US Supreme Court Resolves Major Dispute in Trademark Law: Willfulness No Longer Required for an Award of Infringer’s Profits as Damages

For many years, there has been a dispute in the federal courts about what level of culpability by a trademark infringer was required to support an award of the infringer’s profits as damages.  The courts in the Second, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits required that a trademark owner show that the infringement was “willful” before the infringer’s profits earned from the infringement could be awarded as damages.  In contrast, the law in the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits was that the infringer’s  willfulness could be considered in deciding whether to award profits as damages, but that willfulness was not a requirement for an award of profits.

On April 23, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Romag Fasterners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc.  by which it resolved the dispute among the circuits and held that willfulness is not a precondition to recovering a trademark infringer’s profits as damages.  Critically, the Court did not completely discount the role of the infringer’s culpability in the damages analysis – the Court expressly stated that “a trademark defendant’s mental state is a highly important consideration in determining whether an award of profits is appropriate.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Romag can be found here: Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc., 590 U.S. __, No. 18 – 1233 (April 23, 2020).

It usually is the case in trademark infringement cases that it is difficult to prove the profits lost by the trademark owner as a result of an infringement.  Consequently, prior to Romag, it often was difficult for a trademark owner to obtain damages in cases where the infringer did not act willfully.

While recovering profits-based damages in trademark infringement cases may continue to be challenging given the Supreme Court’s instruction that the infringer’s “mental state” still is an important consideration in the damages calculation, the Romag decision has removed a significant legal hurdle to an award of such damages.  It will be interesting to see how the Romag decision affects the settlement value of trademark infringement cases and whether the decision results in an increase in the number of infringement actions filed since the cases now may have more value.

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