TMEP 1211.01(a)(vii): Doctrine of Foreign Equivalents

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1211.01(a)(vii)    Doctrine of Foreign Equivalents

In determining whether a term is primarily merely a surname, the examining attorney must consider whether the term has any meaning in a foreign language. This determination is made from the point of view of American buyers familiar with the foreign language. In re Isabella Fiore, LLC, 75 USPQ2d 1564 (TTAB 2005) (holding FIORE – the Italian equivalent of "Flower" – not primarily merely a surname).

The doctrine of foreign equivalents is not an absolute rule, but merely a guideline, which 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). 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). To support a refusal under §2(e)(4), the record must show that the surname significance is the primary significance. See In re Picone, 221 USPQ 93, 95 (TTAB 1984) (finding evidence that "PICON" is the name of a town and a mountain in Spain and that "piccone" is an Italian word meaning "pick" or "pickax" insufficient to overcome a refusal on the ground that PICONE is primarily merely a surname).

In In re Isabella Fiore, the Board noted that applicant had produced evidence that Italian is a popular language in the United States, such that the meaning of the term would be recognized by a wide variety of people; that "Fiore" is "listed as the only translation of the common English word 'flower;'" that Italian is a major, modern language, not an obscure language; and that the non-surname meaning of the term in Italian is not obscure. The Board found that FIORE "is the type of term that potential customers would stop and translate," and that "there is no question of whether the term would be recognized in its current form as the Italian word for ‘Flower.’" 75 USPQ2d at 1569.

In In re Weiss Watch Co., 123 USPQ2d 1200 (TTAB 2017), the Board determined that application of the doctrine of foreign equivalents was not appropriate. Id. at 1205. Applicant argued that WEISS means "white" in German and supported its argument with evidence from on online translation tool. The evidence indicated, however, that in German the word "white" is spelled as "Weiß" (with the German letter eszett), rather than WEISS. Id. at 1204. Moreover, the evidence did not show that WEISS spelled without the eszett translates to "white" in English. Id. The fact that the applied-for mark WEISS was not spelled in the standard German dictionary form of Weiß weighed against a finding that German speakers, upon seeing WEISS, would stop and transliterate first to Weiß and then translate to "white" in English. Id. at 1205.

The fact that a term has no meaning in a foreign language may also be relevant to a determination of whether a term is primarily merely a surname. In holding that PIRELLI was primarily merely a surname, the Board noted that the term "has no ordinary meaning in the Italian language, as the Italian dictionary excerpt, made of record by the Examining Attorney, shows." In re Industrie Pirelli Societa per Azioni, 9 USPQ2d 1564, 1566 (TTAB 1988).

See TMEP §§809–809.03 for information regarding how to ascertain the meaning of non-English wording in a mark.

See also TMEP §§1207.01(b)(vi)–1207.01(b)(vi)(C), 1209.03(g), and 1210.10 regarding the doctrine of foreign equivalents.