An Overview of USPTO Office Actions Refusing To Register A Trademark

Understanding & Navigating USPTO Trademark Office Actions

Contrary to common belief, obtaining a trademark registration is not merely a matter of form filling. It encompasses a detailed and critical evaluation of your application by a United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) trademark examining attorney. This process is designed to ensure that each trademark meets the rigorous standards for federal trademark registration. When a trademark application fails to meet these criteria, the examining attorney issues a formal USPTO Office Action, which is essentially a notification of issues that need resolution by the trademark applicant.

USPTO Office Actions typically arise from trademarks that are either too descriptive of the goods or services they represent or are potentially confusingly similar to existing trademarks – but there are numerous other reasons why a trademark applicant is issued a USPTO Office Action (which are discussed below). This careful screening by the USPTO is not a rare occurrence; various Office Actions are commonly issued, each tailored to specific issues identified during the application review.

For businesses or individuals who have encountered an Office Action, it’s crucial to understand the complexities involved in responding appropriately. Each type of Office Action requires a distinct approach and understanding. Our discussion will delve into the nuances of different Office Actions and how to effectively navigate them.

NOTE: In a significant update from the USPTO, effective from December 3, 2022, the timeline for responding to Office Actions has been reduced. Trademark applicants now have only three months to respond, a considerable reduction from the previous six-month period. This change underscores the importance of prompt and efficient action in the trademark registration process. Additionally, applicants may request a one-time three-month extension for each Office Action, subject to an additional fee.

What exactly is a Trademark Office Action?

Following the submission of a trademark application, it is assigned to a USPTO examining attorney who meticulously reviews every aspect of the application. These attorneys are based in USPTO’s law offices in Washington D.C. and are well-versed in the nuances of trademark law – although each USPTO examining attorney differs in experience and tenure. They thoroughly analyze the trademark application to identify any legal issues with the proposed trademark or the application itself.

Office Actions are not a mere formality; they represent a critical juncture in the trademark registration process. These formal letters from the examining attorney outline specific legal issues that must be addressed for the trademark to proceed towards registration. The response to an Office Action often requires a detailed and well-thought-out written reply, although some issues may be resolved through direct communication with the examining attorney.

The legal problems commonly cited in USPTO Office Actions include, but are not limited to:

  • Requirements for clearer identification of goods or services.
  • Dividing identified goods or services into several trademark classes as appropriate.
  • Substituting a proposed trademark class with one more suitable.
  • Disclaiming portions of the trademark deemed descriptive or unregistrable.
  • Providing a more appropriate specimen demonstrating the trademark’s use in commerce.

A Non-Final Office Action is typically the first indication of a legal issue with your application. This requires a timely response, ideally within three months. If the response adequately addresses all concerns without raising new issues, the application progresses towards registration. However, if the response is insufficient or raises new problems, the USPTO will issue a Final Office Action.

Once a Final Office Action is issued, it represents the last opportunity for the applicant to address the issues raised. It’s vital to thoroughly resolve all legal concerns at this stage to avoid the abandonment of the trademark application. Should the response satisfy all legal requirements, the application moves to the next phase. Failure to address these issues satisfactorily could result in the application being abandoned, unless an appeal is filed with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB).

Other types of Office Actions that may be issued by the USPTO examining attorney include:

  • Examiner’s Amendments: Used for resolving minor legal problems and confirmed via phone or email, these amendments do not require a formal response but a confirmation of changes to the application.
  • Priority Actions: Similar in nature to Examiner’s Amendments, these are used when the examining attorney believes a written response after discussion could resolve the legal issues.
  • Suspension Letters: Issued to temporarily halt the application process, often due to issues like pending resolution of a similar trademark application.

When faced with an Office Action, it’s crucial to craft a response that comprehensively addresses all legal issues raised. The USPTO’s updated policy demands prompt action, allowing just three months for applicants to respond, with the possibility of a one-time extension for an additional fee.

Accurate Description of Goods or Services

An accurate description of goods or services, and identification of the appropriate trademark class,  is a pivotal part of the trademark application. The USPTO requires this description to be brief, clear, and easily understandable to ensure consumers can identify the products or services. Ambiguity or overbroad descriptions often lead to Office Actions, necessitating amendments for greater clarity and specificity. It’s important to note that while clarifications and narrowing of descriptions are permitted, adding new goods or services is not.

