Archive for October, 2014

In Eco-mark Examination USPTO Getting into Anti-Greenwashing

October 24th, 2014

A recent article in the the New York Law Journal caught my attention for an interesting development in examination of eco-mark applications in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  We’ve known for some time that marks containing terms such as “green,” “clean,” “eco-” or “enviro-” are very likely to be rejected as merely descriptive of environmentally friendly products or services.

In “Changing Climate for ‘Green’ Trademarks,” Robert Scheinfeld of the Baker Botts firm notes that the USPTO has very recently begun to reject eco-marks on the basis of deceptiveness.

This is almost the opposite of a descriptiveness rejection:  where a descriptive eco-mark immediately communicates to consumers the environmentally friendly nature of the goods or services, a deceptive eco-mark is one that signals environmentally friendly characteristics while the goods or services do not actually confer an environmental benefit.

The piece cites a 2013 decision by the USPTO Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (Board) as a case in point.  In re Kitaru Innovations Inc. involved an application to register the mark GREEN SEAL (shown above) for adhesive tape and tape dispensers.

The USPTO examining attorney refused registration on the ground that the mark was deceptively misdescriptive under Section 2(e)(1) of the Lanham Act and comprises deceptive matter under Section 2(a) in that it falsely and materially indicates that the applicant’s goods are environmentally friendly when, in fact, they are not.  The Board affirmed the refusal.

For deceptive misdescriptiveness under Section 2(e)(1), the Board’s starting point, by now a very familiar one, was that the word “‘green’ directly conveys information to potential consumers that the tape products are environmentally friendly.”

To be misdescriptive, a mark must be merely descriptive of a significant aspect of the goods which they could plausibly possess but in fact do not.  The Board concluded that the GREEN SEAL mark could be merely descriptive if the products were, indeed, green:

The two word composite term, “Green Seal,” would be merely descriptive if applicant’s goods were made of eco-friendly materials. Green would convey information about the environmental claims that the tape possessed, and a most important feature of adhesive tape or adhesive packaging tape is that it “seals,” or “tightly or completely closes or secures a thing.”  

Interestingly, but immaterial to the Board’s decision, the applicant made no claim that its products are eco-friendly.  Rather, the “Green Seal” mark is just one in a line of color-coded adhesive tape products that also includes “Black Seal,” “Blue Seal” and “Double Blue Seal.”

Nevertheless, the Board concluded that many of the affected consumers would be likely to believe that the term “Green” in the GREEN SEAL mark describes the adhesive tapes as being environmentally friendly.  The Board noted evidence of record showing that adhesive tape products in particular are increasingly the subject of environmentally friendly claims, and consumers would expect the applicant’s tape to be eco-friendly:

As seen above in the pages of blogs and advertisements from the Internet, an increasingly common feature of adhesive and packaging tape is that it is ecologically sound. Sometimes the focus is on how the tape deteriorates over time, and others times it has to do with the use of recycled materials. The term “Green” is frequently used to capture this idea. Accordingly, consumers encountering applicant’s mark with the term “Green” will likely understand the term in context to refer to the fact that this tape is an environmentally-friendly product.

To be deceptive matter under Section 2(a), the misdescription must be likely to affect the relevant consumers’ decision to purchase the products.  Here, the Board noted the “urgency” for consumers to recycle and purchase products made of recycled or biodegradable materials.  The evidence of record showed that there is a segment of purchasers that would be more inclined to buy eco-friendly adhesive tape products.

Accordingly, the Board concluded that the perceived green quality of the tape products would be likely to affect the purchasing decisions of relevant consumers:

The level of excitement on the part of consumers reflected above over the availability of environmentally friendly / green tape products demonstrates that this characteristic would be material to the decision of consumers to purchase applicant’s goods. Accordingly, we find on this record that such a misdescription is likely to affect the decision to purchase the goods, and the third and final prong of the Section 2(a) deceptiveness test has also been satisfied.

This is the first decision I’ve seen where an eco-mark was refused registration by the USPTO for being deceptively misdescriptive and/or deceptive matter.  It’s unclear whether or not this is actually a trend.  I plan to conduct some research on this topic and discuss my findings in this space.

What is clear, though, is that the USPTO has made an initial foray into the subject of greenwashing and has at least begun to use deceptive misdescriptiveness and deceptive matter as tools for combating the problem.

Pressing Matters: Inserting Indow Windows for Energy Efficiency

October 17th, 2014

Indow Windows (Indow) is a Portland, Oregon, company that has developed energy efficient window inserts.

Indow owns at least one U.S. Patent and a pending patent application covering its storm window technology.  U.S. Patent No. 8,272,178 (‘178 Patent) is entitled “Press-fit storm window” and directed to a storm window assembly comprising a transparent panel and tubes or gaskets for insertion into a window frame.

The tube (102) has a hollow interior and a channel groove that connects it to the panel (130).  The tube allows a pressure fit (350, 352, 354) into a window frame.

FIGS. 6(A)-6(C) show a molded tube corner piece which includes parallel plates (605, 615) with a gap (617).  Notch (643) facilitates better coverage and flexibility while find (641) provides improved adhesion and insulation.

