How Does the Booking.com Decision Affect My Generic Domain Names?

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with the Internet Commerce Association’s position that under certain conditions, a generic .com domain name can obtain a trademark registration, albeit a very weak one, overruling the position advanced by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

The USPTO had taken the position that no matter what, a generic .com domain name could never serve to identity a particular business when used in connection with its generic meaning. The ICA argued in its amicus brief, and now the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed, that the USPTO’s blanket refusal to allow trademark registration of such domain names has no legal basis.  Instead, the correct standard is whether the domain name is identified with a particular company in the eyes of the consumer.  Thus, when consumers recognize that Booking.com refers to a particular company, rather than to booking services generally, Booking.com is eligible for a registered trademark.

The Supreme Court made clear that such generic .com trademarks are inherently weak and the scope of protection is limited so that granting such a trademark would not generally entitle the trademark owner to other domain names that employ the same generic word descriptively.

Many members of the ICA own valuable generic domain names. The Supreme Court decision, in our view, protects the value of generic .com domain names because the Supreme Court confirmed that they are now potentially registrable as trademarks with sufficient consumer identified association, an attractive feature for end-users. The decision also ensures the continued viability of domain name registrations which are similar to the generic .com if those domain names are used descriptively and in good faith, since the Supreme Court confirmed that a trademarked generic .com will be given a very weak and limited scope of protection.

The ICA again extends its gratitude to David Weslow from Wiley for filing an excellent amicus brief on behalf of the ICA.

 

Summary of the Case

On June 30, 2020 the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in United States Patent and Trademark Office et al. v. Booking.com B.V. The case concerned the eligibility for federal trademark registration for “Booking.com”. The USPTO had refused registration, and the trademark applicant, Booking.com B.V. went to court. The lower court determined that Booking.com, unlike the term, “booking” standing alone, was not generic, and the appeals court agreed with the lower court’s decision. The USPTO then appealed to the Supreme Court, in a final attempt to affirm its contention that as a rule, combining a generic term like “booking” with a “.com” still yields a generic composite that is not eligible for trademark registration. In the 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the USPTO’s contention, and determined that ultimately, there could be no blanket rule that prohibits a generic .com from trademark registration, as if the generic .com was perceived by consumers as a brand associated with a particular company, then it effectively qualifies for trademark status.

 

Before the Booking.com Decision, Were All Generic .com Domains Ineligible for Trademark Registration?

No. As the Supreme Court pointed out, the USPTO previously issued trademark registrations for generic .com domain names in some circumstances. The Supreme Court pointed out that for example, ART.COM had already obtained a registered trademark on the principal register for “online retail store services” offering art points, original art, and reproductions”. The Supreme Court also pointed out for example, that the USPTO already issued a trademark registration for DATING.COM on the supplemental register for “dating services”. There are numerous other examples of this, including WEATHER.COM, LAW.COM, and even HOTELS.COM. In the latter case, Hotels.com in fact has three registered trademarks, inter alia for travel agency services related to transportation, for computer software and applications for information on travel, and travel agency services for entertainment and event bookings. HOTELS.COM was however, previously found by an appeals court to be ineligible for a registered trademark for ‘travel agency services for hotel reservations’, because despite substantial evidence of consumer identification of HOTELS.COM as identifying the particular company, the combination of HOTELS.COM was still generic when it came to hotel reservations. Accordingly, before the Bookings.com case there was significant inconsistency when it came to which generic .com domain names were eligible for trademark registration, with some registrations being permitted, and some not. The USPTO wanted to solve this by making a general rule prohibiting all such registrations, but the Supreme Court decided that in some instances there should be a registration granted, but it turns on the facts.

 

So if Generic .com Domain Names were Trademarkable Before, What was the Controversy with the Booking.com Case?

The USPTO wanted to create a new rule; a broad prohibition on registered trademarks for generic .com domain names. In other words, the USPTO wanted to make it so in the future, there was zero chance of ever getting a trademark for a generic .com.  The Supreme Court rejected this approach and instead affirmed the longstanding approach of determining eligibility on a case by case basis based upon consumer perception of a particular generic .com.

