TMEP 1209.03(g): Foreign Equivalents

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1209.03(g)    Foreign Equivalents

The foreign equivalent of a merely descriptive English word is no more registrable than the English word itself. "[A] word taken from a well-known foreign modern language, which is, itself, descriptive of a product, will be so considered when it is attempted to be registered as a trade-mark in the United States for the same product." In re N. Paper Mills, 64 F.2d 998, 1002, 17 USPQ 492, 493 (C.C.P.A. 1933). See In re Tokutake Indus. Co., 87 USPQ2d 1697 (TTAB 2008) (AYUMI and its Japanese-character equivalent held merely descriptive for footwear where the evidence, including applicant's own admissions, indicated that the primary meaning of applicant's mark is "walking"); In re Oriental Daily News, Inc., 230 USPQ 637 (TTAB 1986) (Chinese characters that mean ORIENTAL DAILY NEWS held merely descriptive of newspapers); In re Geo. A. Hormel & Co., 227 USPQ 813 (TTAB 1985) (SAPORITO, an Italian word meaning "tasty," held merely descriptive because it describes a desirable characteristic of applicant’s dry sausage).

Although words from modern languages are generally translated into English, the doctrine of foreign equivalents is not an absolute rule, but merely a guideline. The doctrine should be applied only when it is likely that the ordinary American purchaser would stop and translate the foreign word into its English equivalent. See Palm Bay Imps., Inc. v. Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Maison Fondee en 1772, 396 F.3d 1369, 1377, 73 USPQ2d 1689, 1696 (Fed. Cir. 2005); see also In re Highlights for Children, Inc., 118 USPQ2d 1268, 1271 (TTAB 2016) (noting that the doctrine of foreign equivalents applies even when the foreign wording in the mark will appear with its English equivalent, because ordinary purchasers will still recognize the terms as equivalents due to the provided translation ). Thus, an examining attorney will generally apply the doctrine when the relevant English translation is literal and direct, the term comes from a common, modern language, and there is no contradictory evidence of another relevant meaning. See In re Sadoruo Grp. Ltd., 105 USPQ2d 1484, 1485 TTAB 2012). "The 'ordinary American purchaser' in this context refers to the ordinary American purchaser who is knowledgeable in the foreign language.... [Defining "ordinary American purchaser" as the "average American buyer"] would write the doctrine out of existence." In re Thomas, 79 USPQ2d 1021, 1024 (TTAB 2006). The "ordinary American purchaser" includes "all American purchasers, including those proficient in a non-English language who would ordinarily be expected to translate words into English." In re Spirits Int’l, N.V., 563 F.3d 1347, 1352, 90 USPQ2d 1489, 1492 (Fed. Cir. 2009); see In re Highlights for Children, Inc., 118 USPQ2d at 1271 ("The ‘ordinary American purchaser’ is not limited to those purchasers who speak only English.").

While foreign words are generally translated into English for purposes of determining descriptiveness, foreign words from dead or obscure languages may be so unfamiliar to the American buying public that they should not be translated into English for descriptiveness purposes. See Enrique Bernat F. S.A. v. Guadalajara Inc., 210 F.3d 439, 443, 54 USPQ2d 1497, 1499 (5th Cir. 2000), reh’g denied 218 F.3d 745 (2000); cf. Gen. Cigar Co. v. G.D.M. Inc., 988 F. Supp. 647, 45 USPQ2d 1481 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). The determination of whether a language is "dead" must be made on a case-by-case basis, based upon the meaning that the term would have to the relevant purchasing public.

Example: Latin is generally considered a dead language. However, if evidence exists that the relevant purchasing public still uses a Latin term (e.g., if the term appears in current dictionaries or news articles), then that Latin term is not considered dead. The same analysis should be applied to other uncommon languages.

Note that marks comprised of a term from a foreign language used with an English term may be found registrable if the commercial impression created by the combination differs from that which would be created by two English words. See In re Johanna Farms Inc., 8 USPQ2d 1408 (TTAB 1988) (LA YOGURT for yogurt registrable on Principal Register with a disclaimer of "YOGURT"); In re Sweet Victory, Inc., 228 USPQ 959 (TTAB 1986) (GLACE LITE held not descriptive for ice creams, sherbets, frozen yogurts, and nondairy frozen desserts); In re Universal Package Corp., 222 USPQ 344 (TTAB 1984) (LE CASE not merely descriptive of jewelry boxes and gift boxes and, therefore, registrable with a disclaimer of "CASE").

See TMEP §§809–809.03 for information regarding how to determine the meaning of non-English wording in a mark. See also TMEP §§1207.01(b)(vi)–1207.01(b)(vi)(C), 1210.10, and 1211.01(a)(vii) regarding the doctrine of foreign equivalents.