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May 19, 2022

Déjà vu Decision on Likelihood of Confusion

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The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court's dismissal of a trademark suit that was essentially identical to a previous lawsuit that was dismissed based on a finding of lack of confusion. Springboards to Education, Inc. v. Pharr San Juan Alamo Independent School District, Case No. 21-40336 (5th Cir. May 10, 2022) (Willett, Engelhardt, Wilson, JJ.)

Springboards sells products to school districts in connection with its "Read a Million Words Campaign." The campaign builds excitement around reading by incentivizing school children to read books through promises of induction into the Millionaire's Reading Club and access to rewards, such as t-shirts, backpacks and fake money. Springboards' goods may typically bear any combination of trademarks that it registered with the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO), including "Read a Million Words," "Million Dollar Reader," "Millionaire Reader" and "Millionaire's Reading Club."

Pharr San Juan Alamo (PSJA) is a public school district in Hidalgo County, Texas. Springboards sued PSJA in 2016 in federal court, alleging trademark infringement based on the school district's use of "millionaire"-themed reading incentive programs allegedly "using products and services bearing marks and branding identical to or confusingly similar to Springboards' marks." While the case was pending, the Fifth Circuit issued its decision in Springboards to Education, Inc. v. Houston Independent School District, where it found that another public school district's summer reading program did not infringe Springboards' trademarks. Observing the parallels between the Houston case and the PSJA case, the district court granted PSJA's motion for summary judgment that it did not infringe any of Springboards' trademarks. Springboards appealed.

Calling it "déjà vu all over again," the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding that PSJA's use of Springboards' marks was not likely to cause confusion. The Court explained that distinguishing between Springboards' catalog of "millionaire"-themed goods and unaffiliated "millionaire"-themed goods that other educational entities have elected to deploy is not difficult, and unique imprints on "millionaire"-themed reading challenges are widespread in the educational field. The Court noted that as in Houston, Springboards did not allege that PSJA itself is in the business of competing with Springboards by selling its own "millionaire"-themed products to the school districts that make up Springboards' customer base. The Court thus concluded that PSJA's use of a million-word reaching challenge did not confuse and was not intended to confuse the sophisticated school districts that Springboards targets with its marks.

Springboards tried to distinguish the Houston case by arguing that the Houston school district had one summer reading program whereas PSJA has had several year-long reading programs and that the requirements of PSJA's reading program are identical—and not merely similar to—Springboards' model program. Springboards also noted that its founder worked his entire career in Hildago County (where PSJA is located) and visited schools, teachers and administrators in the district—unlike Houston, which was over 300 miles away. The Court found that these facts did not move the needle, in light of its finding that sophisticated school district customers can tell the differences between the goods that Springboards is selling them and the goods that PSJA is not selling them.

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