L.A. TECH & MEDIA LAW FIRM – Intellectual Property & Technology Law

Obama Trademark Dispute

LA Tech and media law blog obama trademark rejection in united states patent and trademark office

While trademark registration and disputes often fly under the radar, a recent application involving where former President Barack Obama’s trademark was rejected caught significant media attention. On May 24, 2018, Obama and former First Lady Michelle filed for federal registration of their production company’s name, “Higher Ground Productions,” with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This move, aimed at protecting their media production services under International Class 041, sparked discussions and highlighted the complexities of trademark law.

A Closer Look at Trademark Registration

Trademark registration is a critical process for businesses, ensuring that their brand names, logos, and slogans are legally protected. For “Higher Ground Productions,” obtaining a federal trademark means exclusive rights to use the name in connection with media production services, safeguarding their brand identity and preventing others from using a confusingly similar mark. This is why when Obama’s Trademark was rejected, it caused such a stir in legal and media circles. 

The Role of the USPTO and TTAB

The USPTO oversees trademark registrations, ensuring that applied-for marks meet all legal requirements. When conflicts arise, such as oppositions or cancellations, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) steps in to resolve these disputes. The TTAB operates much like a court, where both parties can present evidence and arguments.

The Trademark Application for “Higher Ground Productions”

When Obama’s production company, “Higher Ground Productions,” filed its trademark application, it was a strategic move to protect the brand in the competitive media landscape. The application covered various services in International Class 041, including film and television production, highlighting the company’s ambitions in the entertainment industry.

Headlines and Legal Implications

LA Tech and media law blog obama trademark rejection in united states patent and trademark office

The filing made headlines, not just because of the high-profile applicants but also due to its implications. Trademark disputes involving well-known figures or entities often draw public interest, shedding light on the legal intricacies involved. Such cases emphasize the importance of thorough trademark searches and understanding potential conflicts before filing an application.

Potential Opposition and TTAB Proceedings

Following the application, if any existing trademark holders believe “Higher Ground Productions” could cause a likelihood of confusion with their own marks, they might file an opposition with the TTAB. These proceedings can be lengthy and complex, involving detailed legal arguments and evidence. For businesses, especially those in high-profile sectors like media production, understanding the TTAB process is crucial.

Protecting Media Production Services under Class 041

International Class 041 encompasses a broad range of educational and entertainment services, including film production, television programming, and online video services. For “Higher Ground Productions,” securing a trademark in this class is vital for establishing a unique brand presence in a crowded market.

Lessons for Startups and Entrepreneurs From the Obama Trademark Dispute

Obama’s trademark application underscores several key lessons for startups and entrepreneurs:

  1. Conduct Thorough Searches: Before filing a trademark application, conduct comprehensive searches to identify potential conflicts. This can prevent costly disputes down the line.

  2. Understand Trademark Classes: Knowing which international classes to file under ensures that your trademark protection aligns with your business activities.

  3. Prepare for Opposition: Be ready for potential oppositions by understanding the TTAB process and having a legal strategy in place.

When President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama filed for federal registration of their production company’s name, “Higher Ground Productions,” they anticipated securing a unique brand identity. However, their application encountered a significant hurdle: a refusal to register due to the likelihood of confusion with an existing trademark. This clash brought them into a legal confrontation with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), where the Obamas sought to cancel the conflicting trademark.

The Initial Refusal in the Obama Trademark Dispute

The USPTO issued a refusal to register “Higher Ground Productions” citing a likelihood of confusion with U.S. Registration No. 5260404 for the mark “Higher Ground Enterprises.” This prior registration, also in International Class 041, covered services such as “Photography; Publishing of books, e-books, audiobooks, music, and illustrations.” The similarity in names and overlapping services in the same class raised concerns that consumers might mistakenly believe the two entities were related.

Understanding Likelihood of Confusion

Likelihood of confusion is a key standard in trademark law, designed to prevent consumer confusion about the source of goods or ser

vices. When evaluating potential confusion, the USPTO considers several factors, including:

  1. Similarity of the Marks: The visual, phonetic, and conceptual similarities between “Higher Ground Productions” and “Higher Ground Enterprises.”
  2. Relatedness of the Services: Both trademarks cover media-related services within the same international class.
  3. Channels of Trade: How the services are marketed and sold, potentially reaching the same audience.

