The TTAB Issues a fiat on FIAT: Foreign Company Might Be Able to Rely on Fame of the Mark Abroad, Even Without Current Use in the U.S., Provided It Pleads Properly and Has Intended Use

Fiat Group Automobiles S.p.A. v. ISM, Inc., 94 USPQ2d 1111 (TTAB 2010) [precedential]

While FIAT is quite a well-known brand in Europe and other regions of the world, cars made by the Italian company aren’t all available in the U.S.… yet (Fiat reportedly has plans to bring more of its small car models to the U.S. market by the end of 2010). In truth, unless they are foreign car aficionados, most American consumers might not have heard of the brand, at least not extensively; at best, some may remember the tiny Fiat 500 fondly from European movies from the 50s and 60s (or the Pixar film “Cars;” Luigi, the tire shop owner was a 1959 Fiat 500). I personally remember (not so fondly!) the Fiat shown below as my very first car but, again, I grew up in a European country.

In the present case, Fiat filed an opposition at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) against an applicant who filed to register the mark PANDA in conjunction with “automobiles,” based on, among other claims, dilution of Fiat’s “internationally famous” identical mark. Fiat owned a pending intent-to-use application at the PTO for the mark (not a registration) and used it internationally in conjunction with its hugely popular Fiat PANDA model, However, the Italian company was not using the mark in the U.S. commerce quite yet.

Applicant filed a motion to dismiss under FRCP 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, arguing that Opposer Fiat had “no reasonable basis for damage in the absence of an allegation of ‘continuing prior use of any form of ‘Panda’ in the United States.’”

While the TTAB notes that activity solely outside of the U.S. is generally ineffective to create or maintain rights in marks within the U.S., it recognizes the possibility “in unusual cases” that activity outside of the U.S. could result in a mark becoming well-known within the U.S., even without actual use in commerce in the U.S.

Here, the TTAB found that Fiat failed to allege “any particular type of use or specific facts which could be proved at trial as demonstrating widespread recognition of its mark in the United States.” The TTAB gave Fiat 30 days to amend its dilution claim accordingly.

Practice Note: Pleading the dilution claim properly was key in this case. The TTAB makes clear that a foreign company seeking to oppose a U.S. mark but hasn’t yet started to use its mark in the U.S. market will need more than mere fame outside of the U.S. to be successful. In this case, the TTAB required:
1) specific pleading of intent to use;
2) filing of an application for registration; AND
3) some basis for concluding that recognition of the mark in the U.S. is “sufficiently widespread as to create an association of the mark with particular products or services, even if the source of the same is anonymous and even if the products are not available in the United States.”
Luckily for Fiat, it was given a second chance to meet all three requirements.

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