July 14, 2022

PTO Lowers the Bar for Genericness Refusals

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The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) recently issued Examination Guide 1-22, Clarification of Examination Evidentiary Standard for Marks Refused as Generic (Guide 1-22), which amends the PTO's stance on the appropriate evidentiary burden for examining attorneys refusing registration based on genericness. Previously, the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP) required an examining attorney to meet the demanding "clear evidence" standard to establish the prima facie case necessary for a genericness refusal. Guide 1-22, however, sets forth a lesser burden, stating that examining attorneys need only sufficient evidence to support a "reasonable predicate" for finding a mark generic. The shift marks a clear departure from longstanding TMEP practice.

The PTO credits the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit as the initial source of the "clear evidence" standard. In its 1987 case In re Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith, Inc., the Federal Circuit relied on language in the TMEP stating that "the showing [for a genericness refusal] must be based on clear evidence of generic use." Following this decision, the TMEP was revised to include the "clear evidence" standard, and the Federal Circuit later found that "clear evidence" is equivalent to "clear and convincing evidence."

Despite years of reliance on the "clear evidence" standard, Guide 1-22 asserts that "there is no statutory basis for applying a heightened standard." The guide states that the Federal Circuit initially misinterpreted the TMEP: "Read in context, the term ‘clear' was meant to convey the ordinary meaning of the term, not an evidentiary burden." Further, the Federal Circuit's interpretation of "clear evidence" as equivalent to "clear and convincing evidence" "was not intended by the TMEP and is inconsistent with the preponderance of the evidence burden the Federal Circuit requires to prove claims that a registered mark is generic in the inter partes cancellation context."

Following issuance of Guide 1-22, the PTO revised the TMEP to reflect the "reasonable predicate" evidentiary standard for genericness refusals. (See TMEP § 1209.01(c)(i).)

Practice Note: Agency guidelines do not have the force of law, so it will be interesting to see how the Federal Circuit treats these updated guidelines.

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