Can the name of a state be trademarked so that no one else can use it in a particular line of business? Last week, in connection with the denial of the trademark application filed by the producers of the podcast SERIAL, we wrote about the difficulty of trademarking brands that are descriptive of the product that they promote. What could be more descriptive than the name of a place where the product originates? Yet on Sunday, the NY Times ran a front page story about a legal moonshiner in Kentucky who is being sued by the University of Kentucky for using the name KENTUCKY MIST on shirts and hats to promote his craft moonshine. The University claimed that it owns the trademark for the word “Kentucky” when used on clothing. Can they really do that? Does a media company need to worry about branding a program featuring the name of the geographic location in which they operate?
It depends. Trademark law is, among other things, designed to protect consumers from confusion. When the Trademark Office is analyzing a new federal trademark application, it will look to see whether a mark is “confusingly similar” to any existing registrations or pending applications. As part of this analysis, it will analyze the similarity of the marks, the types of goods and services offered in connection with the marks, and the channels of trade used to sell or promote the goods/services. If a proposed mark is too close on these fronts to a registered mark, the Office may deny the application (or in the case of a lawsuit, a court may find merit to the infringement claim). This can happen even if the mark incorporates a descriptive term, like a geographic area. Does this mean that broadcasters are precluded from incorporating the name of their state in a program title or station tagline if there is an existing registration for that state name? Thankfully, no – but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your due diligence before adopting your mark. Below are a few tips to help you assess whether your proposed mark is at risk of getting into trademark hot water.
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