. Cir. 1985).

“Naked” consent agreements (i.e., agreements that contain little more than a prior registrant’s consent to registration of an applied-for mark and possibly a mere statement that source confusion is believed to be unlikely) are typically considered to be less persuasive than agreements that detail the particular reasons why the relevant parties believe no likelihood of confusion exists and specify the arrangements undertaken by the parties to avoid confusing the public. See In re E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 476 F.2d 1357, 1362, 177 USPQ 563, 568 (C.C.P.A 1973) (noting that “[i]n considering agreements, a naked ‘consent’ may carry little weight,” but “[t]he weight to be given more detailed agreements... should be substantial”); see also In re Donnay Int’l, S.A., 31 USPQ2d 1953, 1956 (TTAB 1994) (“[T]he more information that is in the consent agreement as to why the parties believe confusion to be unlikely, and the more evidentiary support for such conclusions in the facts of record or in the way of undertakings by the parties, the more we can assume that the consent is based on a reasoned assessment of the marketplace, and consequently the more weight the consent will be accorded.”); In re Permagrain Prods., Inc., 223 USPQ 147 (TTAB 1984) (finding a consent agreement submitted by applicant did not alter the conclusion that confusion was likely, because the agreement was “naked” in that it merely indicated that each party would recognize, and refrain from interfering with, the other’s use of their respective marks and that the applicant would not advertise or promote its mark without its company name, but the agreement did not restrict the markets or potential customers for their goods in such a way as to avoid confusion);cf. In re Wacker Neuson SE, 97 USPQ2d 1408 (TTAB 2010) (finding an otherwise “thin consent” to be viable and reversing a §2(d) refusal, in view of the relationship of the parties, the provisions of a licensing agreement executed by the parties, and the fact that the goods and services offered under both parties’ marks were manufactured and sold by applicant).

If a consent agreement makes representations about both parties’ beliefs regarding the likelihood of confusion and/or indicates that both parties have agreed to undertake certain actions to avoid confusion, then it should be signed by both parties, or by individuals with legal authority to bind the respective parties. In some instances, however, a consent document might be signed only by the registrant, because only the registrant has provided its consent, agreed to take certain actions, or made representations as to the likelihood of confusion. The absence of applicant’s signature on the document in such cases does not necessarily render the document unacceptable, but, like any other consent document, its persuasive value should be determined in light of all other evidence in the record. See, e.g., Donnay Int’l, 31 USPQ2d at 1956-57 (finding that a consent letter signed only by the registrant and consisting merely of registrant’s consent to applicant’s registration and use of the applied-for mark was entitled to limited weight, but nonetheless concluding that it served to “tip the scales” in favor of reversing the §2(d) refusal, especially in view of the minimal evidence supporting the conclusion that confusion was likely); In re Palm Beach Inc., 225 USPQ 785, 787-88 (TTAB 1985) (concluding there was no reasonable likelihood of confusion as to applicant’s and registrant’s marks, based on, inter alia, the different nature of the parties’ goods, two consent letters signed only by owners of the cited registration, and an affidavit of an officer of applicant’s subsidiary indicating that actual confusion had not occurred during the more than 45 years of the marks’ coexistence and that future likelihood of confusion was believed to be unlikely).

In the In re E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. decision, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals stated as follows:

[W]hen those most familiar with use in the marketplace and most interested in precluding confusion enter agreements designed to avoid it, the scales of evidence are clearly tilted. It is at least difficult to maintain a subjective view that confusion will occur when those directly concerned say it won’t. A mere assumption that confusion is likely will rarely prevail against uncontroverted evidence from those on the firing line that it is not.

476 F.2d at 1363, 177 USPQ at 568.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has indicated that consent agreements should be given great weight, and that the USPTO should not substitute its judgment concerning likelihood of confusion for the judgment of the real parties in interest without good reason, that is, unless the other relevant factors clearly dictate a finding of likelihood of confusion. See In re Four Seasons Hotels Ltd., 987 F.2d 1565, 26 USPQ2d 1071 (Fed. Cir. 1993); In re N.A.D. Inc., 754 F.2d 996, 224 USPQ 969 (Fed. Cir. 1985); see also du Pont, 476 F.2d at 1362-63, 177 USPQ at 568; cf. In re Mastic Inc., 829 F.2d 1114, 4 USPQ2d 1292 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (affirming TTAB’s holding that applicant’s mark was barred by §2(d), because the provided consent to register was essentially a “naked” consent and all other relevant factors weighed in favor of a conclusion that confusion was likely).

Thus, examining attorneys should give substantial weight to a proper consent agreement. When an applicant and registrant have entered into a credible consent agreement and, on balance, the other factors do not dictate a finding of likelihood of confusion, an examining attorney should not interpose his or her own judgment that confusion is likely.

A consent agreement is not the same as a “concurrent use” agreement. The term “concurrent use” is a term of art that refers to a geographical restriction on the registration. See TMEP §1207.04 regarding concurrent use.