The Federal Trademark Register of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has two sections: the Principal Register and the Supplemental Register. The vast majority of the time, a trademark applicant applies for registration the Principal Register. The Supplemental Register is reserved for marks that are currently “nondistinctive” in the eyes of the USPTO (or its agents) and are capable of acquiring distinctiveness or “secondary meaning”.
[Note: This post was written while I was a practicing attorney running a diverse solo law practice, and it is one of a small number of “legacy posts” that I have retained on the site. When published, this was one of my most popular posts. Since April 2015, I have been working as an executive coach and writer, and I am not currently available for legal engagements.]
What’s a “nondistinctive” mark?
Nondistinctive marks include descriptive marks, generic marks, “mere” surnames, geographic terms and nondistinctiveness, nonfunctional trade dress.
A “descriptive” mark is one that merely describes the good or service or, in the language of the Trademark Trials and Appeals Board (TTAB), “conveys an immediate idea of the ingredients, qualities or characteristics of the goods.” Generic marks are the common names for goods and services. Think “desk” for a desk or “chair” for a chair. (See my prior post Not So Easy… for more information about descriptive and generic marks.) Geographical names are ones that are simply using geographic location as a mark. For example, if I decided to call my law practice: Stamford Law Firm. (Trade dress is topic for another post.)
Surnames (last names) may or may not be registrable, depending on factors such as how common the surname is and how it functions. I have friends whose surname is “Watson”, and I recently sent them this TTAB case with facts about using Watson as a trademark (in a particular case, in which the use was denied). Yes, this is the type of humor that lawyers and their unsuspecting friends find amusing! Obviously, there is a famous surname that is very common yet enjoyed a wide berth on the trademark registration front. Hint: it starts with “Mc”.
What is “secondary meaning”?
Secondary meaning is a way of acquiring “distinctiveness” for a mark over time. When a formerly non-distinctive mark becomes known to consumers as a source for particular goods or services due to the mark’s long and extensive use, it may acquire secondary meaning. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for when the mark actually acquires distinctiveness, but there is a presumption of secondary meaning after five years of substantially continuous and exclusive use of a mark in commerce. (Note: “commerce” is a term of art meaning interstate or international commerce, i.e. the commerce over which the federal government has jurisdiction.) There are a number of factors considered, including consumer perception of the mark, and evidence must be submitted to support the claim.
What protections does the Principal Register afford that are not available to a mark on the Supplemental Register?
The main protections available to a mark on the Principal Register that are not available on the Supplemental Register are the presumptions of validity, ownership and exclusive rights to use the mark. A supplemental registration also cannot be used to stop the importation of counterfeit products, and it cannot become incontestable.
What protections does the Supplemental Register afford?
All is not lost if you receive a letter from a USPTO Examining Attorney stating that your mark is not registrable on the Principal Register but may be registered on the Supplemental Register, if you do not or cannot persuade the examiner otherwise.
The Supplemental Register allows for the precious use of the ® symbol, which is for some the Holy Grail of federal trademark registration. It also blocks later-filed applications for confusingly similar marks on related goods and services, which means that no one can get a principal registration or supplemental registration for the same mark in the same class for which you already have a supplemental registration, preserving your place in line. With a supplemental registration, you can bring an infringement claim against third parties, although it is more difficult to prove than if the mark is on the Principal Register. Finally, with registration on the Supplemental Register, you can apply to register in countries that offer reciprocal registration rights with the U.S.
Note that there is also one advantage to supplemental registration over principal registration. If your mark is to be registered the Supplemental Register, there will be no need to publish the mark for third-party opposition, although a third party can later seek to cancel the registration. This may allow you to stay “under the radar screen” if your plan is to build up the name for acquired distinctiveness before would-be competitors catch on to your registration, since the Supplemental Register is checked less often than marks that are published for opposition.
Once on the Supplemental Register, can you amend to the Principal Register?
Unfortunately, you cannot. What you can do, however, is reapply to the Principal Register and show that the mark has, over time, acquired secondary meaning.
None of the information posted on this site constitutes legal advice or forms an attorney-client relationship, and there may be facts not discussed here that are relevant to your situation.