1212.02(c) Claiming §2(f) Distinctiveness in the Alternative
An applicant may argue the merits of an examining attorney’s refusal and, in the alternative, claim that the matter sought to be registered has acquired distinctiveness under §2(f). Unlike the situation in which an applicant initially seeks registration under §2(f) or amends its application without objection, the alternative claim does not constitute a concession that the matter sought to be registered is not inherently distinctive. See In re Thomas Nelson, Inc., 97 USPQ2d 1712, 1713 (TTAB 2011); In re E S Robbins Corp., 30 USPQ2d 1540, 1542 (TTAB 1992); In re Prof'l Learning Ctrs., Inc., 230 USPQ 70, 71 n.2 (TTAB 1986).
When an applicant claims acquired distinctiveness in the alternative, the examining attorney must treat separately the questions of: (1) the underlying basis of refusal; and (2) assuming the matter is determined to be registrable, whether acquired distinctiveness has been established. If the applicant has one or more prior registrations under §2(f) for a different depiction of the same mark (e.g., stylized vs. standard character) or a portion of the proposed mark, and for the same goods/services, the examining attorney’s review of the records of the registrations would reveal whether the applicant previously conceded descriptiveness or whether the Board found the mark descriptive on appeal. See In re Thomas Nelson, 97 USPQ2d at 1713. Such an assessment of the probative value of the prior registrations might also assist in resolving whether the mark in question has acquired distinctiveness, thereby obviating the necessity of determining that issue on appeal as well. Id.
In the event of an appeal on both grounds, the Board will use the same analysis, provided the evidence supporting the §2(f) claim is in the record and the alternative grounds have been considered and finally decided by the examining attorney. In re Harrington, 219 USPQ 854, 855 n.1 (TTAB 1983). If the appeal results in a finding of descriptiveness, and also that the mark has acquired distinctiveness, then descriptiveness would be present, even though not conceded by the applicant. In re Thomas Nelson, 97 USPQ2d at 1713.
If the examining attorney accepts the §2(f) evidence, the applicant must be given the option of publication under §2(f) or going forward with the appeal on the underlying refusal. This should be done by telephone or e-mail, with a Note to the File in the record indicating the applicant’s decision, wherever possible. If the applicant wants to appeal, or if the examining attorney is unable to reach the applicant by telephone or e-mail, the examining attorney must issue a written action continuing the underlying refusal and noting that the §2(f) evidence is deemed acceptable and will not be an issue on appeal.
Similarly, in an application under §1 or §44 of the Trademark Act, the applicant may seek registration on the Principal Register under §2(f) and, in the alternative, on the Supplemental Register. Depending on the facts of the case, this approach may have limited practical application. If the examining attorney finds that the matter sought to be registered is not a mark within the meaning of §§1, 2, and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, 1127 (e.g., is generic or purely ornamental) (or §§1, 2, 4, and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, 1054, 1127, for collective and certification marks), the examining attorney will refuse registration on both registers.
However, if the issues are framed in the alternative (i.e., whether the matter sought to be registered has acquired distinctiveness under §2(f) or, in the alternative, whether it is capable of registration on the Supplemental Register), and it is ultimately determined that the matter is a mark within the meaning of the Act (e.g., that the matter is merely descriptive rather than generic), then the evidence of secondary meaning will be considered. If it is determined that the applicant’s evidence is sufficient to establish that the mark has acquired distinctiveness, the application will be approved for publication on the Principal Register under §2(f). If the evidence is determined to be insufficient, the mark may be registered on the Supplemental Register in an application under §1 or §44 of the Trademark Act.
Accordingly, the applicant may submit an amendment to the Supplemental Register, and continue to argue entitlement to registration on the Principal Register in an appeal. An applicant may not, however, state that it "reserves the right" to amend to the Supplemental Register if the refusal is not withdrawn or is affirmed on appeal. In re Integrated Embedded, 120 USPQ2d 1504, 1511(TTAB 2016) (stating the "[a]pplicant cannot ‘reserve a right’ that does not exist").
If the applicant files a notice of appeal in such a case, the Board will institute the appeal, suspend action on the appeal and remand the application to the examining attorney to determine registrability on the Supplemental Register.
If the examining attorney determines that the applicant is entitled to registration on the Supplemental Register, the examining attorney must send a letter notifying the applicant of the acceptance of the amendment and telling the applicant that the application is being referred to the Board for resumption of the appeal. If the examining attorney determines that the applicant is not entitled to registration on the Supplemental Register, the examining attorney will issue a nonfinal action refusing registration on the Supplemental Register. If the applicant fails to overcome the refusal, the examining attorney will issue a final action, and refer the application to the Board to resume action on the appeal with respect to entitlement to registration on either the Principal or the Supplemental Register.
Rather than framing the issues in the alternative (i.e., whether the matter has acquired distinctiveness pursuant to §2(f) or, in the alternative, whether it is capable of registration on the Supplemental Register), the applicant may amend its application between the Principal and Supplemental Registers. 37 C.F.R. §2.75; see In re Educ. Commc'ns, Inc., 231 USPQ 787, 787 (TTAB 1986); In re Broco, 225 USPQ 227, 228 (TTAB 1984).