by Scott Hervey
After four years, the quest to obtain federal trademark protection for the mark MATTRESS.COM by owner 1800Mattress.com IP, LLC, formerly Dial-A-Mattress Operating Corp, has been put to bed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has finally held that the mark is generic and not entitled to registration.
On December 9, 2005, Dial-A-Mattress filed U.S. Trademark Application Serial No. 78/976,682, seeking to register the mark MATTRESS.COM for an “online retail store services in the field of mattresses, beds, and bedding.” On February 14, 2008, the trademark examiner assigned to the application finally refused registration of the mark on the basis that it is generic. Dial-A-Mattress appealed the refusal to the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which affirmed the examiner’s refusal to register the mark. Dial-A-Mattress timely appealed to the Federal Circuit.
This case reflects the fine and often illusive line between marks that are merely descriptive and those that are generic. The distinction can make a very big difference to the mark owner. Descriptive marks are registrable on the Supplemental Register and are capable of elevation to the Principal Register after obtaining secondary meaning, while generic marks are never capable of registration.
15 U.S.C. §1052 provides that no trademark by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others shall be refused registration on the principal register on account of its nature unless it …. (e) Consists of a mark which, (1) when used on or in connection with the goods of the applicant is merely descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive of them. A mark is considered merely descriptive if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose, or use of the specified goods or services. For example, the mark APPLE PIE has been held merely descriptive of potpourri and the mark BED & BREAKFAST REGISTRY held merely descriptive of lodging reservations services. The determination of whether a mark is merely descriptive requires consideration of the context in which the mark is used or intended to be used in connection with those goods/services, and the possible significance that the mark would have to the average purchaser of the goods or services in the marketplace. The mark need not describe all the goods and services identified, as long as it merely describes one of them.
By contrast, generic terms are terms that the relevant purchasing public understands primarily as the common or class name for the goods or services. Put in common parlance, if the general public primarily understands the word to designate the product rather than the producer, the word is generic. Generic terms are incapable of functioning as registrable trademarks denoting source, and are not registrable on the Supplemental Register or on the Principal Register after having acquired secondary meaning. Generic terms are terms that the relevant purchasing public understands primarily as the common or class name for the goods or services. For example, in Yellow Cab Co. of Sacramento v. Yellow Cab Co. of Elk Grove, 266 F. Supp. 2d 1199 (E.D. Cal. 2003) the court determined that the mark YELLOW CAB was determined generic for taxi service, and in Retail Servs., Inc. v. Freebies Publishing, 364 F.3d 535 (4th Cir. 2004) the court determined that the mark FREEBIE is generic for free products or services
There is a two-part test used to determine whether a designation is generic: (1) What is the class of goods or services at issue? and (2) Does the relevant public understand the designation primarily to refer to that class of goods or services? The test turns upon the primary significance that the term would have to the relevant public.
On appeal, Dial-A-Mattress argued that in upholding the refusal to register the TTAB did not show by clear evidence that the relevant public refers to the class of on line stores selling mattresses by the mark MATTRESS.COM. The Federal Circuit disagreed with Dial-A-Mattress, concluding that substantial evidence supported the TTAB’s conclusion that the mark is generic. The Federal Circuit noted that the TTAB considered each part of the mark, “mattress” and “.com” and determined that both were generic. Considered in its entirety, the term “mattress.com” added no new meaning. In coming to this conclusion the TTAB noted the prevalence of this term in the website addresses of several online mattress retailers that provide the same services as Dial-A-Mattress. The Federal Circuit noted that such reliance is permissible to that the relevant public would understand and believe that a website operating under the term “mattress.com” provides online mattress store services.
Determining the line between marks that are merely descriptive and generic is often extremely difficult. It is easy to understand the basis for a generic based refusal for the marks E-TICKET for a computerized reservation and ticketing of transportation services, IM for instant messaging or ICE PAK for a reusable ice substitute for use in food and beverage coolers. However given the challenge of determining where the line between a mark being descriptive and being generic cases like Dial-A-Mattress are always challenging for trademark attorneys and mark owners. One solution – avoid choosing marks that push the envelope of descriptiveness.