Mutating Marks: Refusing to Lose the Trademark Trail

Emerson, Robert W,Collins, Katharine C | April 1, 2018

This article examines and synthesizes several criticisms underlying the expansion of trademark rights, and the sometimes irrational results thereof. The abandonment of trademark law’s foundations, in particular categories of marks, is illustrated most saliently where marks have been allowed to encapsulate meaning and value in and of themselves, unattributable to any qualities or connections to product or source. This touches on, and bridges the gap, between areas which have received academic attention for their problematic evolutions, including naked licensing, strike suits, cultural and particularly sports-centric marks, and sensory marks. Trademark doctrines such as the consumer perception for confusion, and the spectrum of distinction, used to grant and organize marks, are discussed. This allows us to consider how to reinvigorate commitment to essential trademark jurisprudence. The first Section reviews a few fundamental concepts underlying and organizing the trademark system, in order to explain where its boundaries belong. Sections II and III detail different considerations that emerged in step with the expansion of a trademark’s purpose far beyond that of a source signifier. They address matters, such as inherent goodwill, that have been largely ignored to the detriment of the public interest, and others, such as functionality, that have not been applied to their full, logical extent. Section IV discusses the influence mark holders have had in shaping this progression—one of lowering requirements and escalating powers—and it considers the unreasonable consequences thereof. Finally, Section V indicates how courts and regulatory agencies may bring a significant portion of the trademarks, which have gone awry, back into the fold. Estoppel and a reconstituting of stronger evidentiary standards can help to ensure powerful mark holders seeking legal support for their market dominance actually meet high burdens to do so. The current trademark law framework leaves too much power in some mark holders’ hands, but it contains the seeds for innovative parties and lawyers to create more sensible trademark policies.