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Court reverses hotel’s cybersquatting conviction

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A dispute over who could use the designation “Visit Michigan City LaPorte” led to a legal battle between LaPorte County’s visitors bureau and an area hotel-resort, with the trial court ruling in favor of the visitors bureau. But the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed Monday, ruling the bureau didn’t prove it held a valid and protectable trademark.

An employee from Serenity Springs attended a public meeting at which the LaPorte County Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that the phrase “Visit Michigan City LaPorte” had been chosen as the branding identifier for the area. Immediately after the meeting, Serenity registered the domain name “visitmichigancitylaporte.com” and redirected traffic from that site to its hotel website. That same day, the bureau attempted to register the same domain name, but discovered it had been purchased and was used by Serenity.

The visitors bureau sought to prevent Serenity from using the domain and slogan, and filed an application with the Indiana Secretary of State to register the slogan and logo as a trademark. It claimed it first used the words in commerce Sept. 9, 2009, the same day Serenity registered the website. When Serenity wouldn’t voluntarily relinquish the domain name, the visitors bureau sued, alleging trademark infringement, cybersquatting and unfair competition.

The trial court ruled in favor of the visitors bureau, permanently enjoined Serenity from using the designation or domain name, and ordered Serenity to transfer the domain to the bureau.

In Serenity Springs, et al. v. The LaPorte County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 46A03-1205-MI-214, the Court of Appeals reversed because it found the “Visit Michigan City LaPorte” slogan is primarily geographically descriptive and not subject to protection as a trademark. In order to be protectable, the slogan must have acquired secondary meaning, but it did not. The judges rejected the visitors bureau’s claim that its registration with the SOS is sufficient proof of distinctiveness or secondary meaning.

“Secondary meaning is acquired through actual use of a mark, and there is simply no evidence in the record supporting a conclusion that the mark became associated with the Bureau in the minds of consumers on September 9, 2009 in the hours prior to Serenity’s registration of the domain name,” Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote.

The COA reversed and remanded with instructions to vacate the judgment and enter judgment in favor of Serenity on the trademark infringement and cybersquatting claims. But the trial court did not rule on other claims the bureau asserted, including common-law unfair competition. The judges ordered the trial court consider the bureau’s other claims and limit its consideration to the claims and evidence already presented by the bureau.  

 

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