In the first substantive trademark decision it has issued in a decade, the US Supreme Court, in Hana Financial, Inc. v. Hana Bank, case number 13-1211 (January 21, 2015), affirmed the Ninth Circuit by holding that whether two marks may be tacked for purposes of determining priority is a question for the jury.

The case involved two organizations providing financial services to individuals in the United States. The Respondent Hana Bank had been operating under that name in Korea since 1991, and first began to advertise its services to Korean expatriates in the US in 1994. Advertisements for those services in the US first appeared in Korean and in English under the name “Hana Overseas Korean Club,” and included the name “Hana Bank” in Korean. In 2000, it changed the name of “Hana Overseas Korean Club” to “Hana World Center,” and in 2002 began operating a bank in the United States under the name “Hana Bank.” This latter enterprise was its first physical presence in the United States.

Petitioner Hana Financial was established in 1994 as a California corporation and began using that name and an associated trademark in 1995. In 1996, it obtained a federal trademark registration for a logo design incorporating the name “Hana Financial” for use in connection with financial services.

In 2007, Hana Financial sued Hana Bank alleging trademark infringement. Hana Bank denied infringement by claiming that under the tacking doctrine it had priority of use of the mark “Hana” for financial services in the United States. The trial jury found in favor of Hana Bank and the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision on appeal. Since there was a split among the federal circuit courts as to whether tacking should be decided by juries or judges, the Supreme Court granted Hana Financial’s writ of certiorari.

So what is “tacking”? The general rule is that use of two marks may be “tacked together” for purposes of establishing priority of use when the original mark and the revised mark are “legal equivalents.” Marks are “legal equivalents” when they “create the same, continuing commercial impression” so that consumers “consider both as the same mark.” There is no dispute that the commercial impression that a mark conveys must be viewed through the eyes of the consumer. Thus, Justice Sotomayor, writing for a unanimous Court, stated that pursuant to long recognized doctrine, “when the relevant question is how an ordinary person or community would make an assessment, the jury is generally the decisionmaker that ought to provide the fact-intensive answer.”  Accordingly, the Court held that when the facts do not warrant entry of summary judgment or judgment as a matter of law on the question of tacking, the question of whether tacking is warranted must be decided by a jury.

The lesson here for trademark owners is to ensure that archival records of your use of your marks over time are diligently maintained. This will help ensure that in the event the mark is changed in any way for purposes of modernization or otherwise, you have sufficient evidence to prove your earliest date of first use of the “legally equivalent” mark to defend against claims of infringement.