The Petition to Cancel After the Obama Trademark Dispute

In response to the refusal, the Obamas filed a petition to cancel the existing registration for “Higher Ground Enterprises” (Cancellation No. 92072049). Their argument hinged on the claim of non-use: they contended that “Higher Ground Enterprises” had not been used in commerce before the application was filed or a statement of use was presented. Non-use can be a valid ground for cancellation if a mark has not been used in the ordinary course of trade within a specified period.

The TTAB Proceedings

The TTAB proceedings in cases like this involve several steps:

  1. Filing the Petition: The Obamas formally requested the cancellation of the conflicting trademark, detailing their grounds for the petition.
  2. Discovery Phase: Both parties gather and exchange evidence supporting their claims, which might include business records, marketing materials, and witness testimonies.
  3. Trial Briefs and Oral Arguments: Each side presents their arguments, supported by the gathered evidence. The TTAB reviews these submissions carefully.
  4. Decision: The TTAB issues a decision based on the evidence and arguments presented.

Implications of the Dispute

This high-profile trademark dispute illustrates several important aspects of trademark law:

  1. Due Diligence: Conducting thorough trademark searches before filing can prevent costly and time-consuming legal battles.
  2. Non-Use Claims: Demonstrating non-use of a conflicting mark can be a powerful strategy in cancellation proceedings.
  3. Importance of Evidence: Detailed and persuasive evidence is crucial in TTAB disputes to support claims and defenses.

Lessons for Startups and Entrepreneurs

For startups and entrepreneurs, the Obamas’ experience underscores key lessons in trademark strategy:

  1. Pre-Filing Searches: Ensure comprehensive searches are conducted to identify potential conflicts.
  2. Documenting Use: Maintain detailed records of how and when your trademark is used in commerce.
  3. Legal Preparedness: Be prepared for potential legal challenges and understand the TTAB process.

Trademark disputes often reveal the intricate and sometimes perplexing nature of trademark law. A notable case that drew widespread attention involved President Barack Obama’s attempt to register the mark “Higher Ground Productions.” Despite meticulous planning, the application faced significant challenges due to the existing registration of a similar mark. This case underscores the complexities of trademark law and the importance of diligent conflict checks before filing.

The Trademark Filings

Obama’s trademark attorney filed for registration of several marks related to their production company:

  1. HIGHER GROUND PRODUCTIONS in International Class 41: Serial No. 87930586
  2. HIGHER GROUND in International Class 41: Serial No. 87935457
  3. HIGHER GROUND in International Classes 9, 16, and 41: Serial No. 88409012
  4. HIGHER GROUND and Design in International Classes 9, 16, and 41: Serial No. 88409032

These filings aimed to secure comprehensive trademark protection for the Obamas’ media production services and related goods.

The Initial Refusal and Subsequent Actions

On September 13, 2018, the USPTO issued a non-final Office Action refusing Serial No. 87930586 under Trademark Act Section 2(d), 15 U.S.C. §1052(d), due to the alleged likelihood of confusion with an existing registration for “Higher Ground Enterprises.” This refusal was maintained in a Final Action issued on April 10, 2019.

Understanding Section 2(d) of the Lanham Act

Section 2(d) of the Lanham Act is pivotal in trademark law, creating a bar to federal registration for any later-used trademark that closely resembles a registered mark. The key concern is the “likelihood of confusion” among consumers, which the USPTO evaluates based on:

  1. Similarity of Marks: Assessing visual, phonetic, and conceptual similarities.
  2. Relatedness of Goods/Services: Examining whether the goods/services under the marks are related.
  3. Channels of Trade: Considering how the goods/services are marketed and sold.

This provision ensures that owners of registered trademarks can rely on their exclusive rights, knowing that the USPTO will refuse any confusingly similar marks.

The Argument for Cancellation

In response to the refusal, Obama’s legal team filed a petition to cancel the conflicting “Higher Ground Enterprises” registration. Their primary argument was non-use: they asserted that the registrant was not using the mark in commerce in connection with the registered services as of the application date. If proven, this would render the existing registration void ab initio, clearing the way for Obama’s trademark.

