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 Chilling Effects Clearinghouse > ACPA > Notices > Nextel Says "Don't Pimp My Mark" (NoticeID 2322, Printer-friendly version

Nextel Says "Don't Pimp My Mark"

June 22, 2005


Sender Information:
Nextel Communications, Inc.
Sent by: [private]
2001 Edmund Halle
Reston, VA, 20191, US

Recipient Information:
Jeremy Schoemaker
Nextpimp INC
P.O. Box 6703
Omaha, Nebraska, 68106, USA

Sent via: postmail, email,

Dear Mr. Schoemaker:

Nextel Communications, Inc. ("Nextel") has learned that you have registered the above-referenced domain name, Nextel is a leader in providing wireless telecommunications products and services throughout the world. Nextel has used its famous NEXTEL mark in connection with telecommunications services since at least as early as 1988 and owns several United States federal trademark registrations for the mark NEXTEL, including registration number 1,637,139 in International Class 38 for telecommunication services. As a result of Nextel's federal registrations and its continuous use of the mark since 1988, Nextel has exclusive rights in and to the mark NEXTEL.

Your unauthorized registration and use of the above-referenced domain name infringes Nextel's valuable trademark rights and unfairly trades upon Nextel's fame and established goodwill. Further, the appearance of your website infringes Nextel

FAQ: Questions and Answers

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Question: What is a trademark and why does it get special protection?

Answer: A trademark includes any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods. In short, a trademark is a brand name.

Consumers reap the benefit when trademarks are protected. By preventing anyone but the actual mark owner from labeling goods with the mark, it helps prevent consumers getting cheated by shoddy knock-off imitators. It encourages mark owners to maintain quality goods so that customers will reward them by looking for their label as an indication of excellence. Consumers as well as mark owners benefit from trademark laws.

Trademark owners spend a lot of time, money, and effort to protect the distinctiveness of their trademark. Once trademarks have become diluted to the point where the general public no longer recognizes them as distinctly applying to a particular manufacturer, they lose their value to the trademark owner because they no longer attract customers to his particular goods. For example, ?aspirin? used to be the trademark of one particular manufacturer of synthesized acetylsalicylic acid, but is now used to generically describe that product regardless of who produces it. Trademarks owners must be vigilant to make sure that their trademarks rights are not being infringed and that their trademarks are not becoming diluted or generic.

The birth of the Internet and the use of character strings (domain names) to represent Internet addresses has presented trademark owners with a whole new set of problems. It is often too expensive to register every variation of a trademark in every top level domain. Therefore, trademark owners must make sure that the people who register domain names that are either the same as or confusingly similar to a trademark are not using the domain name in a way that infringes on the trademark. One way to ensure that the trademark owner will not lose its rights in the mark is to file a UDRP complaint so that the Panel can decide whether the domain was registered in order to take unfair advantage of the mark owner. The Panel may decide that the trademark owner was wrong and had nothing to worry about, but unless the trademark owner is vigilant and files the complaint, it may never know for sure whether its rights were being abused.

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Question: How can I find out if someone has a valid trademark?

Answer: It isn't easy. In the United States, a trademark owner isn't required to register the mark anywhere, so there is no single central list of them all. Unlike most other nations, registration here is optional.

Many owners do register their marks with the government, however, to better notify the world of their claims. Each state has its own trademark registry for goods and services sold locally. For companies that sell in more than one state, there is a US federal registry that is accessible online through TESS. TESS is searchable by key word as well as by registration number.

Because registration is not required, however, a word might still be a protected mark even if it doesn't appear in any of these locations.

When a company is selecting a new brand, its trademark attorney will usually conduct a "trademark availability" search which will look in many different locations to try and ferret out competing uses of the desired name. Business directories, Internet search engines, telephone directories are other searched sources. Multi-national vendors will search trademark registries in foreign nations as well.

Even the most exhaustive search will not be conclusive, however, but it will usually indicate that if there is any other commercial use, it is probably limited to a very local area. It is OK to use the same mark as another company, so long as the new use isn't likely to confuse consumers.

