Are We Running Out of Trademarks? An Empirical Study of Trademark Depletion and Congestion
101 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2018 Last revised: 24 Dec 2018
Date Written: February 9, 2018
American trademark law has long operated on the assumption that there exists an inexhaustible supply of unclaimed trademarks that are at least as competitively effective as those already claimed. This core empirical assumption underpins nearly every aspect of trademark law and policy. This Article presents empirical evidence showing that this conventional wisdom is wrong. The supply of competitively effective trademarks is, in fact, exhaustible and has already reached severe levels of what we term trademark depletion and trademark congestion. We systematically study all 6.7 million trademark applications filed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) from 1985 through 2016 together with the 300,000 trademarks already registered at the PTO as of 1985. We analyze these data in light of the most frequently used words and syllables in American English, the most frequently occurring surnames in the United States, and an original dataset consisting of phonetic representations of each applied-for or registered word mark included in the PTO’s Trademark Case Files Dataset. We further incorporate data consisting of all 128 million domain names registered in the .com top-level domain and an original dataset of all 2.1 million trademark office actions issued by the PTO from 2003 through 2016. These data show that rates of word-mark depletion and congestion are increasing and have reached chronic levels, particularly in certain important economic sectors. The data further show that new trademark applicants are increasingly being forced to resort to second-best, less competitively effective marks. Yet registration refusal rates continue to rise. The result is that the ecology of the trademark system is breaking down, with mounting barriers to entry, increasing consumer search costs, and an eroding public domain. In light of our empirical findings, we propose a mix of reforms to trademark law that will help to preserve the proper functioning of the trademark system and further its core purposes of promoting competition and enhancing consumer welfare.
Keywords: Trademark, Intellectual Property, Depletion, Congestion, PTO, Trademark Case Files Dataset
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