Alex O’Connor, MJLST Staffer
After a 2020 bankruptcy and steadily decreasing revenue that the company attributes to the Coronavirus pandemic, Chuck E. Cheese is making the transition to a pandemic-proof virtual world. Restaurant and arcade center Chuck E. Cheese is hoping to revitalize its business model by entering the metaverse. In February, Chuck E. Cheese filed two intent to use trademark filings with the USPTO. The trademarks were filed under the names “CHUCK E. VERSE” and “CHUCK E. CHEESE METAVERSE”.
Under Section 1 of the Lanham Act, the two most common types of applications for registration of a mark on the Principal Register are (1) a use based application for which the applicant must have used the mark in commerce and (2) an “intent to use” (ITU) based application for which the applicant must possess a bona fide intent to use the mark in trade in the near future. Chuck E. Cheese has filed an ITU application for its two marks.
The metaverse is a still-developing virtual and immersive world that will be inhabited by digital representations of people, places, and things. Its appeal lies in the possibility of living a parallel, virtual life. The pandemic has provoked a wave of investment into virtual technologies, and brands are hurrying to extend protection to virtual renditions of their marks by registering specifically for the metaverse. A series of lawsuits related to alleged infringing use of registered marks via still developing technology has spooked mark holders into taking preemptive action. In the face of this uncertainty, the USPTO could provide mark holders with a measure of predictability by extending analogue protections of marks used in commerce to substantially similar virtual renditions.
Most notably, Hermes International S.A. sued the artist Mason Rothschild for both infringement and dilution for the use of the term “METABIRKINS” in his collection of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Hermes alleges that the NFTs are confusing customers about the source of the digital artwork and diluting the distinctive quality of Hermes’ popular line of handbags. The argument continues that the term “META” is merely a generic term that simply means “BIRKINS in the metaverse,” and Rothschild’s use of the mark constitutes trading on Hermes’ reputation as a brand.
Many companies and individuals are rushing to the USPTO to register trademarks for their brands to use in virtual reality. Household names such as McDonalds (“MCCAFE” for a virtual restaurant featuring actual and virtual goods), Panera Bread (“PANERAVERSE” for virtual food and beverage items), and others have recently filed applications for registration with the USPTO for virtual marks. The rush of filings signals a recognition among companies that the digital marketplace presents countless opportunities for them to expand their brand awareness, or, if they’re not careful, for trademark copycats to trade on their hard-earned good will among consumers.
Luckily for Chuck E. Cheese and other companies that seek to extend their brands into the metaverse, trademark protection in the metaverse is governed by the same set of rules governing regular analogue trademark protection. That is, the mark the company is seeking to protect must be distinctive, it must be used in commerce, and it must not be covered by a statutory bar to protection. For example, if a mark’s exclusive use by one firm would leave other firms at a significant non-reputation related disadvantage, the mark is said to be functional, and it can’t be protected. The metaverse does not present any additional obstacles to trademark protection, and so as long as Chuck E. Cheese eventually uses its two marks,it will enjoy their exclusive use among consumers in the metaverse.
However, the relationship between new virtual marks and analogue marks is a subject of some uncertainty. Most notably, should a mark find broad success and achieve fame in the metaverse, would that virtual fame confer fame in the real world? What will trademark expansion into the metaverse mean for licensing agreements? Clarification from the USPTO could help put mark holders at ease as they venture into the virtual market.
Additionally, trademarks in the metaverse present another venue in which trademark trolls can attempt to register an already well known mark with no actual intent to use it-—although the requirement under U.S. law that mark holders either use or possess a bona fide intent to use the mark can help mitigate this problem. Finally, observers contend that the expansion of commerce into the virtual marketplace will present opportunities for copycats to exploit marks. Already, third parties are seeking to register marks for virtual renditions of existing brands. In response, trademark lawyers are encouraging their clients to register their virtual marks as quickly as possible to head off any potential copycat users. The USPTO could ensure brands’ security by providing more robust protections to virtual trademarks based on a substantially similar, already registered analogue trademark.