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Question: Does the product or service on which I am using the mark matter? Do dates matter?

Answer: It matters if the mark is not famous. The C&D should disclose your opponent?s products and/or services and the date on which it commenced use of the allegedly infringed mark. This will help you guesstimate whether a likelihood of confusion between the marks exists. For instance, if your opponent uses ?opera? on truffles and you use "opera" on silk gloves, consumers are not likely to confuse the products. If the mark is determined by a court to be famous, however, confusion is irrelevant and [non-fair] use on any type of goods may be an infringement.

The date on which your opponent began using the mark is significant because a junior (later) user cannot displace a senior (first) user in the senior user?s geographic region. In other words, if you have owned a chain of donut shops called "Lucky Donuts," with locations in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut since 1943, a national chain called "Lucky Donuts" founded in 1979 has no trademark infringement claim against you in the NJ-NY-CT tri-state area. If your opponent has begun using its allegedly infringed mark after your use, you have another reason to question the merit of the C&D.

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Question: What exactly are the rights a trademark owner has?

Answer: In the US, trademark rights come from actual use of the mark to label one's services or products or they come from filing an application with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that states an intention to use the mark in future commerce. In most foreign countries, trademarks are valid only upon registration.

There are two trademark rights: the right to use (or authorize use) and the right to register.

The person who establishes priority rights in a mark gains the exclusive right to use it to label or identify their goods or services, and to authorize others to do so. According to the Lanham Act, determining who has priority rights in a mark involves establishing who was the first to use it to identify his/her goods.

The PTO determines who has the right to register the mark. Someone who registers a trademark with the intent to use it gains "constructive use" when he/she begins using it, which entitles him/her to nationwide priority in the mark. However, if two users claim ownership of the same mark (or similar marks) at the same time, and neither has registered it, a court must decide who has the right to the mark. The court can issue an injunction (a ruling that requires other people to stop using the mark) or award damages if people other than the owner use the trademark (infringement).

Trademark owners do not acquire the exclusive ownership of words. They only obtain the right to use the mark in commerce and to prevent competitors in the same line of goods or services from using a confusingly similar mark. The same word can therefore be trademarked by different producers to label different kinds of goods. Examples are Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets.

Owners of famous marks have broader rights to use their marks than do owners of less-well-known marks. They can prevent uses of their marks by others on goods that do not even compete with the famous product.

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Question: What is the bare minimum of trademark law that I have to understand to decipher this C&D?

Answer: Your opponent should say that your mark is causing consumer confusion or is likely to cause consumer confusion. Or it should mention it's famousness and complain of dilution or tarnishment. (If the C&D does not say this, then no trademark claim may actually exist, and you can rest assured that your opponent is engaging in scare tactics or has hired a highly incompetent attorney). A mark protects more than identical copying, it extends to anything that is confusingly similar, even if it isn't exactly the same.

Functioning in a quasi-magical talisman-like capacity, trademarks designate the source or quality of goods or services. For this reason, the law protects against confusion in the market place by ensuring that marks on the same or similar products or services are sufficiently different. The law also protects famous marks against dilution of value and tarnishment of the reputation of the goods or services on which it appears or the source of those products, regardless of any confusion.

You can roughly assess the validity of your opponent?s claim of confusion by classifying the marks involved. A trademark can fall into one of 5 categories. It can be: (1) fanciful; (2) arbitrary; (3) suggestive; (4) descriptive; or (5) generic. Not all of these varieties of marks are entitled to the same level, or indeed any level, of trademark protection.

A fanciful mark is a mark someone made up; examples include KODAK or H?AGEN-DAZS. An arbitrary mark is a known term applied to a completely unrelated product or service; for instance, for an online book-store cum one-stop shopping site or APPLE for computers. Fanciful and arbitrary marks are considered strong marks and garner substantial trademark protection.

A suggestive mark is one that hints at the product, but which requires an act of imagination to make the connection: COPPERTONE for sun tan lotion or PENGUIN for coolers or refrigerators are examples. Suggestive marks are also strong marks and receive protection.

