Green Branding Through Eco-Marks: Easy as PNC?

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PNC Financial Services (PNC) has more environmentally friendly buildings than any other company.  Forty-two of its buildings, including 15 of its bank branches, have received the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.  Recently, PNC got a federal registration for the service mark GREEN BRANCH, turning the bank’s green ways into a brand.  (read the article here)

But PNC had to wage a three and a half year battle with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) to get the registration.  The trademark examiner twice rejected PNC’s application on the ground that GREEN BRANCH is merely “descriptive” of financial services offered in environmentally friendly facilities.  (a trademark can’t be registered with the PTO if it is a generic term or is descriptive of goods or services because that would restrict competitors from conveying information about their goods or services).  PNC appealed the examiner’s decision to the PTO’s Trademark Trial & Appeal Board.  The Board decided that PNC could have the registration for GREEN BRANCH because financial services are not typically associated with environmentally friendly characteristics, so the connection between the mark and PNC’s services is too remote for the mark to be merely descriptive.

PNC truly is a green company, but allowing registration of green trademarks as ordinary marks could lead to abuse and misleading brands.  The Matter Network story warns of the potential for “greenwashing” and reminds us to investigate claims of green business practices.  It seems that green trademarks may be better categorized as certification marks, which instead of indicating commercial source, certify that goods or services meet certain quality or manufacturing standards.  Certification marks are owned by the organizations that set the standards and used by companies that meet the standards and receive the certifications.  Indeed, the U.S. Green Building Council, a trade group that sets standards for green buildings, has applied for a certification mark for the LEED-certified seal it awards to buildings that meet those standards.

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Eric Lane

Eric Lane, the founder and principal of Green Patent Law, is an intellectual property lawyer and registered U.S. patent attorney in New York and is a member of the bar in New York and California. Eric has more than two decades of experience working with wind, solar PV, CSP, biofuels, and geothermal, energy storage technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, medical devices, data communications, mechanical, chemical, internet and software.