An opposition that has been making its way through the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) for several years appears to have finally reached its not-so-fairytale ending. In May 2023, the TTAB overturned a 2018 TTAB ruling in the same case that allowed a consumer to oppose trademark applications based on the consumer’s interest to keep “merely descriptive or generic words in the public domain, to prevent the owner of a mark from inhibiting competition in the sale of particular goods and to maintain freedom of the public to use the language involved.”[1]

Applicant United Trademark Holdings, Inc. (“UTH”) applied to register the mark RAPUNZEL for dolls and toys in Class 28 in November 2017. Opposer Rebecca Curtin, a trademark and intellectual property professor at Suffolk University Law School and “mother to a young daughter,” opposed UTH’s application on the grounds that the mark fails to function as a trademark and is generic and descriptive, as it is based on a well-known fairytale character.

In 2018, a TTAB panel dismissed UTH’s motion to dismiss Curtin’s opposition for lack of standing. The panel relied on Ritchie v. Simpson, a Federal Circuit case holding that a party has standing for cancellation or opposition of a mark where it has a “legitimate personal interest in the opposition.”[2] (emphasis added). The panel held that Curtin, as a consumer of dolls, had a direct and personal stake in the registration of the RAPUNZEL mark for dolls and toys, as “registration of the applied-for mark by Applicant would constrain the marketplace of such goods sold under the name “Rapunzel,” raise prices of “Rapunzel” dolls and toy figurines, and deny consumers, such as herself, the ability to purchase “Rapunzel” dolls offered by other manufacturers.”[3]

The opposition made its way through a myriad of motions, testimony, and oral hearings before the TTAB reached its final decision on May 4, 2023. This TTAB panel, consisting of different judges from the 2018 panel, reversed course and dismissed the opposition, holding that an opposer’s “real interest” must be commercial in nature. Citing Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., the panel noted that “a statutory cause of action extends only to plaintiffs whose interests ‘fall within the zone of interests protected by the law invoked.’”[4] According to the TTAB, the Lanham Act protects only those with commercial interests, specifically an interest in commercial reputation or sales profits.

This precedential decision clarifies that the Lanham Act does not provide for “mere consumers” to have standing in a trademark opposition or cancellation, as the damages are too speculative and do not fall within the commercial “zone of interests” protected by the law. The decision specifically acts to deter broad consumer complaints that could previously proceed under the 2018 TTAB ruling.

[1] Rebecca Curtin v. United Trademark Holdings Inc., Case No. 91241083 (TTAB Dec. 28, 2018).

[2] 170 F.3d 1902 (Fed. Cir. 1999).

[3] Curtin, Case No. 91241083 at pg. 7.

[4] 109 USPQ2d 2016, 2068 (2014) (internal quotations omitted).