A descriptive mark, predictably, describes the product: HOLIDAY INN describes a vacation hotel and FISH-FRI describes batter for frying fish. Descriptive marks do not receive any trademark protection unless their user has used them in commerce and has built up secondary meaning. "Secondary meaning" occurs when consumers identify the goods or services on which the descriptive term appears with a single source. In other words, if consumers know that HOLIDAY INN hotels are all affiliated with a single source, then the mark has secondary meaning and receives trademark protection.

Finally, generic marks simply designate the variety of goods involved: for example, "cola" used on soft drinks and "perfume" on perfume are both generic terms. Generic marks never receive any trademark protection; they are free for everybody to use. (Keep in mind, though, that "Cola" on a nightclub is arbitrary, and therefore receives protection).

If your opponent is complaining that you have used the word "bakery" for a bake shop or "car" for a car repair shop, then you can safely guess that the c & d is baseless. On the other hand, if your opponent is concerned about the fact that both of you use of the term "Sweet Pickles" on alpaca sweaters, then the c & d may have some merit.

There are a few more wrinkles as well. Some marks are word marks (text only) and others are design marks (images which may or may not include text). Design marks do not provide independent protectin for the text incorporated in the design. So if the mark is only a design mark, it doesn't prevent others from using the text so long as they don't copy the design elements.

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Question: What is trade dress?

Answer: Trade Dress is a distinctive, nonfunctional feature, which distinguishes a merchant's or manufacturer's goods or services from those of another. The trade dress of a product involves the "total image" and can include the color of the packaging, the configuration of goods, etc... Even the theme of a restaurant may be considered trade dress. Examples include the packaging for Wonder Bread, the tray configuration for Healthy Choice frozen dinners, and the color scheme of Subway sub shops. Such a broad and ambiguous definition makes trade dress very easy to manipulate. Seeking protection against trade dress infringements can be vital to the survival of a business.

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Question: What implication does alleged confusion have on claims of trademark infringement?

Answer: A mark that is confusingly similar so closely resembles a registered trademark that it is likely to confuse consumers as to the source of the product or service. Consumers could be likely to believe that the product with the confusingly similar mark is produced by the organization that holds the registered mark. Someone who holds a confusingly similar mark benefits from the good will associated with the registered mark and can lure customers to his/her product or service instead. Infringement is determined by whether your mark is confusingly similar to a registered mark. The factors that determine infringement include:

  • proof of actual confusion
  • strength of the established mark
  • proximity of the goods in the marketplace
  • similarity of the marks? sound
  • appearance and meaning
  • how the goods are marketed
  • type of product and how discerning the customer is
  • intent behind selecting the mark
  • likelihood of expansion in the market of the goods

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Question: What is the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA)?

Answer: The ACPA [codified as 15 USC 1125(d)] is aimed at people who register a domain name with the intention of taking financial advantage of another's trademark. For instance, if BURGER KING did not have a web site, and you registered with the intent of selling the site to BURGER KING for a royal ransom, you could be liable under ACPA.

ACPA applies to people who:
(1) have a bad faith intent to profit from a domain name; and
(2) register, use or traffic in a domain name;
(3) that is identical, confusingly similar, or dilutive of certain trademarks. The trademark does not have to be registered.

ACPA provides that cyberpirates can be fined between $1,000 and $100,000 per domain name for which they are found liable, as well as being forced to transfer the domain name.

Somewhat more broadly, the Act is meant to reduce consumers' confusion about the source and sponsorship of Internet web pages. The idea is to provide customers with a measure of reliability, so that when they visit, they will be able to find actual Burger King products, not something entirely different. It also protects mark owners from loss of customer goodwill that might occur if others used the trademark to market disreputable goods or services.

See the module on ACPA to find out more about bad faith and legitimate defenses.

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Question: What is trademark dilution?