FIG. 5 shows the corner piece being inserted into a window frame.

U.S. Patent Application Publication No. 2014/0174006 is a related application (continuation-in-part of a continuation-in-part) owned by Indow, which adds some new material to the original disclosure of the ‘178 Patent.

According to the ‘178 Patent, the invention is intended to supplement, rather than replace, existing windows:

The windows are not designed to replace existing windows, but rather to supplement them by creating a tight seal between the interior space or exterior space and the existing window.

The invention accomplishes this by creating outward pressure around the edge of the panel:

In one embodiment of the inventive press-fit storm window, a transparent panel of acrylic glass, such as PLEXIGLAS, glass, or other clear rigid material is held in place by the spring action created by a continuous (or partial, conceivably) round gasket (or other spring-like gasket), that creates outward pressure around the entire exterior edge of the clear panel (or the top, left, and right sides). The panel is held securely in place through a combination of this outward pressure and friction.

A press release emailed to me by the company notes that its compression tube requires no mounting hardware or track system.  Significantly, the press release cites a U.S. Department of Energy study which found that installation of Indow Windows in a home in Seattle “led to a more than 20 percent reduction in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning use.”

The windows have gotten some recognition – according to the press release it has won a number of awards including the 2014 Top Product of the Year Award in the Environmental Leader Product & Project Awards.

ECO founder Helps Engineers Become Cleantech Entrepreneurs

October 13th, 2014

Just a quick report on a recent addition to the clean tech start-up community and blogosphere.  It’s called ECO founder, and the company hasn’t developed any exciting technology or new business model.  It provides something much more fundamental.

ECO founder helps engineers with green tech innovations and other budding clean tech entrepreneurs learn the ropes of managing a start-up.  Run by George Gray and based in Los Angeles, ECO founder teaches business and start-up skills via such programs as the 30-Day Challenge and Mr. Gray’s book, Engineer to Founder.

Of course, there is an ECO founder blog, with a variety of posts such as “Learn Key Business Skills Before You Leave Your Engineering Career,” “How to Build a Killer Elevator Pitch,” and “Go-to Market: Six Steps Cleantech Marketing.”

Why is Mr. Gray providing this services for green technicians?  He hopes that ECO founder can help people who don’t have the start-up skills obtain some fundamental skills and be successful:

Most engineers and scientists don’t have the startup skills to launch a clean-tech startup.  ECO founder is here to change that.

Burning Ring of Fire: Greenwashing Case Alleging Fried Solar Panels to Move Forward

October 6th, 2014

In February, three individuals filed a proposed class action lawsuit against BP Solar and Home Depot accusing the solar panel maker and retailer of greenwashing in connection with certain solar panels (see the complaint here).

Plaintiffs Michael Allagas, Arthur Ray, and Brett Mohrman alleged that there is a latent defect in the junction box of the BP solar panels that causes the box to fail and results in a total loss of functionality of the solar panels.

Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that the defect in the junction box and solder joints between connecting cables makes the solder joint overheat, which causes electrical arcing that generates temperatures of 2000-3000 degrees.  According to the plaintiffs, the heat melts the junction box, burns the cables and solar panels, and shatters the glass cover of the panels.

The plaintiffs also alleged that BP’s advertising and marketing materials about the solar panels are false or misleading.

While the northern California federal court hearing the case previously dismissed some of the plaintiffs’ claims, a recent decision denied BP and Home Depot’s motion to dismiss the remaining claims.

The court found the pleadings sufficient to support plaintiffs’ express warranty claims for breach of the express defect and power warranties because they stated that a latent defect existed at the time the product was sold and that they relied upon BP Solar’s power warranty in purchasing the solar panels.

Similarly, the implied warranty claims were held to be sufficient because plaintiffs clearly alleged a latent defect in the solar panels that renders them unmerchantable and unfit for their intended use.

With respect to the advertising and marketing materials, the plaintiffs cited various sweeping representations made by BP Solar, including:

Promises that the solar panels will “drastically reduce or eliminate your electric bills . . . forever,” and will “increase the value of your home.”

A statement that “No other system can operate at a higher level of safety than those offered by BP Solar.”

BP Solar also made some specific representations about the output and life of the solar panels, including product data sheets warranting 80% power output for a 25-year period and a 90% power output for a 12-year period with a 5-year warranty of materials and workmanship.

The court held that plaintiffs’ claims under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act could go forward because the statements include “factual representations” that could be “likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.”  The court concluded:

A reasonable consumer could have relied on these statements as descriptions of the quality and power capabilities of the solar panels.

The court maintained the plaintiffs’ fraud claims because they allege that BP knew of and concealed the defect:

The amended complaint also alleges BP’s knowledge of the latent defect in the solar panels, BP’s concealment of the defect, particular instances when information regarding the defect and risk of fire could have been revealed, and the warranties all three plaintiffs relied upon that failed to include the concealed information.

The court also denied the defendants’ motion to strike the class allegations, but left the door open for BP and Home Depot to contest those upon a subsequent motion by the plaintiffs for class certification.