Can You Trademark a Domain Name?
If one cannot duplicate a phone number or street address, then why should one have the power to duplicate a domain name? Domain names, similar to words and symbols, can be used to identify a seller’s products and distinguish them from the products of another, and are thus viewed as trademarks. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that a business must use its domain name to sell goods or services in order to protect the name — even if a competitor starts to use the name after you registered the domain. In other words, merely reserving a domain name isn’t enough. Thus, its important to register your domain name, because if your domain name has a trademark, the URL has protection under the USPTO.
Establishing Trademark Infringement Under Lanham Act
The Trademark Act of 1946 (“Lanham Act”) prohibits uses of trademarks that are likely to cause confusion about the source of a product or service. 15 U.S.C. §§ 1114, 1125(a). Moreover, to establish a trademark infringement claim under the Lanham Act, a plaintiff must establish that defendant’s use of a mark is confusing similar to plaintiff’s. Id. The main area of inquiry in trademark infringement cases is whether the similarity of the marks is likely to confuse customers about the source of a product or service. Brookfield Communications, Inc. W. coast Entm’t corp., 174 F.3d 1036, 1062 (1999).
Trademarking a Domain Name
To protect your business or brand from infringement, you may want to trademark your domain name in addition to a logo, slogan, or design. Merely, registering a domain name does not give you trademark rights, rather it identifies your website and generally will not prevent others from using the name. If you trademark your domain name, you have legal protection if a third party uses your trademarked name. You can file a trademark infringement action against the infringing party and recover money damages, financial losses, and other damages you might have incurred.
When Does a Domain Name Qualify as a Trademark?
The domain should function as a “source indicator.” It must convey to whoever sees the URL what products or services are behind the name. A domain qualifies as a trademark when it is a “source indicator.” Your domain must convey the products or services associated with the name to whoever sees the URL. Not all domain names can be registered as trademarks. The PTO is particular about what can be registered as a domain name.
Third Party Using Similar Domain Name Causes a Likelihood of Initial Interest Confusion Among Potential Consumers
Consumer confusion occurs when another company has a domain name close in spelling to your domain. The other company’s name might different by one letter. Generally, consumer confusion matters only if a domain name that’s similar to the one you want to use is a protected trademark. To be protected, a trademark must be distinctive. If the trademark owner has been able to register a name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it is probably distinctive. The dispositive question in trademark infringement cases is whether the similarity of the marks is likely to confuse customers about the source of a product or service. Interstellar Starship Services, Ltd. V. Epix, Inc., 304 F. 3d 936, 941 (2002).
Trademarks: Initial Interest Confusion Among Potential Consumers
Initial interest confusion occurs when the defendant’s use of plaintiff’s trademark sways consumers towards their own product or service by capturing “initial consumer attention.” Brookfield at 1045. In the context of website domain, the defendant’s unauthorized use of the trademark confuses consumers who expect to find the plaintiff’s product or service at that web address. Interstellar at 942. Although actual confusion is not required, plaintiff must prove a probability of confusion, as the mere possibility is not enough. Perfumebay.com Inc. v. eBay, Inc., 506 F.3d 1165, 1176.
Sleekcraft Factors of Likelihood of Confusion
To evaluate the likelihood of confusion, including initial interest confusion, the Sleekcraft factors considered are:
(1) the similarity of the marks;
(2) the relatedness or proximity of the two companies’ products or services;
(3) the strength of the registered mark;
(4) the marketing channels used;
(5) the degree of care likely to be exercised by the purchaser in selecting goods;
(6) the accused infringers‘ intent in selecting its mark;
(7) evidence of actual confusion; and
(8) the likelihood of expansion in product lines.
Courts consider these factors within the totality of the circumstances through the eyes of the “reasonably prudent consumer” in the marketplace, not a person with a legally trained mind. Dreamwerks Production Group, Inc. v. SKG Studio, 142 F.3d 1127, 1129 (1998).
In the context of website domain, courts have held that the three most important Sleekcraft factors in evaluating a likelihood of confusion are (1) the similarity of the marks, (2) the relatedness of the goods or services, and (3) the parties’ simultaneous use of the Web as a marketing channel. Interstellar at 942.
No one factor is to be considered conclusive and the relative importance of each individual factor will be case-specific. Compare Brookfield, 174 F.3d at 1061 (holding that use of the domain name “moviebuff.com” violated plaintiff’s trademark rights in the mark “MovieBuff,” as consumer confusion is likely to result from the relatedness of the products and the companies’ simultaneous use of the Web as a marketing and advertising tool) with Interstellar at 943 (finding that domain name “epix.com” for website showcasing creator’s electronic pictures did not infringe the trademark “EPIX,” used in connection with printed circuit boards and computer programs, because there was a lack of relation between the products and both parties marketed to a different consumer base through the web).
Trademark Owners: Commercial Use in Commerce
The Federal Trademark Dilution Act (FDTA) allows a trademark owner to obtain an injunction against another’s “commercial use in commerce” of a mark or trade name” 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(1). “Commercial use in commerce” has been generally interpreted to mean use of mark in relation to any goods or services. Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, Inc., 296 F.3d 894, 903 (2002).
If you believe someone is infringing on your trademark or have questions regarding trademark registration, copyright, or any other intellectual property related question, we invite you to contact our office and speak to an experienced Los Angeles trademark lawyer at (310) 943-1171.