 

What is the Key Test for Registrability of a Generic .com Domain Name?

The primary consideration is whether a generic .com is perceived by consumers as being identified with a particular company. As long provided for in the Lanham Act, the key to this is consumer perception, i.e. the primary significance of the mark to the relevant public. The term “booking” itself was agreed by all concerned to be a generic term for booking hotel reservations. The question then arose whether adding “.com” changed that, since the entire mark must be viewed as a whole. The evidence was that BOOKING.COM was perceived by consumers to be a particular provider of booking services, rather than a generic term referring to booking providers. The Supreme Court noted that no one would ask to be referred to a good “Booking.com” provider, as an indication that when taken as a whole, Booking.com did not really refer to a generic “thing”, but rather to a particular service provider, and was therefore not a generic name to consumers.

The USPTO argued, and the Supreme Court rejected, the contention that every generic .com was generic regardless of consumer perception. The USPTO as aforementioned, wanted to bar all generic .com domain names from becoming registered trademarks, generally, arguing that “generic .com” was no different than “Generic Company”, in other words that Wine.com is equivalent to “The Wine Company”. The Supreme Court found that to be a faulty premise, since there is in law no absolute bar to registration of generic terms per se; rather it is always matter of consumer perception as to whether a particular term is in fact, generic. Moreover, the Supreme Court noted that on the Internet, there can only be one “generic .com” since the domain name is associated with a particular website, whereas there can be numerous “Generic Companies”, thereby adding to the possibility of a generic .com being potentially perceived as a distinctive and particular source, rather than a generic term.

The Supreme Court also rejected the USPTO’s argument that no matter how much money or effort has been poured into promoting a generic .com, it cannot rise to the level of being identified with a particular company. The Supreme Court said that there is and can not be any “automatic” prohibition, since the relevant criterion for registrability is always a matter of consumer perception.

 

What Proof of Consumer Perception of a Generic .com’s Being Identified With a Particular Company is Required?

Consumer surveys can show that a generic .com is perceived by consumers as identifying a particular company rather than a genus, although the Court noted that care must be taken when evaluating such surveys. The Court also stated that dictionaries, common usage by consumers and competitors and any other source of evidence bearing on how consumers perceive a term’s meaning can also assist.

 

Will Generic .com Domain Names be Automatically Entitled to a Registration?

Like before the Booking.com decision, when it comes to a generic .com, the USPTO will generally require proof that a mark is perceived by consumers as being identified with a particular company, so there is no automatic right to a trademark for a generic .com domain name just because it is used in commerce. It will continue to be a generally demanding threshold to overcome the initial assumption that a generic .com domain name is merely a composite of two generic terms.

 

Will My Generic .com Domain Name be Eligible for Trademark Registration?

That will depend. The Booking.com case made it clear that your generic .com domain name may be eligible, but whether your generic .com will be eligible will depend on the facts and circumstances. Are you able to show that through extensive use, promotion, sales, and marketing that consumers have come to associate your generic .com with your particular company? If you have only registered the generic .com and not extensively used and promoted it over a considerable length of time, and do not have substantial evidence to back up your claim of consumer identification, then your application would likely be rejected, especially if the applied for goods and services were closely associated with the generic term itself. It will be continue to be very tough for a generic domain names to be registered as trademarks, but based on the Booking.com case, the owner has a chance to prove that consumers identify the domain name with the owner’s particular company and thereby qualify for a trademark registration.

 

Are Generic .com Domain Names Now All Trademarkable?

No. Rather, they are all potentially trademarkable but it will depend on the facts and the evidence that is marshalled to prove consumer identification, which is arguably the same as before, although now the law is clearer as a result of the Booking.com decision.

 

Did the Booking.com Case Make it Easier for Trademark Owners to Take Away My Domain Name?

