Trademark Training Wheels

You apply to register your trademark. The U.S. Trademark Office says your trademark can’t be registered because it’s “merely descriptive” but, rather than reject your application, the Trademark Office offers you an alternative: You can have your trademark registered on the “Supplemental Register.”

Should you take that deal?

Unless you have some very strong arguments for why your trademark isn’t “merely descriptive” you should probably take the deal and register on the Supplemental Register. Here’s what that will get you:

  • You’ll be able to use the ® symbol.
  • It’ll deter other people from using a trademark similar to your trademark.
  • It’ll give the Trademark Office a basis for rejecting applications to register trademarks that are similar to yours.
  • After five years on the Supplemental Register, you’ll be able to get a registration on the Principal Register.

There are some things you don’t get,[2] but the stuff above is a pretty good bundle of rights.

The Supplemental Register is like training wheels for a trademark. If gives a “merely descriptive” trademark[1] a chance to prove itself and someday make it to the Principal Register, the major leagues of trademarks in the United States.

If the Trademark Office makes that choice available to you, you should probably take it.

 

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[1] The U.S. Trademark Office will allow a “merely descriptive” trademark to be registered on the Supplement Register. The generic word for your goods or services (APPLE brand apples) can’t be on the Supplemental Register because the generic word can never ever become a trademark.

[2] Here’s what you do NOT get:

  • You can’t use a registration on the Supplemental Register to prevent infringing goods from being imported into the United States. 15 USC 1124
  • You don’t get a bunch of advantages in legal actions that make it much easier to establish that you have exclusive rights to the trademark. 15 USC 1057(b) and 15 USC 1115.
  • You can’t move forward with your application on the basis of “intent to use.” Only an application based on actual use (or one that has become an application based on use by filing an “amendment to allege use”) can be registered on the Supplemental Register. 15 USC 1051(b)
  • Your registration doesn’t count as though you had used the trademark everywhere in the United States. 15 USC 1057(c)
  • Being on the Supplemental Register doesn’t count as “constructive notice” to everyone that you have rights in the trademark. 15 USC 1072
  • Your trademark doesn’t go through publication and possible oppositions as part of the process of being registered on the Principal Register. 15 USC 1062 and 15 USC 1063.
  • Your time on the Supplemental Register doesn’t count toward the time needed to claim “incontestability.” 15 USC 1065

Acquired Distinctiveness

If your trademark is “merely descriptive,” the Trademark Office will reject your application to register it. You can’t register:*

  • Tears In a Bottle for eyedrops
  • Two Drawers On Wheels for a rolling file cabinet
  • Fresh Brewed & Hot for a coffee shop

But, if you start using that trademark, make sure other people don’t use it, and reach the point where consumers associate what was once just a descriptive word or phrase with you and only you, then you can get a trademark registration.

Trademark lawyers refer to that as “acquired distinctiveness.” Your trademark was “merely descriptive” but it “acquired distinctiveness” and now you can get the exclusive rights to use it.

That happened recently with CHUNKY for soup.

In 2013, CSC Brands LP (Campbells Soup Company) filed two applications to register trademarks that included CHUNKY and in both cases the Trademark Office examiner refused to grant CSC Brands exclusive rights to CHUNKY because it was “merely descriptive” of soup.

In 2018, CSC Brands tried again and were able to get a registration because they were able to show that CHUNKY, once merely descriptive, had acquired distinctiveness: People now associate that word with a particular company for soup and not just any soup that happened to be chunky.

I don’t usually recommend going with a “merely descriptive” trademark but it can sometimes work out.

 

 

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*This isn’t entirely true. Sometimes you can register the trademark on the “Supplemental Register” of the Trademark Office. You get to use the ® symbol and it sets you up to get a registration on the Principal Register later on.