Commissioner for Trademarks doubles down on “no post office boxes”

I have a client whose office is in a place that lacks reliable USPS postal delivery.  Because of the unreliability of the USPS postal delivery to the client’s office, the client uses a post office box to receive its mail.  For decades this client has been able to use its post office box in its relationship with the Commissioner for Trademarks.  Many of the trademark registration certificates from the USPTO that sit in my client’s safe-deposit box, bearing a gold seal and the signature of the Director of the USPTO, list my client’s post office box as the registrant’s address.  Each six-year and decade renewal that this client has filed in recent years years has repeated my client’s post office box as its address.

But not any longer.  On July 2, 2019, the USPTO published its Federal Register Notice Requirement of U.S. Licensed Attorney for Foreign Trademark Applicants and Registrants.  This notice promulgated et alia new Rules which the Commissioner construes as making it impossible for a trademark applicant or registrant to receive correspondence at a post office box.  And despite having been given multiple opportunities in recent months to soften its position on this, the Commissioner now has doubled down on its refusal to permit the use of a post office box to receive correspondence.

The Trademark Office seems to think that any use of a post office box indicates that the trademark applicant or registrant is presumptively up to no good or has something to hide.  The Commissioner for Trademarks was quoted as saying  “… in most cases, a post office box address is not a domicile because you can’t live in a PO box.”  

This particular client of our firm uses a post office box not because it has something to hide, but because in this client’s delivery area the postal service sometimes misdelivers or loses mail directed to addresses other than post office boxes.  Our client does not want to risk loss of substantive trademark rights (or loss of bank statements, or credit card bills, or incoming checks from customers) by having important mail get lost or misdelivered.  My point here is that there are perfectly legitimate reasons why a business might use a post office box to receive its mail.

Indeed, as you can see here, the Commissioner for Trademarks herself uses a post office box to receive her mail:

click to enlarge

Does the Commissioner herself use a post office box because she is up to no good?  Does the Commissioner herself use a post office box because she has something to hide?  Surely not!  Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I am prepared to guess that she uses a post office box simply to facilitate reliable delivery of postal mail for important business of the Trademark Office.  My client’s reason for wanting to use a post office box is no more nefarious than what I imagine to be the Commissioner’s own reason for wanting to use a post office box.

The case that I will describe to you here is a case in which the USPTO issued the registration in the year 2000.  The six-year renewal, which specified a post office box as the registrant’s address, took place without incident.  The ten-year renewal, which specified a post office box as the registrant’s address, took place without incident.  But now comes the twenty-year renewal, and the Commissioner has refused the renewal, saying that our client can no longer use a post office box to receive mail.  The Commissioner pointed to 37 CFR § 2.2(p) which requires that the trademark applicant or registrant that is a juristic entity must reveal to the Commissioner the entity’s “location”.  Here is exactly what the rule says:

The term principal place of business as used in this part means the location of a juristic entity’s headquarters where the entity’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities and is usually the center from where other locations are controlled.

What we did not want to do is to give the Commissioner a street address in response to this demand.  Had we done so, we figured the Commissioner would delete the client’s post office box from the official file at the USPTO and would instead insert this street address into the official file.  Given that in the past the postal service has misdelivered and lost mail to such street addresses, this would have presented an unacceptable risk of loss of substantive trademark rights.  So what did we do?  We provided the location, but not as a street address.  What we provided is the exact latitude and longitude of our client’s headquarters (degrees, minutes, and seconds).  

Keep in mind that in the above-mentioned Federal Register Notice, the Commissioner made clear why she felt so strongly that a trademark applicant or registrant needed to reveal its domicile.  The reason was that under new rules, if an applicant has its domicile located outside of the US, the applicant is required to hire US counsel.  The Commissioner did not want a non-US applicant to be able to get away with renting a post office box in the US as a way of getting around having to hire US counsel.  

But common sense tells you that once the applicant has hired US counsel, then the need to browbeat the applicant about his or her domicile evaporates.  And in any event, even if some reason could be found why the Commissioner nonetheless had some legitimate reason to need to know whether the domicile of an applicant who is represented by US counsel is or is not located in the US, the latitude and longitude are more than enough information to answer this question.  

As I say, in our twenty-year trademark renewal we provided the “location” (to quote 37 CFR § 2.2(p)) “where the entity’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities” (also quoting 37 CFR § 2.2(p).  It’s just that we provided that location as a latitude and longitude rather than as a street address.

