The Scope of Strong Marks: Should Trademark Law Protect the Strong More than the Weak?

November
2017
Barton Beebe & C. Scott Hemphill

At the core of trademark law has long been the blackletter principle that the stronger a trademark is, the greater the likelihood that consumers will confuse similar marks with it and thus the wider the scope of protection the mark should receive. The relation between trademark strength and trademark scope is always positive. The strongest marks receive the widest scope of protection.

In this article, we challenge this conventional wisdom. We argue that as a mark achieves very high levels of strength, the relation between strength and confusion turns negative. The very strength of such a superstrong mark operates to ensure that consumers will not mistake other marks for it. Thus, the scope of protection for such marks ought to be narrower compared to merely strong marks. If we are correct, then numerous trademark disputes involving the best-known marks should be resolved differently—in favor of defendants. Our approach draws support from case law of the Federal Circuit—developed but then suppressed by that court—and numerous foreign jurisdictions.

As we show, some courts justify the conventional wisdom on the alternative ground that, whatever the likelihood of confusion, defendants with similar marks should not reap where they have not sown. This misplaced concern with free riding suffers from multiple analytical flaws and is contrary to trademark policy. These flaws are compounded where the mark owner sues a competitor, claiming expansive scope over similar but non-confusing marks. The fundamental change in trademark doctrine that we propose not only conforms to the empirical realities of consumer perception, but also advances the overarching policy goal of trademark law, which is not to enable the strongest to grow even stronger, but rather to promote effective competition. 

This article appears in the November 2017 Issue: Volume 92, Number 5
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