By: Perry Maybrown
Have you ever been playing Monster Hunter and thought, “Huh, this must be related to Monster Energy.” While I personally have never faced this conundrum, it’s a scenario that Monster Energy has been very worried about. So much so, that for the past few years they have been targeting a wide range of industries to protect their trademark of the word “monster.” Two notable attacks that have been revived by the media were against Pokémon for “Pocket Monster” and Capcom for their videogame franchise “Monster Hunter.” Both complaints were filed in Japan and promptly dismissed.
This has not deterred the energy drink company in the slightest however, as they have recently sent a cease and desist letter to independent development studio Glowstick Entertainment for their game Dark Deception: Monsters & Mortals. In their letter, Monster Energy requests that Glowstick never again attempt to trademark something with the word “Monster,” or have any trademarks that could at all resemble their own. They go on to request that the logo of the game be modified and sent to them for approval. Monster asked Glowstick to refrain from using the colors green, white, and black (a task that is especially daunting considering the Glowstick logo is green on a black background). Furthermore, Monster required Glow Stick not emphasize the word “monster” more than any other in the title of their game.
Furious with these demands, founder and CEO of the studio, Vincent Livings, took to Twitter to air his complaints and share the cease and desist letter. This has led to extreme reactions from the Twitter sphere and news outlets which have shared the story.
Are these reactions warranted? Or is Monster simply protecting its rightful trademark?
A trademark can be composed of a variety of elements: words, images, sounds, even colors can be used as a way to denote a specific brand or product. What a trademark is not, is complete ownership of a single word, symbol or color in all situations. Rather, a trademark only protects the use of your mark in connection with similar goods or services. Boiling it down to the most basic level, infringement occurs when a consumer may become confused between two marks. This is referred to as the likelihood of confusion.
The courts have determined a test and list of factors that they weigh when deciding infringement. On the west coast (9th Circuit) these are referred to as the Sleekcraft Factors. The factors are as follows:
(1) Strength or Weakness of the Plaintiff’s Mark.
(2) Defendant’s Use of the Mark
(4) Actual Confusion.
(5) Defendant’s Intent.
(6) Marketing/Advertising Channels.
(7) Consumer’s Degree of Care.
(8) Product Line Expansion.
(9) Other Factors.
On the east coast they are the polaroid factors, which are similar to Sleekcraft:
(1) the strength of the plaintiff’s mark;
(2) the degree of similarity between the two marks;
(3) the proximity of the products;
(4) the likelihood that the owner will bridge the gap;
(5) evidence of actual confusion; (6) defendant’s good faith in adopting the mark;
(7) the quality of defendant’s product; and
(8) the sophistication of the consumers. will likely cause confusion with plaintiff’s mark.
While a court may review all of these factors to determine the likelihood of confusion, there are several that are most pivotal when reviewing the scant facts we know for Monster Energy. To start with, product line expansion refers to whether the goods and services are related and the likelihood of one company expanding into the others business. This again is to help figure out “likelihood of confusion” on the part of the consumers. For example, it’s easier to become confused between two purses both made by a company called Gucci, however consumers are less likely to relate the two if it’s a sink maker that goes by that name.
In the case of Monster,it is critical to ask, how likely is a beverage manufacturer to enter the video game market? Not only are the two products completely unrelated, the video game industry is difficult to break into on a good day.
Furthermore, the strength of the mark is evaluated on a sliding scale, with the weakest being what is called a “generic mark.” Generic words do not receive trademark protection because everyone needs to use them to describe their business. For example, if I created a coffee company called Coffee Company that would be generic. Imagine if I could now prevent all other coffee companies from using the word “coffee.” That would be wild!
Next up is determining how descriptive the trademark is. Basically, is your trademark just describing the thing you are selling? These types of trademarks usually do not receive protection, but can in certain instances.
The strongest marks are fanciful, arbitrary or suggestive. A fanciful mark is the best one you can get from a legal standpoint, because it’s a word you just made up (think Pepsi, Kodak etc.). A suggestive mark is one that kind of sounds like the product (like Netflix). And finally is arbitrary, which is just a random word that is used on a product that may have meaning elsewhere but isn’t directly descriptive of the product itself (Apple Computers is a great example of this). The Monster Energy mark would likely either be considered arbitrary or suggestive. Maybe suggestive because its name implies that you get monstrous, or huge amounts of energy from it. Arbitrary perhaps because the monster seems unrelated to the beverage.
Here is the issue for Monster; while it is arbitrary for their product in particular, the word is descriptive when it comes to the video games they are challenging. Take for example Monster Hunter, which is a game series where you… hunt monsters. Or Pocket Monsters, where you collect monsters, you can fit in your pocket. At worst the word may be considered generic as it is used so ubiquitously throughout the industry to describe games and their contents.
This is important because courts are unwilling to impose trademark protections for generic marks, because of how damaging it could be to the market. While descriptive marks may receive some kind of protection it’s a challenge that requires a large amount of work from the company that wishes to secure the trademark. Thanks to this, courts would be even more unwilling to find in Monster’s favor and force video game companies to stop using such a descriptive term.
Like the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” While trademark owners do have rights to that mark, their power comes with responsibility as they must defend their mark or risk losing it. In that sense, it seems logical that Monster is so zealously fighting to keep the word “monster” out of other companies’ mouths. On the other hand, this overkill method to attack any use of such a common word isn’t a great look for the company.
At the end of the day, the decision of whether infringement exists is for the courts to decide. And it’s Monster’s choice to spend the money getting to that point, win or lose. We don’t have all the facts for either of these cases, and only know one side of the story, so it’s difficult to say if there are more factors that could play into this issue. But for now, it seems to be David vs Goliath. And the public is on David’s side.