When registering a trademark, applicants are frequently instructed by the Trademark Examiner to disclaim an element of their mark in order for it to be registered on the Principal Register. In fact, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has reported that approximately 29% of first Office actions contain a disclaimer requirement. The trademark examiner usually requests that the applicant amend the application to include the following disclaimer:
“No claim is made to the exclusive right to use [disclaimed component] apart from the mark as shown.”
Before registering a trademark, companies and entrepreneurs should see whether a third party is claiming rights to an identical or similar trademark, especially one that is used with a similar type of product. By conducting a trademark search to identify prior users, the company may be able to avoid costly legal disputes that could arise in the future.
We don’t know if Google conducted a trademark search and found the “Hanginout” mark used in connection with “Computer application software for mobile devices for sharing information, photos, audio and video content in the field of telecommunications and social networking services”. Nevertheless, they proceeded with using and filing a trademark application for “Hangouts” because, presumably, they thought there was no likelihood of confusion.
Conducting a trademark search before using a trademark in commerce should be a no-brainer for all companies looking to develop a successful and long-lasting brand. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a startup to create and fall in love with a company/brand name without conducting a proper trademark search only to then find out the mark is already being used by a prior user with superior rights.
Unlike many other countries, the United States has what is called a first-to-use trademark system. That means that the first entity to use the mark within a territory acquires a right of priority to use that mark over all subsequent users in that location. Under common law, the first user (a.k.a. “senior user”) has superior rights to use a mark within a territory, regardless whether or not it has been federally registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”). In fact, if a subsequent junior user registers an identical or similar mark with the USPTO, the prior senior user still has exclusive priority to use the mark in its territory as well as its zone of natural expansion. Nowadays, when it is very common to sell products and services over the Internet, that territory could be large and thus extensively limit the use of the junior user’s mark, even if it has been federally registered.