By: Scott Hervey

Chipotle’s entry into the burger business has a Boston based small burger chain up in arms.  The Boston burger spot, which has been in operation since 2010 and goes by the name Tasty Burger, has a beef with the brand Chipotle has chosen for its restaurants, Tasty Made.SHervey

Tasty Burger claims that Chipotle brand infringes on its trademark,  Despite a cease and desist letter and public threats of a lawsuit, Chipotle has publicly stated that it “fully intend(s) to move forward with the name Tasty Made for our burger restaurant and strongly believe that we are on solid footing in doing so.”

Why might Chipotle feel – or claim to feel – so secure in its brand choice.  Tasty Burger has superior common law rights; it has been using its mark since July 2010.  Additionally, Tasty Burger applied for a Federal trademark registration in December 2010 and was granted federal registration for its trademark in 2012.  On first blush, it seems that Tasty Burger has a strong case.  However, things may not be as they seem.

During the registration process for Tasty Burger’s trademark, the United States Patent and Trademark Office refused to register the trademark for Tasty Burger on the Principal Register because it is merely descriptive.  A mark is merely descriptive if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the specified goods and/or services.  The trademark examiner assigned to the Tasty Burger application argued as follows:

In the present case, applicant is using the mark TASTY BURGER, stylized, and design, in connection with “Restaurant services.”   As indicated in the initial Office action, the wording TASTY BURGER describes good tasting hamburgers, an item presumably offered in applicant’s restaurants.  See the definitions enclosed with the initial Office action.

In addition, the applied-for mark shows the wording in stylized lettering.  However, the degree of stylization in this case is not sufficiently striking, unique or distinctive so as to create a commercial impression separate and apart from the unregistrable components of the mark.  See In re Sambado & Son Inc., 45 USPQ2d 1312 (TTAB 1997); In re Bonni Keller Collections Ltd., 6 USPQ2d 1224 (TTAB 1987). Furthermore, the design consists of a common geometric shape and merely functions as a background carrier for the word portion of the proposed mark.  Accordingly, the entire mark must be deemed to be merely descriptive.

In response to the refusal to register, Tasty Burger abandoned its request for registration on the Principal Register and sought registration on the USPTO’s Supplemental Register.  Marks that do not meet the Principal Register’s requirement of being inherently distinctive but that otherwise meet the technical requirements for registration are registrable on the Supplemental Register.  The benefits and protections for marks registered on the Supplemental Register do not compare to those granted to marks registered on the Principal Register.  Registration on the Principal Register is prima facie evidence of the mark owner’s exclusive right to use the mark nationwide in connection with the goods or services set forth in the registration.  The Supplemental Registration provides no such benefits; the owner of a mark registered on the Supplemental Register must rely on common law rights and must also prove that their mark actually functions as a trademark.

So is Tasty Burger’s claim cooked?  Maybe not.  Merely descriptive trademarks may become protectable through “acquired distinctiveness” or “secondary meaning.”  These are legal concepts by which a term that is descriptive may, through use, has become distinctive of the owner’s goods or services.  One of the ways a mark owner may establish secondary meaning is by showing exclusive and continuous use in commerce for the five years.

Tasty Burger has been using its mark since 2010.  As such, it will be able to establish a prima facie case that its mark is distinctive.  This in and of itself does not mean that Tasty Burger will be able to establish likelihood of confusion; a mark can be distinctive and still be highly suggestive and entitled to little protection.  In order to establish greater protection, Tasty Burger must introduce other evidence of acquired distinctiveness such as declarations from its customers, its advertising and promotional activities and market research and consumer reaction studies.

Tasty Burger will have a strong position to argue that the Chipotle Tasty Made burger chain will infringe its common law rights in its Boston and Washington, DC locations.  Tasty Burger can take certain immediate actions that may increase its strength and leverage but whether Tasty Burger will prevent Chipotle from opening Tasty Made throughout the rest of the US remains to be seen.