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The U.S. Supreme Court Weighs In On the Concept Tacking

Supreme CourtIt’s not very often that the United States Supreme Court decides a trademark issue but this month the Supremes delivered an opinion on a question of trademark law called “tacking.” So what is “tacking?” If you know, you probably should be reading a more advanced blog, but if you don’t, tacking is a doctrine for establishing trademark priority in some infringement cases. Here’s how it works.

Typically, the owner of a trademark has priority over other users of the same or similar trademark if it began using the trademark in commerce first. We call that trademark owner the “senior” or “priority” user. Now, should the senior user decide it wishes to revise its trademark, the owner may lose its priority date. That may be okay unless the trademark owner is involved in infringement litigation.  Then it would be desirable to have its priority based upon the original trademark, not the revised one.  Courts may apply the original priority date if the trademark owner did not change the so-called “commercial impression” of the original trademark.  This is called “tacking” and the test of whether to apply tacking is whether

the original and revised marks are “legal equivalents” in that they create the same, continuing commercial impression….from the perspective of an ordinary purchaser or consumer

Apparently, there was a split among federal circuit courts over whether the judge or jury should determine whether tacking is applicable in an infringement case. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari for the purpose of resolving this question. In an opinion delivered by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that a jury should make the determination although it did not rule out circumstances, such as bench trials, where a judge could.  Here’s what the Court wrote:

Application of a test that relies upon an ordinary consumer’s understanding of the impression that a mark conveys falls comfortably within the ken of a jury. Indeed, we have long recognized across a variety of doctrinal contexts that, when the relevant question is how an ordinary person or community would make an assessment, the jury is generally the decision maker that ought to provide the fact-intensive answer.

So you see the jury system is alive and well even when it comes to application of trademark principles.

— Adam G. Garson, Esq.