MEMO TO: TRADEMARK LAWYERS-WHEN YOU ACT AS A ME NOT WE LAWYER BAD THINGS HAPPEN
In a thoughtful and well reasoned decision, a magistrate judge in Oregon reminded trademark lawyers, and their clients, that careless legal practices can be very costly. The magistrate judge also made it clear that displaying arrogance and disdain for the court may not be be the smartest way to advance one’s cause.
The case W. Brand Bobosky and We Not Me Ltd. v. Adidas began in 2000. Mr. Bobosky, an attorney in Naperville, Illinois, created the phrase WE NOT ME. He began to use the phrase on promotional items. Four years later Mr.Bobosky hired a law firm to prepare and file a federal trademark application for this phrase. The application was based on Mr. Bobosky’s “intent” to use WE NOT ME on a laundry list of men’s and women’s clothing items. This list was prepared by Mr. Bobosky’s attorney, who also signed the application.
When it was time to file the necessary statement of use to secure the federal registration Mr. Bobosky, through his lawyer, presented a hat as a specimen. Although Mr. Bobosky could have deleted all the other goods he did not. Instead he declared that he was using WE NOT ME on all the goods set forth on his laundry list. He later claimed that he did not understand his obligation to verify that the list was accurate.
Fast forward to 2007. Mr. Bobosky, through a new attorney, wrote to adidas complaining about their use of the phrase WE NOT ME. An in house attorney for adidas challenged Mr. Bobosky’s federal registration because he could not find any evidence that Mr. Bobosky has been using WE NOT ME on clothing.
And what was Mr. Bobosky’s reply? AFTER this challenge he cleaned up his registration and had his new attorney file another application to register WE NOT ME, with a more careful list of goods. His new attorney eventually filed a statement of use and they went after adidas again, claiming infringement of a federally registered trademark and unfair competition under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act. Adidas fought back hard, seeking to invalidate Mr. Bobosky’s registrations because he did not have the necessary bona fide intent and because he had not made any trademark use of WE NOT ME.
Based on Mr. Bobosky’s very weak testimony and other evidence of record, the magistrate judge invalidated his federally registered trademarks but allowed him to maintain his unfair competition claim.
I hear you asking: OK Mr.Trademark Troll what makes this case interesting? Two things.
First, I would bet my usual ham sandwich that thousands of federal trademark applications are handled exactly as this one was- with both the applicant and the attorney either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the accuracy of the signed statements that are part of the federal registration process. That’s an unsettling commentary on trademark attorney/client relations but not much more. Unless you build your trademark rights on such a flimsy foundation and then decide to get your lottery ticket punched by challenging a major consumer goods company.
Second, the magistrate judge went out of his way to chastise the adidas trademark counsel for displaying such a disdainful and disrespectful attitude. I can only imagine what it must be like to read comments such as:
adidas provides no authority to support this position and I find it completely at odds with the leading cases that address this issue
when asked by the court….. adidias counsel responded somewhat disdainfully that he did not even understand the question
adidas continually rebuffed the court’s questions about the size and location of WE NOT ME… and whether those factors suggested that the mark functioned as pure ornamentation or as a trademark. That, of course, is the critical inquiry
Would the unregistered trademark claim have survived summary judgement anyway? Probably. But this case is not the finest hour for the trademark bar. One can easily argue that it never should have been brought with such a questionable prosecution history and such skimpy marketing efforts. And, by displaying such a poor attitude, a litigator may now put adidas in the position of writing a check to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Or continuing a battle with two opponents. One of whom is the judge.