Last month’s news that Anheuser-Busch Inc. has applied for sixteen USPTO trademark registrations covering major city area codes not only suggests that the company has plans to market “local” brews , it also sheds light on the topic of geographic descriptiveness in trademark law.
In May 2011, A-B filed USPTO applications to register sixteen 3-digit number combinations as trademarks for use in connection with beer. The combinations correspond to the area codes of sixteen U.S. cities: Charlotte (704), Cleveland (216), Dallas (214), Denver (303), Houston (713), Las Vegas (702), Miami (305), Nashville (615), Philadelphia (215), Phoenix (602), Pittsburgh (412), San Diego (619), San Francisco (415), St. Louis (314), and Washington, D.C. (202).
The USPTO’s Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure states that “a mark is primarily geographic if it identifies a real and significant geographic location, and the primary meaning of the mark is the geographic meaning.” If so, the USPTO may reject the mark as geographically descriptive, or the applicant may opt to register the mark on the USPTO’s supplemental register, rather than the principal register. However, the USPTO has not issued specific guidance on when (or even if) an area code is considered “primarily geographic.”
If successful, A-B would not be the first brewer to use an area code as a beer name. However, it appears that A-B would be the first to secure rights to the area code alone, without other words or numbers in the mark. Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company – which A-B acquired earlier this year — sells and holds registered trademarks for its 312 URBAN WHEAT ALE. “312” is the Chicago brewer’s local area code. The USPTO recently allowed a trademark filing by Luxembourg Capital for 212 BEER — which may signal an intent to use the mark for a New York City beverage. (Luxembourg Capital still needs to demonstrate use of the mark in commerce in order to obtain the registration.) Seattle spirits maker Batch 206 Distillery has secured a trademark registration for BATCH 206 (Seattle’s area code) for use with alcoholic beverages except beer.
Even smaller markets are in on the act, with Western Pennsylvania’s Beaver Brewing Company selling a 724 Pale Ale, corresponding to an area code covering certain Pittsburgh suburbs. (But with no federal trademark registration — at least, not yet.)