The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) has ruled that the product name “Pretzel Crisps” is generic and cannot be registered as a trademark.
The issue arose in a dispute between snack-food titan Frito-Lay Inc. and Princeton Vanguard LLC, a much smaller New Jersey snack company.
Princeton had tried to register the trademark for its gourmet flat pretzels.
The TTAB determined that consumers considered “pretzel crisp” to be a generic name for a type of pretzel cracker snack, rather than as a brand name associated with Princeton’s specific product.
Princeton introduced its crisps in 2004, after owners Warren and Sarah Wilson obtained a patent for the flat pretzels, claiming the ornamental design for a “pretzel cracker.” The Wilsons, who got their start selling funnel cakes at fairs in 1969, also invented bagel chips.
Frito-Lay’s own Rold Gold pretzels and Stacy’s Pita Chips compete with Pretzel Crisps. When the Wilsons tried to register the trademark for their product name, Frito-Lay challenged the proposed mark.
In a 2010 motion, Frito-Lay wrote that “Like ‘milk chocolate bar,’ the combination of ‘pretzel’ and ‘crisp’ gains no meaning as a phrase over and above the generic meaning of its constituent terms.”
The TTAB agreed, saying, “We find that ‘Pretzel Crisps,’ as used by defendant, would be understood by the relevant public to refer to ‘pretzel crackers.’”
The TTAB also held that it was irrelevant that Princeton was apparently the first company to use the term “Pretzel Crisps.” “The law does not permit anyone to obtain a complete monopoly on use of a descriptive or generic term simply by grabbing it first.”
Although it is easier to protect “fanciful,” made-up words like “Kodak” as trademarks, the value of more descriptive terms, like “Pretzel Crisps,” has increased in the internet era, when consumers look for products on the Web.
Princeton spent over $1 million in legal fees trying to obtain the Pretzel Crisp trademark. Retail sales of Pretzel Crisps are more than $100 million per year and growing.
Sales of Rold Gold pretzel products have declined in recent years, and Frito-Lay’s attempts to market its own flat pretzel products have been unsuccessful.
If you have questions about trademark law, or if you anticipate being involved in trademark litigation, contact our office to arrange a free initial consultation with one of our attorneys.
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