United States: #Trademarks?: Hashtags As Trademarks Revisited

Last Updated: July 21 2016
Article by Aaron P. Rubin and Dina Roumiantseva

Since our previous article on the emerging issue of trademark rights in hashtags, the use of hashtags in social media marketing has continued to grow. Described as the "ignition keys to a social media keyword search," hashtags can be powerful tools for creating communities around a brand. Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that modern brand narratives are written in collaboration with consumer communities rather than by brand owners acting alone.

A catchy hashtag creates its own social media channel and brand owners naturally want to prevent competitors from hijacking the content stream tied to their cleverly crafted messages.  To safeguard the investment in this narrative, companies are increasingly seeking trademark protection for their hashtags. Applications for hashtag trademarks continue to soar, with over 1,042 hashtag trademark applications in 2015 in the United States alone. However, despite the United States Patent and Trademark Office's (or USPTO's) guidance regarding hashtag trademarks in its Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (or TMEP), hashtags continue to pose challenges for both USPTO examiners and the courts.

At the USPTO, examination and registration of hashtag marks remain somewhat inconsistent. As we noted in our previous article, the USPTO has addressed the issue of hashtags' ability to function as trademarks in the "Hashtag Marks" section of the Trademark Manual of Examination Procedure. In essence, the TMEP states that the hashtag symbol should be ignored by the examiner and the hashtag mark should be examined in the same manner that any other tag line or phrase would be. In other words, according to the USPTO, a hashtag is no more—but also no less—capable of functioning as a trademark than the non-hashtag form of the relevant tag line or phrase would be. But does this approach ignore some unique features of hashtag marks?

First, while descriptiveness is an issue for both hashtag and non-hashtag marks, the fact that hashtag marks also function as online search terms would seem to increase the need for a hashtag to have a close and obvious connection to a particular brand if it is to be recognized as a trademark—i.e., an identifier of the source of goods and services—and not merely a search term. For example, the word "Tasty" may be merely descriptive when used on a package of bread, but #Tasty is arguably even less distinctive when used only in a social media campaign, considering that the hashtag does not actually appear on the product and, considered as a search term, could be relevant to any number of topics.

The TMEP notes this problem and instructs that #Skater for skateboarding equipment would not be registrable as merely descriptive. However, in practice, the USPTO has not always been entirely consistent in assessing the descriptiveness of hashtag trademarks. For example, the USPTO has allowed #LetsBowl for bowling balls and #Smart for clothing without raising a descriptiveness objection. The USPTO also allowed Abercrombie & Fitch to register #SoCalStylist for retail store services featuring clothing and accessories, and a non-profit to register #KickHunger for promoting public awareness of hunger and hunger relief. But the USPTO found #WeatherWednesday for an online newsletter about the weather and #MusicVideoMonday for advertising services and mobile marketing to be merely descriptive, allowing only registration on the supplemental register.

Second, the fact that a hashtag often appears only on social media rather than on the goods themselves or in advertising raises questions regarding what constitutes an acceptable
specimen
for a hashtag mark. The USPTO has not formulated a clear policy on this issue. The TMEP notes that if #SewFun was the subject of a trademark application for "instruction in the field of sewing" with a specimen consisting of a screenshot of a social networking site used to organize user comments about sewing classes that the applicant offers, the mark would be refused registration for failure to function as a service mark. Accordingly, the USPTO rejected the initial specimen for #LeadershipFlow in connection with business education services that consisted of the applicant's website with posts about business topics. However, the USPTO allowed Procter & Gamble to register #LikeAGirl for "providing information in the field of female empowerment, anti-gender discrimination via social media" with a screenshot of its Twitter page as a specimen.

Only a handful of court decisions have dealt with the subject of trademark rights in hashtags to date, with similarly inconsistent outcomes. As we previously wrote, a district court in Mississippi held that use of the tags #FratCollection and #FraternityCollection by a competitor of the clothing maker Fraternity Collection was sufficient to state a claim for false advertising under the Lanham Act and for trademark infringement under state law. However, in a recent California case, Eksouzian v. Albanese, the court concluded that a competitor's use of a hashtag did not violate a settlement agreement on trademark usage between the parties because the hashtag was "merely a functional tool."

The parties in Eksouzian had jointly developed a compact vaporizer pen, but later separated and entered into a settlement agreement pursuant to which the plaintiffs were permitted to use the terms "Cloud" or "Cloud Vapes" as trademarks, but not in such close association with the words "pen" or "penz"—common descriptors for compact vaporizers—as to form a unitary trademark. Plaintiffs then used the hashtags #cloudpen and #cloudpenz in connection with promotional contests on social media. The court found that plaintiffs did not breach the settlement agreement because "hashtags are merely descriptive devices, not trademarks, unitary or otherwise, in and of themselves" and use of the hashtag "is merely a functional tool to direct the location of Plaintiffs' promotion so that it is viewed by a group of consumers, not an actual trademark." This conclusion seems to be at odds with the USPTO's willingness to register hashtags as trademarks.

In another recent case, Public Impact, LLC v. Boston Consulting Group, Inc., a Massachusetts court came to the opposite conclusion. In that case, Public Impact, LLC, an education policy and management consulting firm that owns a federal registration for the mark PUBLIC IMPACT, sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the defendant, Boston Consulting Group (or BCG), from using the hashtag #PublicImpact and the username @4PublicImpact on social media. After determining that BCG had not submitted sufficient evidence to show that "public impact" is generic for consulting services in light of the fact that Public Impact's federal registration had attained incontestable status, the court concluded that BCG's use of the username and hashtag was likely to constitute trademark infringement, particularly given the similarity of the services provided by the two organizations. Accordingly, the court enjoined BCG from using the phrase "public impact" with two or fewer letters, numbers, or characters appended in any form on social media or in other commercial activities.

In sum, the application of trademark law to hashtags and the rapidly evolving social media landscape is still in its very early stages. With regard to federal registration, one scholar has argued that the USPTO should treat hashtag marks as "primarily merely a hashtag" until the applicant can establish that the mark actually functions as a source indicator, an approach that could avoid some of the inconsistencies seen in the registration process today. The bigger questions regarding the scope of protection afforded to hashtag marks and the analysis of trademark infringement involving use of hashtag marks on social media, however, have yet to be resolved.

Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Morrison & Foerster LLP. All rights reserved

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Aaron P. Rubin
Dina Roumiantseva
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Baker Donelson
Morrison & Foerster LLP
Duane Morris LLP
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Baker Donelson
Morrison & Foerster LLP
Duane Morris LLP
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions