What is Likelihood of Confusion?
Likelihood of confusion is a part of a proving trademark infringement. It means that the public is likely to confuse your mark and the mark of another business. Trademarks are a valuable business tool. They brand your products and help to grow your name. If another business uses your mark unfairly, it can cause you a great deal of damage. A trademark infringement lawsuit can help to protect you from this damage. However, you must prove likelihood of confusion.
In a court case, confusion is reviewed several ways:
- How strong is your mark?
- Are the marks similar?
- How similar are the goods or services?
- Evidence of Confusion
- Customer Intelligence
- Related products and services
If you can prove these issues, you should win your case.
Basic Facts About Trademark Infringement Cases
Trademark infringement cases are very complicated.
- You must show you own the mark.
- You need to prove that another person used your mark illegally.
- There must not be any harm involved.
The Lanham Act allows for a trademark owner to file a lawsuit against a person using it illegally. There are four main reasons for an infringement lawsuit:
- Your mark has been reproduced.
- Your mark has been used for commerce.
- Your mark has been used in a sale.
- There is a chance of confusion.
These acts must happen without your permission.
Almost every business uses a mark in some way. They are important for growing a business and branding products. Trademarks are classified in several ways, including:
These categories refer to how unique your mark is. Generic marks are not usually registered. This is because they are too broad. The stronger your mark, the easier your lawsuit will be.
How Strong is Your Mark?
In your lawsuit, the court will review the strength of your mark first. The stronger the mark, the stronger the protections. A strong mark is easily recognizable. General marks are usually not protected. Fanciful or arbitrary marks are stronger. If a mark has gained a second meaning, it may also be protected.
It can be hard to win a lawsuit if your mark is too weak. Be sure to design your mark to be distinct. Use an original idea or phrase. You could also update a general design to be more unique. Apple did this with their logo. Courts look favorably on a strong mark.
Similarity of Marks
If two marks are very similar, there is likelihood of confusion. During your case, the Court will compare marks directly. Marks can be similar in several ways.
- They could look the same.
- They could sound the same. “Quick” and “kwik,” for example.
- They could have the same meaning—Mr. Clean and Mr. Rust.
- They could be sued for the same purpose.
If you can prove similarity, your case will be easier to win.
Closeness of Goods
How similar are the products of your business and the other business in your case? If you and the other business offer the same goods, confusion is likely. Take Apple and Microsoft, for example. They both produce computers branded with their trademarks. While their products are similar, their marks are not. This means there is now confusion.
Now imagine your business and another business produce t-shirts. Your products are similar. If your marks are also similar, customers may be easily confused. Similar products and similar marks often lead to confusion.
Consumers are very intelligent. This is especially true when they’re buying expensive items. Courts take this into account during trademark suits. If you and the defendant make high-priced items, confusion is hard to prove. This is because big purchases are made carefully.
Confusion is easier to prove with impulse buys. Small, cheap products are bought quickly. Not much thought goes into it. This makes it easy for consumers to confuse cheap products. Consider the price of the products in your case. If they can be bought without thought, confusion can happen.
Quality of Service
In trademark cases, quality of goods matter. A court is more likely to rule for a business with higher quality goods.
- You need to prove the quality of your own goods.
- You need to show that your goods have a higher quality than the defendants.
If you can prove these issues, you will have a better chance of winning your lawsuit.
Intent is important in a legal case. During your case, the court will review if the defendant intended to confuse the public by using your trademark. If there was intent to confuse, you should win your lawsuit.
Unfortunately, intent can be hard to prove. You may not be able to prove intent on your own. Let an attorney handle this complicated method for you.
Who Used the Mark First?
Trademarks are granted based on earliest usage. The business owner that has used a mark has ownership rights. When you’re trying to prove confusion, you need to show that you’ve used your trademark longer. If the defendant can show that you’ve both been using the mark for a similar timespan, you may lose your infringement case.
Be sure to consistently and frequently use your trademark. This will help to protect your ownership.
Proximity of Goods
The court will also consider how close your goods are with the goods of the defendant. This includes both geographic location and within a store. If the businesses in your case are close together, there is a high chance of consumer confusion. Also, if your products are offered in the same stores, in the same aisles, it will be very easy for consumers to confuse your products.
This can be one of the best ways to prove likelihood of confusion, especially if your business has been operating for a longer period of time. A new business that uses a similar mark as yours poses a big threat to your success
Your advertising strategy is also important in your case. The court will review each business’s marketing materials for similarities. This can include the mediums that you market in. Similar marketing can cause customer confusion. This is why it’s so important to have a unique marketing campaign.
Distinct marketing makes it easy to prove that you are being copied. Comparing marketing is one of the top ways to win your infringement suit.
A huge cause for confusion is two similar businesses growing at the same rate. If both businesses are likely to grow into the same area, the Court will usually rule that there is a high chance of confusion. The business that has been operating longer will usually be granted rights to the trademark in question.
Examine your growth rate before filing your case. This will help you to know the strength of your case and if you’re likely to win.
Evidence of Confusion
A compelling factor in your suit is evidence of confusion. Showing that customers have already been confused should lead to a decision in your favor. Customer surveys can provide proof of confusion. You could also gather testimonials from confused customers.
Be careful about the evidence you provide, however. Weak evidence of confusion can end up harming your case.
Having a trademark refused because of likelihood of confusion. Fortunately, there are a few ways to overcome refusals.
Your mark won’t be assigned an Examiner until 14 to 16 weeks after submitting your application. If your Examiner decides your mark is confusing, you will receive a 2(d) Refusal under Section 2(d) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §1052(d). These refusals apply to both the Principal Register and the Supplemental register.
An easy way to avoid these refusals is to do a trademark clearance search before applying. A search will allow you to see if your mark is similar to existing marks and likely to be refused.
Even after a search, you still may receive a notification for likelihood of confusion. This can happen for both registered marks and marks pending registration. Your Examiner will give you copies of these registrations. However, you should always check the dates. If the owner of the mark you want to use misses any deadlines, you may be able to take ownership.
After being notified of similarity, you need to prove that your mark is meaningfully different. You need to find at least two major differences. Closely examine both marks and find as many differences as you can.
Winning a lawsuit depends on avoiding mistakes. While proving confusion, there are two errors you need to avoid.
- Be sure you used your mark first. The court heavily considers first usage. If the defendant used the mark first, then you are the one who is infringing and will lose rights to your mark.
- Use your mark as much as you can. If a business doesn’t use a mark for three years, it is considered legally abandoned. A suit based on an abandoned mark is very weak and easy to use.
Likelihood of Confusion FAQ
- Does Likelihood of Confusion Include Service Marks?
Yes. Both service marks and trademarks are intellectual property. Service marks are used for services instead of goods. Service marks are just as easily confused as trademarks.
- How is Likelihood of Confusion Noticed?
Likelihood of confusion happens three ways.
- A person may be notified when trying to register a trademark.
- It may be noticed when two businesses are interacting in some way.
- Likelihood of confusion can be revealed during an infringement lawsuit.
- Who Decides Confusion?
A court of law decides confusion in most cases. If it is noticed during registration, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) may offer a ruling.
- Do I Need an Attorney?
Yes. Legal issues should always be handled by an attorney. Hiring an attorney makes your case much easier. It also increases your chance of success.
- Can Confusion Occur Online?
Yes. Businesses regular advertise online. This means there is the same chance of confusion as with other ads. Confusion may be much easier online. This is because online ads are read quickly.
- Can I Still Be Held Liable if No Confusion Exists?
Yes. Not infringing on a trademark doesn’t mean you aren’t harming it. Trademarks are also subject to dilution laws. Dilution means an owner cannot use their mark effectively because its uniqueness has been diminished. If you cause someone else’s trademark to be diluted, you can be held liable.
Proving trademark infringement can be difficult. This is especially true when likelihood of confusion is involved. Don’t try to handle your case on your own. Prove likelihood of confusion with the help of an attorney from the UpCounsel marketplace.
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