Professors Barton Beebe and C. Scott Hemphill of New York University School of Law challenge trademark orthodoxy in their new article, “The Scope of Strong Marks: Should Trademark Law Protect the Strong More Than The Weak?,” 92 N.Y.U. Law. Rev. 1390 (November 2017). [pdf here]. It is a black letter principle of trademark law that the stronger the mark, the greater the scope of protection it is accorded. Not so fast, say the professors.
In this article, we challenge this conventional wisdom. We argue that as a mark achieves very high levels of strength, the relation between strength and confusion turns negative. The very strength of such a superstrong mark operates to ensure that consumers will not mistake other marks for it. Thus, the scope of protection for such marks ought to be narrower compared to merely strong marks. If we are correct, then numerous trademark disputes involving the best-known marks should be resolved differently—in favor of defendants. Our approach draws support from case law of the Federal Circuit—developed but then suppressed by that court—and numerous foreign jurisdictions.
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It makes strong intuitive sense that as a trademark grows increasingly famous, the likelihood that consumers will confuse similar marks with it declines. Consider the example of Coca-Cola. Having been exposed to the Coca-Cola logo countless times, the average consumer is likely sensitized to even the slightest differences between the distinctive appearance of the logo and closely similar logos.
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The Article examines the underpinnings of American courts’ mistaken analysis, explains the errors, and urges essential reforms in this core area of trademark doctrine in order to advance the overarching policy goal of trademark law, which is not to enable the strongest to grow even stronger, but rather to promote effective competition.