In U.S. trademark law, use of a trademark matters a lot. Rights generally go to the “senior” user. That is whoever has earlier or prior use. This can mean that determining who is the senior user generally determines who has rights and who is an infringer. But what if a “junior” user has a federal trademark registration? Does a later trademark registration mean the registrant prevails over a prior user? Can a junior user’s registration be asserted against the senior user? Is the result the same even when the prior user never registered the trademark and only has “common law” rights?
Prior Use Prevails
Courts have said that a prior trademark user prevails over a later registration. However, prior use by one business followed by later federal registration by another sometimes leads to concurrent rights by multiple entities. How that works depends on the geographic scope of the senior user’s pre-registration use. For example, if the most senior user only uses a mark in a limited geographic area, a later user in a remote geographic area might obtain concurrent use rights in that particular area prior to the senior user obtaining a federal registration.
This happened in a famous case involving the mark BURGER KING for restaurant services. A party that began using the same mark in part of Illinois without knowledge of the senior party’s use elsewhere retained concurrent exclusive rights to continue use it in an area around one city, despite the senior party having previously used the mark in numerous other states and later federally registering it. Burger King of Florida, Inc. v. Hoots, 403 F.2d 904 (7th Cir. 1968).
Another case like this involved the mark OLD DUTCH for packaged pretzels. There, different parties had been using the same mark for the same goods in different parts of the country. One party (Dee Dee) was the first user in six states before the other party (Old Dutch Foods) obtained a federal registration. The later federal registration could not prevent concurrent use by the prior user Dee Dee in those six states. The court determined that each party was entitled to a concurrent use federal registration, each registration limited to particular geographic areas. Old Dutch Foods, Inc. v. Dan Dee Pretzel & Potato Chip Co., 477 F.2d 150 (6th Cir. 1973).
There can even be situations in which a prior user’s rights encompass the entire country. In that situation, the later registrant can be prevented (enjoined) from using its registered mark anywhere in the country (even as a corporate trade name) and the later registration cancelled. Cuban Cigar Brands N.V. v. Upmann Int’l, Inc., 457 F. Supp. 1090, 199 USPQ 193 (S.D.N.Y. 1978), aff’d 607 F.2d 995 (2d Cir. 1979).
Incontestability Changes Nothing
Priority of use generally prevails even if the later registration becomes incontestable. Indeed Section 15 of the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. § 1065) says:
“except to the extent, if any, to which the use of a mark registered on the principal register infringes a valid right acquired under the law of any State or Territory by use of a mark or trade name continuing from a date prior to the date of registration under this chapter of such registered mark, the right of the owner to use such registered mark in commerce for the goods or services on or in connection with which such registered mark has been in continuous use for five consecutive years subsequent to the date of such registration and is still in use in commerce, shall be incontestable . . . .”15 U.S.C. § 1065
As a court summarized the law this way. “The plain meaning of this language is that if a party has acquired common-law trademark rights continuing since before the publication of the federal registration, then to that extent the registration will not be incontestable” and “geographically defined areas of exclusive use are required for each party . . . .” Wrist-Rocket Mfg. Co., Inc. v. Saunders Archery Co., 578 F.2d 727, 731 (8th Cir. 1978).
Under U.S. trademark law, it matters who was first to use a trademark. Trademark rights arise from use. Even when there is a federal trademark registration, the registration must bow to prior use. That is to say that a registration does not trump prior use. Of course, unregistered common law trademark rights are limited only to the geographic markets in which prior use has occurred substantially consistently and continually.
However, the law can be different in other countries. Common law rights are not recognized in the same way in all countries. First-to-file trademark laws in many countries give rights to the first to register, regardless of others’ prior use. Although even in first-to-file regimes there might be limited prior use defenses available. These questions require legal review under the laws of each relevant country or jurisdiction.
Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.