We had hoped at this point that the Commissioner would quietly accept the twenty-year renewal and everyone could move forward.  We had hoped that the Commissioner would acknowledge that a precise latitude and longitude does count as a “location” as specified in 37 CFR § 2.2(p).  We had hoped that the Commission would acknowledge that given that our client had done exactly what she wished, namely hiring US counsel, no further browbeating was required.  But that is not what happened.  What happened is that we received a second Office Action from the post-registration branch, signed by a Trademark Specialist.  This second Office Action doubled down on the Commissioner’s refusal to permit our client to receive mail at a post office box.  What justification, you might ask, did the Commissioner give for this doubling down?

The Office Action cited to three distinct places as supposedly providing authority for the proposition that our client was forbidden to use a post office box and would have to instead cough up a street address to receive its correspondence.  Let’s talk through them one by one.

First, the Trademark Specialist pointed to 37 CFR §2.27.  37 CFR §2.27 says:

An index of pending applications including the name and address of the applicant, a reproduction or description of the mark, the goods or services with which the mark is used, the class number, the dates of use, and the serial number and filing date of the application will be available for public inspection as soon as practicable after filing.
What is this “index”?  This index is TESS and TSDR.  And indeed the Rule does call for an “address”.  But nothing in this Rule says the “address” cannot be a post office box.  For decades, TESS and TSDR (and TARR before it) listed post office boxes as “address of the applicant” and the sky did not fall.  The July 2, 2019 rules change did not modify 37 CFR §2.27 to say that the “address” published in the “index” could no longer be a post office box address.  The wording of 37 CFR §2.27 is the same now after July 2, 2019 as it was before July 2, 2019.  This argument by the Trademark Specialist was a non-starter.
 
The second of three authorities to which the Trademark Specialist turned is the Madrid Protocol.  The Trademark Specialist said that the Madrid Protocol supposedly:
requires an international applicant to provide its name and postal address, which must satisfy the “customary requirements for prompt postal delivery” and “consist, at least, of all the relevant administrative units up to, and including, the house number.”
When I saw this in the Office Action I was gobsmacked.  I have spent many years working very closely with the Madrid Protocol.  I was studying and working with the Madrid Protocol many years before the US joined the Protocol in 2003.  And I was pretty sure I had never seen such language, as quoted by the Trademark Specialist, anywhere in the Protocol.  So I pulled up the full text of the Protocol itself, and used control-F to do text searches.  The word “postal”, quoted by the Trademark specialist as supposedly appearing in the Madrid Protocol, cannot be found there.  You get the same result if you do a text search for the word “customary” or the word “house”.  The language quoted by the Trademark Specialist as supposedly appearing in the Madrid Protocol is just not there.  
 
I finally worked out what mistake the Trademark Specialist had probably made.  The Trademark Specialist was not quoting from the Madrid Protocol at all, but was probably quoting from mere “Administrative Instructions”.  Unfortunately even there the Trademark Specialist misquoted the source document.  Here is what the Administrative Instruction actually says:
An address shall be given in such a way as to satisfy the customary requirements for prompt postal delivery and shall consist, at least, of all the relevant administrative units up to, and including, the house number, if any.
(emphasis and missing words added.)  In the Trademark Specialist’s purported quotation, the Trademark Specialist placed a period after “house number”, failing to include in the purported quotation the crucial words “if any”.  (If you were a judge and an attorney who was admitted to practice in your court were to do something like this in a brief filed in your court, ask yourself what you would do about it.)  According to this Administrative Instruction, what must be provided is “an address” for “postal delivery”, not a “domicile address”.  Crucially, a “house number” must be provided for the “postal delivery” address only “if any” house number is part of the address.  If a postal delivery address does not include a house number, then this Administrative Instruction makes clear that no house number needs to be provided.  The Trademark Specialist was disingenuous, at best, in this misquotation of the Administrative Instruction, and was incorrect in saying that the language was from the Madrid Protocol itself.
 
The cited authority, when correctly quoted, actually supports our client’s use of its post office box rather than an unreliable street address, given that what is desired is “prompt postal delivery”.  Common sense tells you that there is nothing better than a post office box if what you want is “prompt postal delivery”.  
 
The third of three authorities to which the Trademark Specialist turns is the newly promulgated 37 CFR § 2.189, which came into existence on July 2, 2019.  37 CFR § 2.189 says:
An applicant or registrant must provide and keep current the address of its domicile, as defined in § 2.2(o).
Our client is a “juristic entity”.  To work out the meaning of “address of its domicile” for a juristic entity, one must therefore turn not to a dictionary but to 37 CFR § 2.2(o), which says:
The term domicile as used in this part means … the principal place of business of a juristic entity.
Okay, so we must then proceed stepwise.  We need to work out the meaning of “principal place of business” of a juristic entity.  To work out the meaning of “principal place of business”, one must turn once again not to a dictionary but to 37 CFR § 2.2(p).  37 CFR § 2.2(p) defines “principal place of business” this way:
The term principal place of business as used in this part means the location of a juristic entity’s headquarters where the entity’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities and is usually the center from where other locations are controlled.
(emphasis added.)  It should be appreciated that what 37 CFR § 2.2(p) recites is not an “address” but “the location”.  And as the Trademark Specialist admitted in our renewal, the registrant had provided “precise latitude and longitude” and thus had provided the registrant’s “geographic location”.  As such, it was our position that the registrant had indeed already provided what 37 CFR § 2.2(p) requires the registrant to provide.
 