Answer: A type of infringement of a famous trademark in which the defendant's use, while not causing a likelihood of confusion, tarnishes the image or blurs the distintiveness of the plaintiff's mark. For example, if someone tries to sell "KODAK" pianos, KODAK could stop the person--even if consumers were not confused--because "KODAK" is a famous mark, and its use on products other than film and film-printing accessories (or other products on which Eastman Kodak places the mark) dilutes its uniqueness.

Many states have anti-dilution laws. The federal government only recently enacted anti-dilution legislation; see the Federal Trademark Dilution Act at 15 USC 1125(c).

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Question: I do not know what these cases or statutes cited in the C&D mean.

Answer: If your opponent has cited cases and statutes in the C&D, do not freak out. The fact that your opponent can include some legal authority in the C&D does not mean that the law is on its side. If you can, go look up the cases and statutes to see what they say. You can go to the nearest law school's law library for help, or you can try a free legal resource web site like Findlaw. Many of them are accessible on the Internet by keyword search using the full case name or it's citation (the numbers and abbreviations that follow the names of the parties).

If your opponent is relying on federal law, it will probably cite one or more of the following sections of the Lanham Act:
(1) section 32 (also known as section 1114);
(2) section 43(a) [a/k/a section 1125(a)]; or
(3) section 43(c) [a/k/a section 1125(c)]. (The smaller numbers indicate how the statutory sections were numbered when the law was a bill in Congress; the larger numbers indicate how the statutory sections were re-numbered when the law was codified in the U.S. Code. Under either numbering system, the laws say the same thing). An additional statute, the Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) [a/k/a section 1125(d) relates specifically to domain names.

Section 32 (codified as 15 U.S.C. 1114) is the basic statute governing trademark infringement of registered marks. If you use a mark in commerce that is confusingly similar to a registered trademark, you may be civilly liable under section 32. This section describes how to determine infringement, what the remedies are, and what defenses are available.

Section 43(a) [codified as 15 U.S.C. 1125(a)] is the "false designation of origin" statute. If you use a mark in commerce that is likely to cause confusion or deception as to affiliation, association, origin, or sponsorship with another trademark, you may be civilly liable under section 43(a). Section 43(a) does not require that any of the marks be registered.

Section 43(c)[codified as 15 U.S.C. 1125(c)] is the "anti-dilution" provision. This section allows the owner of a famous trademark to prevent use of the mark by junior users whose use

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Question: What is unfair competition?

Answer: "Unfair competition" covers a wide range of kinds of unjust business behavior---so many kinds, in fact, that it is impossible to give one simple general definition. In essence, unfair competition means trademark infringement or false advertising to confuse the public. In most states, only commercial competitors can be engaged in "unfair competition."

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Question: What defenses are there to trademark infringement or dilution?

Answer: Defendants in a trademark infringement or dilution claim can assert basically two types of affirmative defense: fair use or parody.

Fair use occurs when a descriptive mark is used in good faith for its primary, rather than secondary (trademark), meaning, and no consumer confusion is likely to result. So, for example, a cereal manufacturer may be able to describe its cereal as consisting of "all bran," without infringing upon Kelloggs' rights in the mark "All Bran." Such a use is purely descriptive, and does not invoke the secondary meaning of the mark. Similarly, in one case, a court held that the defendant's use of "fish fry" to describe a batter coating for fish was fair use and did not infringe upon the plaintiff's mark "Fish-Fri." Zatarain's, Inc. v. Oak Grove Smokehouse, Inc., 698 F.2d 786 (5th Cir. 1983). Such uses are privileged because they use the terms only in their purely descriptive sense.

Some courts have recognized a somewhat different, but closely-related, fair-use defense, called nominative use. Nominative use occurs when use of a term is necessary for purposes of identifying another producer's product, not the user's own product. For example, in a recent case, the newspaper USA Today ran a telephone poll, asking its readers to vote for their favorite member of the music group New Kids on the Block. The New Kids on the Block sued USA Today for trademark infringement. The court held that the use of the trademark "New Kids on the Block" was a privileged nominative use because: (1) the group was not readily identifiable without using the mark; (2) USA Today used only so much of the mark as reasonably necessary to identify it; and (3) there was no suggestion of endorsement or sponsorship by the group. The basic idea is that use of a trademark is sometimes necessary to identify and talk about another party's products and services. When the above conditions are met, such a use will be privileged. New Kids on the Block v. News America Publishing, Inc., 971 F.2d 302 (9th Cir. 1992).

