28 Jul’20

USPTO v. Booking.com: Acquired Distinctiveness of a Generic Domain

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The Supreme Court (“Court”) in USPTO v. Booking.com resolved a dispute about whether a generic name can become eligible for federal trademark registration though the addition of an internet-domain-name suffix such as “.com.” The USPTO rejected applications by travel-reservation website Booking.com seeking federal registration of marks including the term “Booking.com.” The USPTO concluded that “Booking.com” is a generic name for online hotel-reservation services and as a generic name, the USPTO was forced to reject the applications. Booking.com took their argument to the District Court seeking judicial review and the District Court held that “Booking.com” – as opposed to the term booking standing alone – is not generic. The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court and rejected the USPTO’s position that combining a generic term with “.com” results in a generic composite.

In order to understand this case, it is important to understand the meaning of generic in the field of federal trademark registration. A generic name is the name of a class of products or services and is therefore ineligible for trademark registration. As it relates to this case, all parties agreed that the word “booking” is a generic word for the class of hotel-reservation products or services. Moreover, the word “.com” is a generic internet-domain-name suffix. The USPTO argued for the adoption by the Court of a rule that the combination of a generic word (i.e., “booking”) with “.com” maintains the generic nature of this combination.

Another important idea to understand when reviewing this case is the purpose of trademarks and how this impacts the decision of the Court. The purpose of trademarks is to distinguish one producer’s goods or services from another’s. Distinctiveness is defined as the quality of being distinguishable and the USPTO recognizes and expresses distinctiveness on an increasing scale: generic, descriptive, suggestive, arbitrary and fanciful. The higher on this distinctiveness scale, the more readily it qualifies for trademark registration. The Court noted that generic terms, such as booking, are ordinarily ineligible for trademark protection. Moving up the distinctiveness scale, the USPTO argued that even if “Booking.com” was considered descriptive, it could not be registered because it lacked secondary meaning. Secondary meaning, also known as acquired distinctiveness, refers to the concept of a descriptive term achieving significance in the minds of the public as identifying the applicant’s goods or services.

In the lower courts, Booking.com leveraged the concept of acquired distinctiveness by providing evidence that the consuming public understood Booking.com to refer to the specific product or services offered by Booking.com at that domain name. This evidence allowed the District Court to hold that “Booking.com” was descriptive and had acquired secondary meaning and thus met the requirement for trademark registration. The Court of Appeals affirmed the holding of the District Court.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and, in its opinion, delivered by Justice Ginsburg, the Court highlighted the importance of a mark’s capacity to distinguish goods in commerce as the underlying principle of trademark registration. The Court agreed with the Court of Appeals and discussed the USPTO’s failed logic behind its argument that “Booking.com” signifies to consumers the class of online hotel-reservation services. Under the USPTO’s approach, this would mean that consumers would understand Travelocity or Expedia to be a “Booking.com” or that when a consumer is looking for a trusted source of online hotel-reservation services they might ask a frequent traveler to refer them to their favorite “Booking.com” provider. The evidence provided by Booking.com in the lower courts provided enough support to demonstrate that this is not the perception of the word “booking.com” and that consumers understood “booking.com” to refer to the services provided by Booking.com. Based on this analysis the Court affirmed the decision by the lower courts reflecting the eligibility for “booking.com” to receive trademark registration.