Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Request for Directed Verdict -- Is "Pods" Generic?


A jury agreed with PODS that U-Haul infringed the "pods" trademark and that U-Haul was unable to prove that the mark was generic.  U-Haul asked for a directed verdict notwithstanding the jury's conclusion and separately asked for a new trial.

The Court noted the narrow lens through which a Rule 50 directed verdict motion is viewed:
A Rule 50 motion should be granted only if the evidence is so overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that a reasonable jury could not arrive at a contrary result.
(quote omitted).  U-Haul argued that it had presented significant evidence including expert testimony, dictionary definitions, patents, media usage, military usage, industry usage, and PODS' own usage to show that the term "pods" was generic at the time of its trademark registration.  The Court first laid out the test for genericness:
The Lanham Act has codified the test for genericness: the primary significance of the mark to the relevant public.15 U.S.C. § 1064(3); Miller's Ale House, Inc. v. Boynton Carolina Ale House, LLC, 702 F.3d 1312, 1320 (11th Cir. 2012).  The term is generic if the primary significance of the mark is "the term by which the product or service itself is commonly known," a depiction of the product as a whole, rather than a particular feature of the product, or the name of a class of products rather than an individual brand.  Welding Servs., Inc. v. Forman, 509 F.3d 1351, 1358 (11th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).  The First Circuit has explained: "Rather than answering the question "where do you come from?", a generic term merely explains "what are you?" Boston Duck Tours, LP v. Super Duck Tours, LLC, 531 F.3d 1, 14 (1st Cir. 2008) (citations omitted).  Genericness is based on the use of a word in its relevant context, not the word itself.  "'[I]vory' is generic of elephant tusks but arbitrary as applied to soap."  Soweco, Inc. v. Shell Oil Co., 617 F.2d 1178, 1183, 1186 (5th Cir. 1980).
The Court then turned to U-Haul's evidence.  The bulk of U-Haul's evidence appeared related to the use of the term "pod" in the aerospace industry (i.e. NASA definitions defining pod as a "streamlined compartment under the wings or fuselage of an airplane used as a container (as for fuel).")  While noting that U-Haul presented a significant amount of evidence, the Court recognized that the jury was entitled to give that evidence whatever weight the jury found appropriate:
The Court's inquiry on a Rule 50 motion based on the sufficiency of evidence is limited to determining "if the evidence is so overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party tht a reasonable jury could not arrive at a contrary verdict." Middlebrooks v. Hillcrest Foods, Inc., 256 F.3d 1241, 1246 (11th Cir. 2007).   It is the jury's role, not the court's, to make credibility determinations and weigh the evidence. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 150–151 (2000). As outlined above, U–Haul presented a significant amount of evidence relevant to its affirmative defense of genericness. However, a careful review of the evidence, in light of the relevant legal standards and the jury's role as finder of fact and appraiser of credibility, leads to the conclusion that there is sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict. See Chambless v.. Louisiana–Pac. Corp.,481 F.3d 1345, 1348 (11th Cir.2007) (denying Rule 50 motion brought by party who bore the burden of proof, where the movant made a prima facie case but there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict); Collado v. UnitedParcel Service, Co., 419 F.3d 1143, 1154 (11th Cir.2005). U– Haul's remaining arguments for overturning the jury's verdict are similarly unavailing.
U-Haul's motion for a new trial failed for the same reasons.

Motion for directed verdict, or alternatively for a new trial, denied.
Pods Enterprises, Inc. v. U-Haul Intern., Inc., Case No. 8:12-cv-1479 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 11, 2015) (J. Whittemore)

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Infringer Sourced The Infringing Goods in China, So Infringement Was Willful, Right?


Washington Shoe Company ("WSC") has sold certain shoes in Target.  (There is debate through the opinion discussed below whether WSC sold its shoes through Target "for years," but I will not get into that factual dispute.)  WSC sent an initial demand letter to Olem Shoe Corp. concerning the below boots:

Olem responded that it was investigating the claim, but WSC had not identified any copyright registrations.  WSC responded with registration information, but the Copyright Office was unable to locate the deposit copies corresponding to the boots.  WSC then filed supplementary registrations to address certain issues.

WSC obtained summary judgment that Olem had infringed, but the district court refused to find the infringement willful.  WSC appealed.  Olem cross-appealed the infringement finding.


Concerning willfulness, WSC argued that it was entitled to a jury determination as to whether or not Olem's infringement was willful.  WSC argued the following facts inferred willfulness:

  • Cease and desist letters;
  • "Striking similarity" of the infringing boots
  • Olem's sourcing of the boots from China because "it is ... well known that China is a source of infringing goods"
  • Olem's inability to point to any other works on which its shoes were based

Neither the district court nor the Eleventh Circuit were convinced.  As to the letters, the Court noted that Olem undertook a serious investigation, and identified issues with WSC's copyright registrations, which required WSC to file supplementary registrations.  As to the similarity of the boots, the court noted that "striking similarity" is a standard for finding infringement, but that did not mean Olem had the necessary state of mind to support a finding of willfulness:
[WSC]'s asserting that the similarity of Olem's boot designs to those of [WSC] "makes it more likely that the work was copied" is, of course true.  [WSC] has indicated no authority, however, that supports its argument that the similarity of the designs is evidence that the copying was willful.  Generally, establishing a reckless state of mind in a copyright case requires a showing that the infringer possessed particular knowledge from which willfulness could be inferred, such as evidence demonstrating that the infringer was given samples of the copyrighted work prior to producing the infringing work.  See Yurman Design, Inc. v. PAJ, Inc., 262 F.3d 101, 112, 113 (2d Cir. 2001) [parenthetical omitted]
As to sourcing the infringing boots in China, the Eleventh Circuit appeared hesitant to follow such an approach:
Although [WSC] notes that Olem did not design its boots and purchased them from China, it does not point to any record evidence to substantiate its claim that these facts "increase[] the probability of infringement" such that a jury could infer that Olem acted recklessly.  This argument, if effective, would impute reckless disregard to any company purchasing and selling products from China that it did not design itself that turned out to be copyrighted by another.  Thus, it is unpersuasive.
The Court was also not persuaded by WSC's argument attempting to attribute a reckless state of mind to Olem for its inability to point to other works on which the boots were based.

Cross-Appeal - Finding of Infringement

Olem's cross appeal attempted to negate the infringement finding based in part on challenging WSC's evidence suggesting broader access to WSC's boots based on purported misrepresentations.  The Court analyzed the WSC boots and Olem boots and concluded the Olem boots were "strikingly similar" to WSC's.  As such, the infringement finding stands.

Olem Shoe Corp. v. Washington Shoe Corp., Case Nos. 12-11227, 12-11356 (11th Cir. Jan. 12, 2015)