The Importance of Conflict Checks

This case highlights the critical importance of performing thorough conflict checks before filing a new trademark application. A conflict check involves searching existing trademarks to identify any potential issues that might lead to a refusal based on likelihood of confusion. By identifying conflicts early, applicants can avoid the time and expense of responding to refusals and potentially lengthy TTAB proceedings.

Options After Receiving a Refusal

When faced with a refusal from the USPTO based on likelihood of confusion, applicants have several options:

  1. Responding to the Office Action: Presenting arguments and evidence to overcome the refusal.
  2. Negotiating Coexistence Agreements: Agreeing with the owner of the conflicting mark on terms that allow both marks to coexist.
  3. Filing a Petition to Cancel: If there are grounds to allege non-use or other issues with the conflicting mark, a petition for cancellation can be filed with the TTAB.

Lessons from the Obama Case

The trademark dispute involving Obama’s “Higher Ground Productions” illustrates that even high-profile applicants must adhere to established trademark laws. Key takeaways for startups and entrepreneurs include:

  1. Thorough Searches: Conducting comprehensive searches to identify potential conflicts before filing.
  2. Detailed Documentation: Keeping records of trademark use to support applications and defend against cancellation claims.
  3. Understanding Legal Options: Knowing the available responses to a USPTO refusal can provide pathways to successful registration.


Q1: What is the TTAB? The TTAB is the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, a body within the USPTO that handles disputes related to trademark registration, including oppositions and cancellations.

Q2: Why is trademark registration important for media production companies? Trademark registration protects the company’s brand name and identity, preventing others from using similar marks and ensuring exclusive rights to the brand.

Q3: What are International Classes in trademark registration? International Classes categorize goods and services for trademark registration purposes. Class 041 covers educational and entertainment services, including media production.

Interesting External Links

By keeping these points in mind, businesses can navigate the complexities of trademark law more effectively and ensure their brand’s long-term protection and success.

The case of Obama’s “Higher Ground Productions” and the subsequent TTAB dispute provides a clear example of the complexities involved in trademark registration. It underscores the necessity of thorough conflict checks and understanding the legal landscape to navigate potential challenges effectively.

The refusal of Obama’s trademark application for “Higher Ground Productions” and the subsequent TTAB dispute highlights the complexities of trademark law and the importance of strategic legal planning. For businesses, especially in the competitive media industry, securing and defending a trademark requires careful consideration and robust evidence.

The trademark application by “Higher Ground Productions” highlights the importance of trademark registration and the potential complexities of the TTAB process. For businesses, particularly in competitive industries, securing a trademark is a crucial step in protecting brand identity and ensuring market distinction.

Navigating the complexities of trademark law can be challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. At L.A. Tech and Media Law Firm, we specialize in technology startup law and trademark consultations. Our experienced attorneys are here to guide you through every step of the trademark registration process, from conducting thorough conflict checks to responding to USPTO refusals and handling TTAB disputes.

Don’t let potential trademark conflicts derail your business plans. Contact us today for a consultation and let us help you secure your brand’s future. Reach out via our secure contact form or visit our website at techandmedialaw.com.

Let us put our expertise to work for you and ensure your trademarks are protected and your business is set up for success.

Picture of David N. Sharifi, Esq.
David N. Sharifi, Esq.

David N. Sharifi, Esq. is a Los Angeles based intellectual property attorney and technology startup consultant with focuses in entertainment law, emerging technologies, trademark protection, and “the internet of things”. David was recognized as one of the Top 30 Most Influential Attorneys in Digital Media and E-Commerce Law by the Los Angeles Business Journal.
Office: Ph: 310-751-0181; david@latml.com.

Disclaimer: The content above is a discussion of legal issues and general information; it does not constitute legal advice and should not be used as such without seeking professional legal counsel. Reading the content above does not create an attorney-client relationship. All trademarks are the property of L.A. Tech & Media Law Firm or their respective owners. Copyright 2024. All rights reserved.

Recent Posts


12121 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 810, Los Angeles, CA 90025.

Office: 310-751-0181
Fax: 310-882-6518
Email: info@latml.com

Follow Us

Sign up for our Newsletter

Schedule Confidential Consultation Call 310-751-0181 or Use this Form

Schedule Confidential Consultation

Call 310-751-0181 or Use this Form