Finally, certain parodies of or using trademarks may be permissible if they are not too directly tied to commercial use. The basic idea here is that artistic and editorial parodies of trademarks serve a valuable critical function, and that this critical function is entitled to some degree of First Amendment protection. The courts have adopted different ways of incorporating such First Amendment interests into the analysis. For example, some courts have applied the general "likelihood of confusion" analysis, using the First Amendment as a factor in the analysis. Other courts have expressly balanced First Amendment considerations against the degree of likely confusion. Still other courts have held that the First Amendment effectively trumps trademark law, under certain circumstances. In general, however, the courts appear to be more sympathetic to the extent that parodies are less commercial, and less sympathetic to the extent that parodies involve commercial use of the mark.

So, for example, a risqu? parody of an L.L. Bean magazine advertisement (L.L. Beam's "Back to School Sex Catalog") was found not to constitute infringement. L.L. Bean, Inc. v. Drake Publishers, Inc., 811 F.2d 26, 28 (1st Cir. 1987). Similarly, the use of a pig-like character named "Spa'am" in a Muppet movie was found not to violate Hormel's rights in the trademark "Spam." Hormel Foods Corp. v. Jim Henson Prods., 73 F.3d 497 (2d Cir. 1996). On the other hand, "Gucchie Goo" diaper bags were found not to be protected under the parody defense, Gucci Shops, Inc. v. R.H. Macy & Co., 446 F. Supp. 838 (S.D.N.Y. 1977). Similarly, posters bearing the logo "Enjoy Cocaine" were found to violate the rights of Coca-Cola in the slogan "Enjoy Coca-Cola", Coca-Cola Co. v. Gemini Rising, Inc., 346 F. Supp. 1183 (E.D.N.Y. 1972). In short -- although the courts recognize a parody defense, the precise contours of that defense are difficult to outline with any precision.

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Question: What civil and criminal liabilities may be imposed for trademark infringement?

Answer: Under federal law (Lanham Act Section 32), an infringer shall be liable in a civil action by the registrant for certain remedies provided in the Act.

One such remedy is an injunction, where a court orders a person who was found to violate the Act to stop its infringing activities.

A trademark owner/registrant may also be able to obtain lost profits or damages against a defendant in a civil action only if the acts were committed with knowledge that such imitation was intended to be used to cause confusion, mistake, or to deceive. The trademark owner can recover (1) the domain holder's profits from use of the mark, (2) the trademark owner's damages resulting from harm to the value of mark, and (3) court costs as "actual damages." In determining the award to be paid, the court can choose to award up to three times the amount of actual damages. Instead of having to prove the amount of "actual" damages suffered as above, the mark owner can instead request payment of "statutory damages" from $1000 and $100,000 per domain name.

Attorney fees may be awarded in exceptional circumstances, such as when there was a willful and malicious violation.

The court can order the cancellation or transfer of a domain registration.

In the case of a willful violation of Lanham Act section 43, a court may order that all labels, signs, prints, packages, wrappers, receptacles, and advertisements in the possession of a defendant bearing the registered trademark shall be delivered up and destroyed.

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Question: What does the "reservation of rights" language mean? What are they "waiving" at me?

Answer: Many C&Ds will say something like, "This letter shall not be deemed to be a waiver of any rights or remedies, which are expressly reserved." This is just legalese for saying, "Even if you do what we ask in this letter, we can still sue you later." The language is standard; do not be alarmed. Litigation is extremely unpleasant, and unless your opponent is irrational (always a distinct possibility, of course), it will not bring litigation after it has obtained what it wants.

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