The stuff of spy novels? IP attorney dives into submarine trademark filings to impede top-secret business ventures from surfacing

 In an era of widespread access to information, business secrecy has become an utmost priority for companies—but also a near impossibility, according to Julie A. Greenberg, a partner at intellectual property specialty law firm Fishman Stewart PLLC.  This has proven particularly true for new ventures—especially those hatched by the closely-watched giants such as Disney and Google, who go to great lengths to guard their intellectual capital and brand launches. With confidentiality at a premium, Greenberg explains an effective strategy in her IP arsenal to help clients keep things under wraps: ‘submarine’ trademark filings.

“One common leak in the secrecy of a startup happens upon filing for a new trademark registration for the trademark intended to be used for the confidential venture,” Greenberg said. “For example, the bombshell reveal of Ivanka Trump’s Chinese trademark application shows the extent that trademark snoops will go to scour new trademark application filings for a market scoop. Facebook went the extra mile to surprise us with its announcement of the new name META and likewise for Google and its announcement of Alphabet.”

In the United States, as well as in most jurisdictions, guarding the secret brand is extremely important because being the first to use or the first to file a trademark application ensures the right to obtain exclusive rights to the trademark through a trademark registration.

“Being number one is make-or-break; a leak could prove disastrous if a mole discovers the plan and gets to that trademark first,” Greenberg said. “However, an increasingly-used approach to thwart detection is through submarine trademark filings.”
The first step to applying for these stealthy trademarks begins in a relatively obscure country—one which does not make its trademark filings easily public or searchable—such as Jamaica, Lichtenstein and Honduras.

Once the trademark application has been filed in the “obscure” foreign country, step two involves the filer capitalizing on the provisions of the Paris Convention. This longstanding international treaty holds that any trademark application filed in a member country, may be filed within six months in any other member country as a “priority” application—thereby receiving the earlier filing date under the treaty.

“This was the tactic used before Cleveland’s MLB baseball team announced its name change from the Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians.  Likewise, Zynga was able to keep its filing for its game launch of GIFs Against Friends top secret by filing in Trinidad and Tobago months before filing in the U.S.,” Greenberg said.

This submarine approach lets applicants stay ahead of the game with six undetectable months after initial trademark filing before they can be discovered by market spies.

“Six months is enough of a head start to remain off the radars of would-be copycats and safeguard that confidential venture,” Greenberg said.


Julie Greenberg is a partner at Fishman Stewart. She has more than 30 years of experience in intellectual property protection for clients, focusing on worldwide trademark prosecution and protection. She also works closely with colleagues in protecting clients’ patentable assets.
Much of her career has involved federal court litigation with extensive experience in obtaining preliminary injunctive relief. She is passionate about protecting and defending her clients’ valuable trademarks and copyrights at all levels, including in infringement matters worldwide, and in particular at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board..
Greenberg earned her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, and her B.S. in Chemistry, with distinction, from the University of Michigan.
She is a member of the International Trademark Association (INTA), Intellectual Property Law Section of the Michigan Bar Association, Federal Bar Association, Michigan Intellectual Property Law Association (MIPLA), and American Bar Association (ABA).

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