Descriptive Trademarks Can Be Difficult to Enforce, Discovers Timelines, Inc.

Timelines, Inc., a small Chicago-based Internet company, has lost the first round of its legal efforts to obtain a court finding that Facebook infringed on its “Timelines” trademark when it announced its much-ballyhooed new feature, “Timeline.”

On Sept. 22, 2011, Facebook announced the “Timeline” feature, which will allow users to store and share their life events in chronological order on the site. Timelines, Inc., quickly filed a trademark infringement suit against Facebook, noting that it already has a registered trademark for the term “Timelines.” This mark refers, among other things, to a website that allows users to record and share events and contribute descriptions, photos, videos, geographic locations, and links related to events and people.

Arguing that there was a significant likelihood of confusion between its existing online product and the one just announced by Facebook, Timelines filed its lawsuit in order to avoid, in the words of the complaint, “being rolled over and quite possibly eliminated by the unlawful action of the world’s largest and most powerful social media company.”

Timelines sought a temporary restraining order against Facebook’s use of the term “Timelines,” but on September 30, 2011, U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang denied the request. “Even assuming that Timelines has some likelihood of success, based on the present state of the record,…that likelihood is modest, and the other factors warrant denying the motion,” Judge Chang wrote. “One question on the likelihood of success is the strength of the Timelines mark.”

The judge ruled that even though Timelines had indeed been granted a federal trademark, that trademark is likely a “descriptive” one, since it simply “describes the service provided by Timelines’ website, that is the creation on a website of a timeline for an event.” Such “descriptive” trademarks are generally considered weak and do not enjoy the same protection as arbitrary or “fanciful” trademarks. The judge noted that if Timelines were to succeed in the litigation, it “would have to show that the term ‘Timelines’ has acquired a secondary meaning to customers such that they uniquely associate the term with the Plaintiff. On the current record, it is not at all clear that Timelines can make that showing.”

Timelines may still be able to prove infringement, however, by focusing on the similarity between Timelines’ website and Facebook’s Timeline service. Consumers may be confused if the two services have the same name and do essentially the same thing.



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