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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today In Brand History: Trademark Protection

(photo credit: original AI created image)

On July 8, 1870, the US Congress passed the Act of July 8, 1870, marking a pivotal moment in the history of trademark protection in the United States. This act laid the foundation for the development of a federal system that would safeguard the rights of brand owners and contribute to the growth of commerce.

The concept of trademarks traces back to ancient times when craftsmen and merchants used distinctive marks or symbols to identify their goods and distinguish them from others. These marks became crucial in signaling the quality and origin of products, making it easier for consumers to identify specific makers. Over time, guilds and local authorities began regulating these marks to ensure fair trade practices. Editors Note: This is also a pivotal development in the evolution of the concept of "brands" and branding as these marks or symbols came to stand for the quality of a product and made it easier to identify a specific product and maker. More on the topic of branding in a future post.

In the early years of the United States, trademarks were primarily protected through common law and state legislation. However, this fragmented system lacked uniformity and posed challenges for businesses operating across state lines. The rise of international exhibitions in the 19th century exposed American businesses to foreign competition, highlighting the need for comprehensive trademark protection.

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Recognizing the necessity for a centralized system, Congress took a significant step forward with the Act of July 8, 1870. This act authorized the Commissioner of Patents, who oversaw the United States Patent Office, to create and maintain a register of trademarks. Although it did not establish a federal trademark system as we know it today, it provided a platform for brand owners to claim priority and protect their marks within the federal jurisdiction.

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The Act of July 8, 1870, served as a precursor to subsequent legislation that refined and strengthened trademark protection. The Trademark Act of 1881 established a more comprehensive framework for registration and enforcement, granting federal recognition and protection to registered marks across all states. This marked an important milestone in establishing a nationwide trademark system.

Throughout the 20th century, several landmark acts shaped the landscape of trademark law. The Trademark Act of 1905 provided further clarity on infringement and expanded the scope of protection. The Lanham Act of 1946, also known as the Trademark Act of 1946, codified various provisions related to registration, enforcement, and infringement, solidifying the legal framework for trademarks.

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Trademark law encountered numerous challenges and landmark court cases that shaped its interpretation and application. One notable case is Kellogg Co. v. National Biscuit Co. (1938), in which Kellogg Company sued National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) over the use of the term "shredded wheat" to describe a competing product. The court ruled that "shredded wheat" had become a generic term, and Kellogg could not claim exclusive rights to it. This case emphasized the importance of maintaining fair competition and preventing the monopolization of descriptive terms.

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Another significant case is Abercrombie & Fitch Co. v. Hunting World Inc. (1976), which introduced the concept of the "spectrum of distinctiveness." The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Abercrombie & Fitch, stating that Hunting World's use of a similar trademark could cause confusion among consumers. This case highlighted the need to consider the similarity and potential for confusion when evaluating trademark infringement.

In the digital era, new challenges and opportunities arose in trademark protection. The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act of 1999 addressed domain name abuses and cybersquatting, safeguarding trademarks in the online space. A notable case, Panavision International, L.P. v. Toeppen, involved the bad faith registration and use of domain names incorporating Panavision's trademark. The court ruled in favor of Panavision, emphasizing the need to protect trademarks in the digital realm.

Throughout history, trademark law has evolved to adapt to changing societal and technological landscapes. From ancient marks of identification to the establishment of a federal trademark system, it has played a vital role in protecting brand owners' rights and ensuring fair competition. The Act of July 8, 1870, laid the groundwork for the development of trademark protection in the United States, paving the way for the comprehensive legal framework we have today.

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Did you know?

  • The first trademark registered under the Act of July 8, 1870, was for Averill Chemical Paint. This registration symbolized the beginning of a formalized system for trademark protection.

  • The trademark symbol "®" indicating federal registration did not exist until the passage of the Trademark Act of 1946. Before that, businesses relied on the "TM" symbol to indicate common law usage of a mark.

  • Trademarks have evolved beyond words and symbols to encompass non-traditional marks such as sounds, colors, and scents. For example, MGM's lion roar and Tiffany & Co.'s distinctive blue color are registered trademarks.

  • The Coca-Cola brand, one of the world's most valuable trademarks, was first registered in 1893. Today, it is recognized globally and represents a symbol of American culture.

  • The famous Nike "swoosh" logo, designed by Carolyn Davidson in 1971, was initially purchased by Nike co-founder Phil Knight for a mere $35. It has since become one of the most recognizable logos in the world.


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