As discussed above, registered trademarks were obtainable even before the Booking.com case and the Booking.com case clarified the law and rejected the USPTO’s new proposed approach of prohibiting all generic .com domain names, period. Before the Booking.com case, there were already registered trademarks for Weather.com, Hotels.com, and others, yet there were few if any cases of these trademark owners using their trademark registrations to try to take away similar domain names. For example, registered alongside HOTELS.COM as a registered trademark, are ULTIMATEHOTELS.COM and SUPERSAVE-HOTELS.COM. Additionally, Laws.com exists as a website along the trademarked LAW.COM, and TheWeather.com exists as a website along with the trademarked WEATHER.COM.

It is doubtful that legitimately registered and used domain names that contain a generic word will be more susceptible to attack by generic .com trademark owners after the Booking.com decision. The Supreme Court noted the USPTO’s concern that allowing a generic .com to be trademarked could hinder competitors by preventing them from using the word “booking” or adopting domain names like “ebooking.com”[1] or “hotel-booking.com”. As the Supreme Court pointed out however, the concern over overly broad rights for generic .com trademark owner already exists when it comes to descriptive trademarks, and the law deals with this concern by “hemming in” the scope of such trademarks “short of denying trademark protection altogether”. In other words, such trademarks are inherently very weak, and the weaker the mark, the less likelihood of confusion. As the Court pointed out, when a trademark incorporates a very common generic word, such as hotels, or booking, consumers are less likely to think that other uses of the common term relate to the trademark owner alone. As an example, the Court pointed out that the word “grand” is in many hotel names, and consumers know to differentiate one from another. The Court noted that even if there were to be some confusion between a generic .com trademark registration and a similar domain name, the doctrine of “classic fair use” can protect the domain name owner where the domain name owner uses the domain name fairly and in good faith as a descriptive term. For example, HotelBookings.com ought to be safe from attack from Booking.com even after Booking.com gets a trademark registration, if it is used in a fair and descriptive manner. Nevertheless, domain name registrants must remain vigilant in their defense of generic and descriptive domain names in the event that a generic .com trademark owner attempts, as they are often prone to do, to overreach the actual limited scope of protection afforded to a generic .com trademark.

The Supreme Court specifically stated that existing principles of trademark law that provide weak marks with a very limited scope of protection guard against a monopoly on the term “booking” itself, even if Booking.com gets a trademark registration. The Supreme Court noted that “Booking.com itself acknowledged that close variations are unlikely to infringe” and that a trademark registration “would not prevent competitors from using the word ‘booking’ to describe their own services”.

 

Is the Booking.com Case Good for Domain Name Investors?

Yes, for three reasons. First, the domain name investment community is generally focused on the registration of generic domain names and the Booking.com case made it clear that such domain names are potentially trademarkable. This incrementally enhances the value of such generic .com domain names to end users because it offers the possibility that if a business builds a powerful, widely recognized brand on a generic .com domain name it may be eligible for trademark registration. If the possibility of trademark protection was permanently foreclosed, an end-user may have second thoughts about building its brand on a generic .com domain name that could never benefit from trademark protections, albeit modest protections, thus reducing demand for such generic .com domain names and likely valuations as well.  Second, the Supreme Court confirmed that inherently weak marks such as generic .com domain names are entitled to little scope of protection and domain name investors should not be prevented from continuing to use terms descriptively even when there is a similar registered trademark. Third, the Booking.com case highlighted the domain name industry and in particular showcased the substantial value and attractiveness of generic domain names, thereby boosting the industry. In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted the benefits that a generic .com owner has by being savvy enough to register such a “valuable piece of online real estate”. This is what domain name investors have been saying for years, and now a Supreme Court justice has proclaimed the same.

Nevertheless, domain name investors will need to monitor how this case is treated in subsequent court actions and UDRPs and ensure that generic .com trademark owners only obtain the limited protections that they are entitled to as suggested by the Booking.com case. It would have been preferable if the Court provided a more robust discussion of the limitations on generic .com trademarks. It will be interesting to see how this area of law evolves and how this case is interpreted in the future.

 

[1] Ebooking.com already has a USPTO registered trademark for EBOOKING.COM and a design.

By Zak Muscovitch

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