US Lawyers Aiding Scam Trademark Applications May Face Sanctions
As reported by the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) this past summer, since mid-2020 trademark applications from US and foreign applicants have “surged to unprecedented levels.” In December 2020 alone, the PTO received 92,608 trademark applications, an increase of 172% over December 2019. Not only has this extraordinary volume of applications created a backlog and delay in the procedural review of new US trademark application filings, but the PTO is experiencing a notable increase in what it calls “suspicious submissions ranging from inaccurate to fraudulent.”
These illegitimate trademark filings harm the quality and integrity of the trademark register and have significant legal and financial impact on legitimate brand owners whose applications may be blocked by fraudulent filings for marks that are identical or similar to their real brands. Faced with a legal obligation to defend and enforce their trademarks, legitimate brand owners are forced to dispute such illegitimate filings with letters of protest, by filing oppositions or cancellation actions in the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board, and even by taking action in the federal courts. Such enforcement and defensive actions can clog up these forums and force brand owners to take on costs that would not otherwise be necessary, and which may distract from, or reduce the budget for, real trademark disputes.
The PTO outlined various strategies and tools to review, assess, challenge and combat suspicious and fraudulent filings, including aspects of the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020. In 2019, the PTO also implemented a rule requiring any overseas trademark applicant to file with a US lawyer. The requirement for a US lawyer appears to have resulted in many foreign applicants (primarily from China) making up fake names, addresses and bar credentials for the US lawyers named in their applications. Not all named US lawyers are fake, however, as the PTO’s investigations into certain lawyers lodging a high volume of trademark filings for Chinese-based applicants have revealed that some US-based lawyers may be taking on clients from China without conducting proper diligence as to the veracity of the client’s trademark application information. For example, the PTO’s investigation of some potentially illegitimate filings from applicants in China reveal doctored or disingenuous specimens of use, including e-commerce listings for products that may not actually exist or are no longer “in stock” (and likely never were “in stock”).
In September 2021, the PTO’s investigations into US lawyers with a high volume of filings for Chinese applicants resulted in two sanctions orders. The first was issued against a lawyer found to have filed thousands of applications for overseas parties deemed fraudulent by operating as a US-based agent for a centralized “filing gateway” platform located in India. The sanction order includes a 12-month probationary period and required ethics and trademarks classes. The second sanction against a US-based lawyer specifically noted that the lawyer did not do enough to properly review the applications that they signed on behalf of an applicant based in China. It has been reported that the lawyer may not have been aware that his signature was used on certain applications.
Practice Note: As the PTO continues its investigations into the significant number of filings coming from overseas applicants, additional sanctions likely will follow. US lawyers filing in the PTO on behalf of any client should ensure that they have reviewed and vetted their client and the information provided by their client for application filings and the accompanying declarations.