Saturday, July 21, 2012

It Takes More Than a Village Registration to Be Infringement Says Florida District Court

      Recently the Middle District of Florida ruled that even though a trademark was incontestable it was so weak that it could not support a preliminary injunction to halt alleged infringement of a use of the same word in a very similar mark.  Holding Co. of the Villages v. Power Corporation, 101 U.S.P.Q.2d 1528 (M.D.Fla. 2012).  This is important because it reiterates the principle that even though a mark may have been registered more than five years, and thus  has become incontestable under 15 U.S.C. 1065; it may be so weak in spite of this that an alleged infringer may win the "strength of mark" factor in the likelihood of confusion analysis undertaken by all eleven Circuit Courts of Appeal in the U.S. Thus even though an incontestable mark may be valid it still may be attacked by an opponent in an infringement case.

      In this case the plaintiff stated that it sold residential real estate throughout the United States under the mark "The Villages" since as early as June 1993, and had long held a registration for the Mark. The Defendant sold real estate lots for a development called Lakeside Landings at The Villages and later The Villages at Lakeside Landings.   The Eleventh Circuit requires a seven factor test to determine whether the alleged infringing mark is likely to be confusing to consumers with the plaintiff's mark.  The first factor is the type of mark and its "strength."  Because of the registration more than five years the plaintiff's Mark "The Villages" was incontestable.  However, the Court noted that the word "incontestable is really a misnomer because an incontestable mark that is weak can still be attacked by a defendant in an infringement lawsuit.   The Defendant claimed it was weak, and thus less likely to cause confusion, by demonstrating that there were 79 active registrations for marks using the term "Villages;" 34 registrations disclaiming the word "Village" as a descriptive term; 19 registrations of "Village" claiming use prior to that of the plaintiff; 17 trademarks with the term "Village" or "The Village" followed by a place name; and 1,165 companies registered in Florida using the word "Village."  Therefore the defendant did a great job showing how nearly generic the term "Village" was in the trademark and business world.  Therefore, the Court found that the Mark of the plaintiff was weak and can be afforded only a narrow range of protection.  Interestingly the Court never labeled the Mark as descriptive or any of the other standard terms used in the trademark cases to place the strength of the mark in a certain spot on the scale.  It simply found that it was weak based on the quality of the defendant's evidence. 

     The Court went on to weigh the remaining factors and found that the services and customers were similar, and the advertising media were similar, which weighed in favor of the plaintiff. However, the other factors weighed in favor of the defendant, including the strength of the mark,  the dissimilarity of the marks, the intent of the defendant, and evidence of actual confusion.  In the end the balance went for the defendant and the court found no likelihood of success.  Therefore, the motion for an injunction was denied.