Odor in the Court!

Fart.  Fart.  Fart.  It’s not often a lawyer gets to use that word in a courtroom once, let alone repeatedly.  But sometimes the practice of law in these modern times lends itself to some unusual—dare I say fun?—cases that are not your traditional fare.  Or perhaps I should say, “iFart,” which is a bit more apropos here.

Flatulence—or more specifically, fart noises—is apparently big business in software today, especially for the iPhone.  Who knew?  And this story underscores the lengths that some companies will go to protect their trademarks and brands in this digital age.  It seems that two companies which make competing “flatulence noise simulation software” for the iPhone have gotten themselves into a bit of a, uh, legal stink.

InfoMedia, which makes “iFart Mobile,” a popular novelty application for the iPhone, has filed for a declaratory judgment in a Colorado district court against Air-O-Matic (“AOM”), which makes “Pull My Finger,” a competing application which was apparently the leading fart simulation software before iFart, uh, exploded onto the scene.  A copy of the complaint can be viewed here.  I, for one, had no idea that digital fart simulation technology had advanced so rapidly.

AOM filed for a trademark on the term “Pull My Finger” at the Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) in December of 2008.  The application is pending.  InfoMedia alleges in its complaint that its use of the term “pull my finger” in its advertising and other marketing constitutes a “fair use” under trademark law and does not and will not infringe upon any of AOM’s trademark rights.   It also wants the court to declare that “Pull My Finger” is a “descriptive” phrase and therefore doesn’t qualify for protection.

According to letters and e-mails between the parties, in addition to using “pull my finger” in press releases, AOM has also accused InfoMedia of posting a YouTube video prominently using the term, posting false negative reviews and testimonials of “Pull My Finger” (while extolling the virtues of iFart), and spamming AOM customers on Twitter with ads for iFart.  While I’m not exactly sure what makes one fart application better than another—and my expertise is strictly limited to my own personal experiences with flatulence—these differences are apparently quite significant.

So what did InfoMedia do?  Exactly what it should have.  It beat AOM to the punch and filed for a declaratory judgment in its home state of Colorado.  Even though AOM is located in Florida, it now has to defend itself in a Colorado court.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but InfoMedia now has the “home field” advantage and AOM doesn’t have the option of suing in Florida.  It now has to find a Colorado law firm.

I’ve only seen InfoMedia’s complaint and attachments and not AOM’s response, so I’ll reserve my opinion on the case’s merits.  Trademark law can be quite complex anyway, and intellectual property cases in general can turn on factual or legal nuances.  If, however, this case was only about InfoMedia using “pull my finger” descriptively in some of its press releases, then it would probably have a strong case that it didn’t infringe.

But if InfoMedia kept using “Pull My Finger” in fake testimonials and reviews and ran a deceptive ad campaign on Twitter, than AOM’s claim could be stronger.   As noted by AOM’s counsel:  “InfoMedia’s efforts have been directing at merging Pull My Finger and iFart in the consumers’ minds, so that searches for Pull My Finger pull up the iFart application.”

Of course, all of this depends upon whether or not the court finds “Pull My Finger” to be protectable.  InfoMedia has alleged that the term is “descriptive” and doesn’t qualify for registration.  So what does descriptive mean?  According to the PTO’s Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure:  “A mark is considered merely descriptive if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the specified goods or services.”

InfoMedia correctly notes in its complaint—and cites that most revered of internet sources, Wikipedia—that the term “pull my finger” is synonymous with flatulence.  The company is essentially alleging, among other things, that the term merely describes the function or feature of AOM’s software.

So is “Pull My Finger” descriptive?  It’s hard to say.  The PTO notes that the ”great variation in facts from case to case prevents the formulation of specific rules for specific fact situations.  Each case must be decided on its own merits.”  Translation:  The court will have to make the call after carefully considering all of the flatulence-related evidence.

If the term is found to be descriptive, AOM would then have to show that the phrase has acquired “secondary meaning” in order to get it registered.  Secondary meaning is defined as “proof that [the mark] has become distinctive as applied to the applicant’s goods or services in commerce.”  In other words, ”it must be shown that the primary significance of the term in the minds of the consuming public is not the product but the producer.”

Thus, AOM would have to show that customers primarily associate the term, “Pull My Finger,” with AOM and not just with the application itself.  This isn’t easy to do, especially if a product just entered the marketplace and hasn’t been in use for a long period of time, and been extensively marketed and advertised.

So we’ll have to wait and see what happens.  The parties may very well settle and not take the risk that litigation often entails—somebody’s got to lose, after all.  I hope they don’t settle, though.  I would love to read a court opining on flatulence and fart noises.  It would be quite entertaining.  You know, a real gas.

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