TMEP 1210.02(b)(iv): "America" or "American" and Similar Terms in Marks

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1210.02(b)(iv)    "America" or "American" and Similar Terms in Marks

When terms such as "AMERICA," "AMERICAN," and "USA" appear in marks, determining whether the term or the entire mark should be considered geographic can be particularly difficult. There is no simple or mechanical answer to the question of how to treat "AMERICA" or "AMERICAN" in a mark. The examining attorney must evaluate each mark on a case-by-case basis. The examining attorney must consider the entire context, the type of goods or services at issue, the geographic origin of the goods or services and, most importantly, the overall commercial impression engendered by the mark at issue. The following principles, developed in the case law, should provide guidance in reaching a judgment in a given case.

  • (1) If "AMERICA" or "AMERICAN" is used in a way that primarily denotes the United States origin of the goods or services, then the term is primarily geographically descriptive. See, e.g., Am. Diabetes Ass’n, Inc. v. Nat'l Diabetes Ass’n, 533 F. Supp. 16, 214 USPQ 231 (E.D. Pa. 1981), aff’d, 681 F.2d 804 (3d Cir. 1982) (AMERICAN DIABETES ASSOCIATION held primarily geographically descriptive); In re Monograms Am., Inc., 51 USPQ2d 1317 (TTAB 1999) (MONOGRAMS AMERICA primarily geographically descriptive of consultation services for owners of monogramming shops); In re BankAmerica Corp., 231 USPQ 873 (TTAB 1986) (BANK OF AMERICA held primarily geographically descriptive); Am. Paper & Plastic Products, Inc. v. Am. Automatic Vending Corp., 152 USPQ 117 (TTAB 1966) (AMERICAN AUTOMATIC VENDING held primarily geographically descriptive).

    One commentator refers to such marks as exhibiting an "unadorned" use of "AMERICA" or "AMERICAN." J. Thomas McCarthy, McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition, §14:11 (4th ed. 2006). Many service marks (e.g., association-type marks) fall squarely into this category. See, e.g., In re U.S. Cargo, Inc., 49 USPQ2d 1702 (TTAB 1998) (U.S. CARGO primarily geographically descriptive of towable trailers carrying cargo and vehicles).

  • (2) If a composite mark does not primarily convey geographic significance overall, or if "AMERICA" or "AMERICAN" is used in a nebulous or suggestive manner, then it is inappropriate to treat "AMERICA" or "AMERICAN" as primarily geographically descriptive. See, e.g., Hamilton-Brown Shoe Co. v. Wolf Bros. & Co., 240 U.S. 251 (1916) (THE AMERICAN GIRL held not primarily geographically descriptive for shoes); Am. Plan Corp. v. State Loan & Fin. Corp., 365 F.2d 635, 150 USPQ 767 (3d Cir. 1966), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 1011, 152 USPQ 844 (1967) (AMERICAN PLAN CORPORATION held not primarily geographically descriptive for insurance brokerage services); Wilco Co. v. Automatic Radio Mfg. Co., Inc., 255 F. Supp. 625, 151 USPQ 24 (D. Mass. 1966) (ALL AMERICAN held not primarily geographically descriptive); In re Jim Crockett Promotions Inc., 5 USPQ2d 1455 (TTAB 1987) (THE GREAT AMERICAN BASH held not primarily geographically descriptive of wrestling exhibitions).

    The introduction of a nuance, even a subtle one, may remove a mark from the primarily geographically descriptive category. This area calls for the most difficult analysis. The examining attorney must determine whether the overall commercial impression is something other than primarily geographic – for example, due to double meanings or shades of suggestive meanings.

  • (3) If "AMERICA" or "AMERICAN" is used in virtually any manner with goods or services that are not from the United States, then the examining attorney should determine whether the term is primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive under §2(e)(3) and/or deceptive under §2(a). See, e.g., Singer Mfg. Co. v. Birginal-Bigsby Corp., 319 F.2d 273, 138 USPQ 63 (C.C.P.A. 1963) (AMERICAN BEAUTY held primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive when used on Japanese-made sewing machines); In re Biesseci S.p.A., 12 USPQ2d 1149 (TTAB 1989) (AMERICAN SYSTEM and design, with a disclaimer of AMERICAN, held deceptive for clothing manufactured in Italy). Cf. In re Salem China Co., 157 USPQ 600 (TTAB 1968) (AMERICAN LIMOGES held deceptive under §2(a) when used on china not made in Limoges, France). In this situation, even marks that arguably convey a non-geographic commercial impression must be viewed with great skepticism.
  • (4) If "AMERICA" or "AMERICAN" appears in a phrase or slogan, the examining attorney must evaluate the entire mark to determine whether it is merely descriptive as laudatory, or even incapable. In re Boston Beer Co. L.P., 198 F.3d 1370, 53 USPQ2d 1056 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (THE BEST BEER IN AMERICA so highly laudatory and descriptive as applied to beer and ale that it is incapable of acquiring distinctiveness); In re Carvel Corp., 223 USPQ 65 (TTAB 1984) (AMERICA’S FRESHEST ICE CREAM held incapable); In re Wileswood, Inc., 201 USPQ 400 (TTAB 1978) (AMERICA’S BEST POPCORN! and AMERICA’S FAVORITE POPCORN! held merely descriptive of unpopped popcorn); Kotzin v. Levi Strauss & Co., 111 USPQ 161 (Comm’r Pats. 1956) (AMERICA’S FINEST JEANS and AMERICA’S FINEST for overalls held not confusingly similar and incapable by inference).

    Typically these marks primarily extol the quality or popularity of the goods or services and secondarily denote geographic origin. See TMEP §1209.03(n) regarding use of terms such as "AMERICA" and "AMERICAN" in a way that is merely descriptive or generic.