TMEP 1212.02(i): Section 2(f) Claim with Respect to Incapable Matter

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1212.02(i)    Section 2(f) Claim with Respect to Incapable Matter

If matter is generic, functional, or purely ornamental, or otherwise fails to function as a mark, the matter is unregistrable. See, e.g., In re Bongrain Int’l Corp., 894 F.2d 1316, 1317 n.4, 13 USPQ2d 1727, 1728 n.4 (Fed. Cir. 1990) ("If a mark is generic, incapable of serving as a means ‘by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others’... it is not a trademark and can not be registered under the Lanham Act."); H. Marvin Ginn Corp. v. Int'l Ass’n of Fire Chiefs, Inc., 782 F.2d 987, 989, 228 USPQ 528, 530 (Fed. Cir. 1986), and cases cited therein ("A generic term... can never be registered as a trademark because such a term is ‘merely descriptive’ within the meaning of §2(e)(1) and is incapable of acquiring de jure distinctiveness under §2(f). The generic name of a thing is in fact the ultimate in descriptiveness."); see also In re Melville Corp., 228 USPQ 970, 972 (TTAB 1986) (finding BRAND NAMES FOR LESS, for retail store services in the clothing field, "should remain available for other persons or firms to use to describe the nature of their competitive services.").

It is axiomatic that matter may not be registered unless it is used as a mark, namely, "in a manner calculated to project to purchasers or potential purchasers a single source or origin for the goods in question." In re Remington Prods. Inc., 3 USPQ2d 1714, 1715 (TTAB 1987). See, e.g., In re Melville Corp., 228 USPQ at 971 n.2 ("If matter proposed for registration does not function as a mark, it is not registrable in accordance with Sections 1 and 2 of the Act because the preambles of those sections limit registration to subject matter within the definition of a trademark."); In re Whataburger Sys., Inc.,209 USPQ 429, 430 (TTAB 1980) ("[A] designation may not be registered either as a trademark or as a service mark unless it is used as a mark, in such a manner that its function as an indication of origin may be readily perceived by persons encountering the goods or services in connection with which it is used.").

Therefore, where the examining attorney has determined that matter sought to be registered is not registrable because it is not a mark within the meaning of the Trademark Act, a claim that the matter has acquired distinctiveness under §2(f) as applied to the applicant’s goods or services does not overcome the refusal. See, e.g., TrafFix Devices, Inc. v. Mktg. Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 33, 58 USPQ2d 1001, 1007 (2001) ("Functionality having been established, whether MDI’S dual spring design has acquired secondary meaning need not be considered."); In re R.M. Smith, Inc., 734 F.2d 1482, 1484-85, 222 USPQ 1, 3 (Fed. Cir. 1984) ("Evidence of distinctiveness is of no avail to counter a de jure functionality rejection."); Stuart Spector Designs, Ltd. v. Fender Musical Instruments Corp., 94 USPQ2d 1549, 1554 (TTAB 2009) (stating that a product design may become generic and, thus, cannot be registered, regardless of applicant’s claim of acquired distinctiveness); In re Tilcon Warren, Inc., 221 USPQ 86, 88 (TTAB 1984) ("Long use of a slogan which is not a trademark and would not be so perceived does not, of course, transform the slogan into a trademark."); In re Mancino,219 USPQ 1047, 1048 (TTAB 1983) ("Since the refusal... was based on applicant’s failure to demonstrate technical service mark use, the claim of distinctiveness under Section 2(f) was of no relevance to the issue in the case.").

As discussed above, evidence of acquired distinctiveness will not alter the determination that matter is unregistrable. However, the examining attorney must review the evidence and make a separate, alternative, determination as to whether, if the proposed mark is ultimately determined to be capable, the applicant’s evidence is sufficient to establish acquired distinctiveness. This will provide a more complete record in the event that the applicant appeals and prevails on the underlying refusal. The examining attorney must also consider whether the applicant’s evidence has any bearing on the underlying refusal. See TMEP §§1209.02–1209.02(b) regarding the procedure for descriptiveness and/or generic refusals.

If the examining attorney fails to separately address the sufficiency of the §2(f) evidence, this may be treated as a concession that the evidence would be sufficient to establish distinctiveness if the mark is ultimately found to be capable. Cf. In re Dietrich,91 USPQ2d 1622, 1625 (TTAB 2009), in which the Board held that an examining attorney had "effectively conceded that, assuming the mark is not functional, applicant’s evidence is sufficient to establish that the mark has acquired distinctiveness," where the examining attorney rejected the applicant’s §2(f) claim on the ground that applicant’s bicycle wheel configuration was functional and thus unregistrable even under §2(f), but did not specifically address the sufficiency of the §2(f) evidence or the question of whether the mark would be registrable under §2(f) if it were ultimately found to be nonfunctional.

See also In re Wakefern Food Corp., 222 USPQ 76, 79 (TTAB 1984) (finding applicant’s evidence relating to public perception of WHY PAY MORE! entitled to relatively little weight, noting that the evidence is relevant to the issue of whether the slogan functions as a mark for applicant’s supermarket services).