In cases where goods or services span multiple classes, the USPTO may issue an Office Action requiring the application to cover several classes. This often results in additional fees as each class requires separate registration. The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that the trademark is appropriately categorized, facilitating a more accurate and effective trademark protection.

Proper Trademark Disclaimer Practice

Disclaiming parts of a trademark is another common requirement. When parts of a trademark are generic or descriptive, they cannot be registered exclusively. In such cases, the USPTO requires applicants to disclaim these parts, acknowledging that exclusive rights cannot be claimed on them. For example, in a trademark like “Mayhem Surfboards,” the term “surfboards” may need to be disclaimed as it’s a generic term necessary for all in the industry.

Specimen refusals occur when the evidence of trademark usage does not align with the application’s details. The USPTO requires that the specimen accurately show the trademark as used in commerce, corresponding with the specified goods or services. Common issues include discrepancies between the specimen and the application, use of mock-ups or digitally altered images, and inappropriate types of specimens.

Mock-Up or Photoshopped Specimens Not Permitted

In 2019, the USPTO introduced a policy to guide the review of digitally created specimens following a surge in applications with fake digital specimens. This policy mandates that if a submitted specimen appears digitally altered, the examining attorney will issue a refusal and request detailed information about the goods or services covered in the application.

Likelihood of Confusion Trademark Refusal

One of the more challenging refusals to overcome is the Section 2(d) “likelihood of confusion” refusal. This occurs when the examining attorney, after searching the USPTO’s database, finds that the proposed trademark is confusingly similar to one or more registered trademarks used with related goods or services. This similarity could lead to consumer confusion, believing that products or services from different sources are actually from the same source.

Merely Descriptive Trademark Refusal

Similarly, a Section 2(e)(1) “descriptiveness” refusal is made when the trademark describes a significant quality or feature of the goods or services. For instance, terms like “foamie” for surfboards or “rubber” for wetsuits are directly descriptive of the products and are thus likely to face refusal. The rationale is to keep descriptive language available for all businesses in a particular market to use freely.

Surname Trademark Refusals

Surname refusals, under Section 2(e)(4), are issued when a trademark is primarily merely a surname, which are not registrable without evidence of acquired distinctiveness or secondary meaning. Common surnames, unless they have gained unique recognition in the market, face challenges in registration. However, unique surnames may be eligible for registration. The distinction hinges on the surname’s primary significance to the public, whether as a surname or as a trademark.

Ornamental Trademark Refusal

Ornamental refusals are issued when the specimen shows the trademark used in a decorative or ornamental manner, which fails to indicate the source of the goods. For example, a slogan or design on a t-shirt that appears primarily as decoration rather than a brand identifier can lead to an ornamental refusal.


Understanding and navigating these various types of refusals and Office Actions is critical for successful trademark registration. It requires not only familiarity with trademark law but also a strategic approach to each unique challenge. In responding to Office Actions, it is essential to carefully read and understand the specific deadlines and requirements set forth by the USPTO, keeping in mind the recent policy updates.

If you’ve received an Office Action, it’s advisable to seek professional help as soon as possible. Responding to an Office Action involves substantial research and legal drafting, often requiring several rounds of review before submission. Early engagement with a trademark attorney can provide a significant advantage in addressing the issues effectively and within the prescribed timelines.

In summary, the trademark registration process with the USPTO is intricate and filled with potential legal complexities. From the initial application review to responding to Office Actions, each step demands careful attention and a thorough understanding of the law. Whether it’s addressing descriptiveness, overcoming likelihood of confusion refusals, or responding to technical issues, the guidance of experienced trademark attorneys can be pivotal. Navigating this path successfully not only secures your trademark registration but also lays a strong foundation for protecting your brand and intellectual property rights.

Contact Our Trademark Attorneys

Receiving a USPTO office action can be challenging. However, this isn’t the end of the process. Our trademark attorneys are experienced in addressing issues raised in these office actions, including likelihood of confusion, descriptiveness, surname, geographic, ornamental, and other refusal grounds.

We focus on creating strategic responses to align your trademark application with USPTO guidelines. An office action is an opportunity to improve your application, not a final refusal. Contact us to see how we can help you move forward with your trademark registration.