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Steve O'Donnell, Ph.D. Registered Patent Attorney

Using brand names in your work

Some variation of this question comes up at least once a month:

Q: Hey Steve, I'm writing a book and one of the characters likes SpongeBob SquarePants, will I get sued for mentioning SpongeBob?

A: Probably not. You see, trademarks are meant to identify the source of goods or service to assure purchasers of some level of quality. So, you know if you buy a stuffed SpongeBob it won't be filled with tarantula eggs, or if you buy a SpongeBob children's book that it won't be the story of Squidward's suicide. At least, you really wouldn't expect either from Nickelodeon. So, when someone uses a trademark in a non-trademarky way, i.e., in a way that doesn't indicate the source of goods or services (like mentioning SpongeBob in passing in a book or having a character in a film drink a Coca Cola) the First Amendment comes into play and we have to determine which one beats the other (hint: it's real hard to beat the First Amendment).

The big case on this is Rogers v. Grimaldi, which established that use of a celebrity's name in the title of a creative work was trademark infringement only if the use had no artistic relevance to the underlying work or it explicitly misleads people into thinking there's some official endorsement of the work. Courts have slightly expanded the holding of Rogers and use its reasoning, over and over, to determine if the use of a trademark within a creative work is protected by the First Amendment.

The first prong of the Rogers' test, that there must be at least some artistic reason to use the trademark, is a very low threshold. Like, crazy low. Use of the Louis Vuitton mark passed the test because it pointed out that a character was the kind of twit who would pay Louis Vuitton prices without being able to pronounce the name (The Hangover Part II). A "morale" patch of an angry monkey was ok to use in Call of Duty: Ghosts because that's the kind of thing a real-lite, near-future soldier might wear, even if wearing such a patch on a military uniform or in an official context isn't allowed.

The second prong is maybe even easier to pass than the first, and really, you'd have to try to satisfy it. In the Hangover case it might be satisfied if the name Louis Vuitton was prominently displayed on the movie poster, or maybe if its use was so pervasive during the movie that you'd walk out thinking "whoa, what did Louis Vuitton pay for all that advertising?" To get an idea of what pervasive use looks like, rent Superman II; Marlboro paid $43k to have their logo show up 22 times in the movie. Twenty-two times! I remember watching that as a kid and thinking it looked weird.

So, if you're going to mention SpongeBob in your book, make sure there's at least some reason for it and maybe not use "SpongeBob" as part of the title.

Does that mean you won't get sued. Hell no. There's a lot of caselaw on this, which means a lot of people sue over these kinds of things, but it lessens your chance of getting sued and puts you in a better position if you do get sued. Be smart.

No reading of the law gives you free rein to do whatever you want though. For example, if instead of having a character in your book mention SpongeBob, you have him sing the whole theme song (reproducing they lyrics) and include pictures of SpongeBob, then you're moving from a trademark issue into copyright law, which is a whole other gnarly beast. Also, if you are using the name of a real person, even if that person is dead, you could be running into rights of publicity as well as defamation. So, don't do that.

To protect yourself, even if you think you're ok, it's a good idea to have an attorney review what you're doing and evaluate the risks….because there are always risks.

The On-Sale Bar is back baby.

Back in the olden days, when things were more sepia-colored, there was a rule in patent law that gave inventors one-year after their invention was on sale to get to the patent office. If they didn’t get something filed by then, they were barred from getting a patent.

So, if I invent a widget in March, sell one at a farmer’s market in April, and wait 13 months before filing a patent application, I can’t get a patent because I waited too long. This let people test the market and see if their widget would sell before investing in a patent application, but prevented them from capitalizing on sales and never filing a patent application until they had competitors.

Then, there was the America Invents Act in 2011.

The AIA has some really good stuff, but like anything made by people it has some imperfections. One of these imperfections was in how it defined prior art and disclosures, which now seemed to say that secret sales and uses didn’t start the one-year race to the patent office.

A person shall be entitled to a patent unless …the claimed invention was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention.


That or otherwise available to the public is the interesting part. Lawyers will read that as meaning that all the preceding conditions are necessarily also available to the public. So, it follows that if a sale isn’t public, it’s not a “sale” as far as the statute goes, and doesn’t interfere with patentability.

If that’s true, in theory at least, an inventor could sell their invention as long as they want as long at the sale isn’t offered to the public. That could be secretive, dark alley sales, or it could just be products that aren’t offered to the general public.

Crazy right?

Not really, the US Patent and Trademark Office thought that was the case. The manual of patent examination procedure states:

The phrase “on sale” in AIA 35 U.S.C. 102(a)(1) is treated as having the same meaning as “on sale” in pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 102(b), except that the sale must make the invention available to the public.


So, for the last few years some people have been working under the assumption that they could sell their widgets privately, and maybe even sell their stuff in a way that didn’t make the invention “public” like a secret recipe, and still be able to get a patent on their invention if they ever decided to sell publicly or if their trade secret became known.

That’s changing.

Today the Federal Circuit Court clarified in Helsinn Healthcare v. Teva Pharm. that Congress "evidently meant that the public sale itself would put the patented product in the hands of the public," and not that only sales which make all the details of the invention public are “public sales.”

The case was whether a public sale is public, even if the details of the invention aren’t publicly disclosed. So, in other words, selling my famous chili can keep me from patenting the recipe, even if I never tell people my secret ingredient (it’s cinnamon).

The court, as they usually do, didn’t go further than they absolutely needed to and didn’t clarify other outstanding questions about the new on sale bar, but I’m taking this as an indication that we should think of the new on sale bar as the same as the old on sale bar. At least until the courts tell us otherwise.

So, bottom line is that you should get on file before you take the invention out of your garage and someone sees it. That’s not always possible, but try. Problems creep up when you start involving anyone that isn’t you or your co-inventors.