Monday, July 27, 2015

Nominative Trademark Fair Use

Customs seized some televisions at the Port of Miami. The reason was an apparent counterfeiting of the trademarks HDMI and MHL, both of which are interface connections. You have probably seen HDMI cables and connectors. They look like big USB connectors and are present on may modern televisions, computers, and game consoles. MHL is the standard for Mobile High-Definition Link, which is a new standard designed to connect small devices such as smart phones to larger HD monitors. With an MHL connection, you can use your smartphone to stream content to your TV, which is a cool thing that can now be done via Chromecast or Miracast.

I don't usually write about simple seizures, but this one and similar seizures bug me.

Customs and Border Protection is in the habit of seizing electronics that identify electronic ports by type. For example, where a tablet has a USB port and labels it as such, CBP requires that the producer have a license to use the USB label, which is a registered trademark of the folks at the USB Implementers Forum, Inc. If the unit or the packaging has any of the familiar USB logos on it, CBP is entirely in the right to do so. Same goes for HDMI, MHL, DVD, and other standards that are associated with registered trademarks.

But, what if the unit or the box simply uses the letters HDMI to identify the port into which a compatible HDMI cable is to be inserted? What if the box says "4 HDMI ports" without ever using a trademarked logo associated with HDMI?

One might argue that because HDMI, USB, and similar designations are "word marks," any unauthorized use of the word is trademark infringement. That, however, would be wrong.

The point of a trademark is to ensure that the consumer knows the source of the product. If you buy shoes bearing a Nike swoosh, those shoes should come from Nike. Same goes for a Xerox machine, Hershey bar, Dell computer, and any other trademark. But sometimes, the use of the trademark is not to identify source and no consumer would be confused by its use. A computer service business would not be infringing if it stated that it is able to repair Dell computers. That is a description of a service, not an indication that Dell is the source of the service. Of course, that business could go too far and make a confusing claim indicating an actual affiliation with Dell.

In trademark law, there is a concept known as "nominative fair use." Nominative fair use is a limited exception to the exclusive rights of the trademark owner. It allows third parties to use the trademark to describe the product or service without indicating that the user is the origin of the product or service. This is both fair and necessary. It is fair because it does not interfere with the trademark owner's exclusive use of the mark as a designation of origin. It is also fair because it prevents the trademark owner from monopolizing a product category by making it impossible for anyone else to describe a similar or compatible product.

In some cases, it is necessary to allow a third party to describe something using a trademarked word or phrase. The alternatives would be too unwieldy. Assume, for example, that the standard sizing for batteries were subject to trademark (for all I know, it might be). If you make a flashlight that requires two AA batteries, how would you convey that to purchasers without using the AA designation? You could say: "This flashlight requires two 1.5v alkaline batteries that are 1 3/4 inches in length, and 1/2-inch diameter cylinders, with positive and negative poles at each end." That won't work and that is why we have nominative trademark fair use.

The courts have recognized this exception for some time. Customs and Border Protection has also recognized it. See HQ 472729 (Sep. 26, 2002). The concept does not seem to have trickled down to the ports.

Just to be clear, this particular seized merchandise may have been improperly festooned with HDMI logos and MHL logos without authorization from the trademark holders. In that case, CBP did its job properly. If, on the other hand, the use is consistent with nominative fair use, CBP should release the merchandise and increase the training for its personnel on this topic.

Also, I don't want anyone to think I am advocating that it import products containing HDMI, USB, MHL or similar connectivity without the manufacturer having a license to that technology. Doing so is very likely patent infringement and that raises different and very expensive problems. But, CBP does not enforce patents at the border without an exclusion order from the International Trade Commission or a federal court. Hardware and software should be properly licensed.

The only issue here is the use of descriptive labels in a nominative sense. That is a narrow exception to trademark law that needs to be better understood.

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