Across the United States this week, fans rejoiced as baseball returned. Teams took to the diamond and played the first games to count since last year’s World Series. Players, coaches, and fans all turned the page on last season, starting with a clean slate and an undefeated record. But while the players battled on baseball diamonds across the country, a different type of “diamond” battle is taking shape in a New York court.
Cooperstown Bat Co. makes and sells bats with the mark PRO DIAMOND. Both the COOPERSTOWN BAT mark and the PRO DIAMOND mark appear on Cooperstown’s bats, as shown in the photograph below.
On June 9, 2015, Cooperstown filed an application register its PRO DIAMOND mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. However, on Sept. 27, 2015 the Examining Attorney issued an Office Action refusing registration, finding that the PRO DIAMOND mark was likely to create confusion with prior registrations comprising the term DIAMOND in both standard character form and stylized variations, all owned by Diamond Baseball Company (doing business as Diamond Sports). Diamond Sports’ registrations covered other baseball equipment, including baseballs, gloves, protective gear, clothing, and bags.
On December 1, 2015, Diamond Sports sent Cooperstown a cease and desist letter, demanding that it withdraw the application. When the parties were unable to reach an agreement, Cooperstown filed a declaratory judgment action in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, requesting a ruling that Cooperstown’s use of PRO DIAMOND does not infringe upon Diamond Sports’ rights in its DIAMOND mark.
The complaint alleges that the term is generic for “baseball fields” and that the word has a well-known association with baseball generally. Due to this meaning, Cooperstown claims that a number of third-parties use marks that include the word DIAMOND in connection with baseball-related goods and services. Cooperstown included the table reproduced below as a sample of these third-party marks (some of which are registered). Relying on this evidence, Cooperstown alleges in its complaint that DIAMOND “is generic and/or descriptive when used in association with baseball-related goods and services” and that the term “is not a strong or distinctive mark in the field of baseball.”
Cooperstown also argues that there is no likelihood of confusion due to Cooperstown’s use of its COOPERSTOWN mark on the bats. Notably, the term is not included in its application to register the PRO DIAMOND mark and therefore would not be considered as part of the likelihood of confusion analysis as to the mark identified in the application (as opposed to the mark as used in commerce).
Cooperstown’s arguments have some merit. The term “diamond” is, at a minimum, highly suggestive of a baseball diamond. It could potentially be descriptive in the sense that DIAMOND describes the intended purpose of the goods – to be used on baseball diamonds. But the evidence is not overwhelming. A quick search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database revealed a number of third-party registrations that contain the term DIAMOND in connection with some type of baseball product or service. However, only two registrations identify sporting equipment.
Further complicating matters is that Diamond Sports’ registrations for their standard character marks have been registered for more than five years, meaning that they cannot be challenged on the ground that the marks are merely descriptive. As a result of the foregoing, Diamond Sports’ also has a reasonable basis for its objections to Cooperstown’s attempt to register the mark. Even if Cooperstown were to ultimately prevail, the disparity between the parties’ legal positions is unlikely to justify an award of attorney’s fees.
If Cooperstown prevails, it could obtain a registration for the PRO DIAMOND mark, a mark which Cooperstown considers to be so descriptive and potentially generic that “it is not strong or distinctive.” In light of this, is the investment in a federal court action worth the potential payoff?
A preliminary clearance search prior to filing the application likely would have identified Diamond Sports’ registrations, and would have confirmed that, while there was an argument that the term DIAMOND is weak in the field of baseball generally, there was not significant evidence that the term DIAMOND was week in connection baseball sporting equipment specifically. The records of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office suggst that an application was likely to receive a refusal. Would Cooperstown have been better off not applying to register the mark at all and instead “fly under the radar?” Filing the application and receiving a refusal ran the risk that Diamond Sports could learn of the Cooperstown’s use and send a demand letter (is it too late for a spoiler alert?).
While “hope springs eternal” is perhaps the most popular baseball quote at this stage of the season, I’m reminded of an equally well-known baseball maxim: never make the last out at third base. For those uninterested in baseball, it simply means don’t take unjustified risks. Even if you make it to third, you still need the batter to get a hit to score a run. Maybe by the end of the season we’ll know which maxim is more applicable to the PRO DIAMOND mark.