Despite the fact that the word “address” cannot be found anywhere in 37 CFR § 2.2(p), the Trademark Specialist then turned to two different dictionary definitions of “address” from a Merriam-Webster dictionary.  The Trademark Specialist said that our client must provide an “address” according to those dictionary definitions.  Let’s look at the two definitions one by one.
 
The first definition proffered by the Trademark Specialist from the Merriam-Webster dictionary for “address” is “a place where a person or organization may be communicated with”.  And if the concern of the Trademark Specialist is communications with the registrant, then we had already satisfied this requirement — our client had already provided its postal address.  The registrant “may be communicated with” at its postal address.  That is indeed the very meaning of a postal address.  In contrast if we were to give the Commissioner some address other than the postal address, an alternative address that we know to be less reliable, it would seem this goes against the goal of being “communicated with”.
 
The second definition proffered by the Trademark Specialist from the Merriam-Webster dictionary for “address” is “the designation of place of delivery”.  And if the Trademark Specialist wishes to “deliver” something to the registrant, the information required for “delivery” has already been provided — the registrant has provided its postal address.  If anyone wishes to “deliver” something to the registrant, the correct place to do this is at registrant’s postal address. That is indeed the very meaning of a postal address.  
 
What the Commissioner has, apparently, failed to consider is that there may not be reliable postal delivery to the location where the registrant’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities.  And indeed this is the actual situation for this client of our firm.  Postal delivery to our client’s post office box is reliable.  Experience of our client has, in contrast, shown that the Postal Service does not reliably deliver mail to the location where our client’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities.  
 
If the USPTO could promise in perpetuity that it would not attempt to send postal mail to the location where the registrant’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities, then I could imagine our client would not mind giving some additional information to the USPTO about the location where the registrant’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities.  My concern, and it is not an idle or speculative concern, is that if we were to provide something to the USPTO which superficially appeared to be a “delivery address” in response to the demand for information about the location where the registrant’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities, there is the risk that USPTO would later stubbornly attempt to send postal mail to that location.  Were USPTO to act in such a stubborn fashion, there is a substantial risk that the USPTO’s attempted postal communication would be lost or misdirected.  In such an event, there is a likelihood of a loss of substantive rights on the part of the registrant.  
 
This concern about possible stubborn future conduct of the USPTO is not idle or speculative.  The Trademark Specialist has made clear by citing his dictionary definition that what he demands is a “place of delivery”.  It seems clear that if I were to respond to this demand by the Trademark Specialist about the location where the registrant’s senior executives or officers ordinarily direct and control the entity’s activities by providing what might superficially appear to be a “delivery address”, the Trademark Specialist would in fact attempt to use such “address” as a “delivery address”.   This is precisely why I provided a latitude and longitude in the first place! By providing a latitude and longitude, there was no risk that the USPTO would blindly or unthinkingly try to insert the latitude and longitude into the “address” field in USPTO’s official databases.  But if I were to provide some information which superficially appeared to be a “delivery address”, I think it is nearly certain that the USPTO would insert it into the “address” field of USPTO’s databases.
 
But turning again to the dictionary definition cited by the Trademark Specialist from Merriam-Webster, what the Trademark Specialist demands is a “delivery address”, to which the only accurate and reliable answer which my client can give is the postal address that is already of record in the file.  Were I to give any other answer than the postal address to this demand by the Trademark Specialist, the answer would be an answer upon which the USPTO could not rely.
 
In this particular case the client’s wish to use a post office box address rather than a street address is motivated by the mere unreliability of postal delivery to the street address.  But what about cases where the US Postal Service quite literally does not deliver mail to street addresses?  For example, I personally live at a place in rural Colorado where the US Postal Service quite literally does not deliver mail to street addresses.  And I personally have just now filed a ten-year renewal for a US trademark registration for which I am the owner.  Of necessity I have listed a post office box as my address in the renewal papers that I just filed at the Trademark Office a few days ago.  I imagine that any day now I will receive a similar Office Action from a Trademark Specialist, refusing my attempt to use a post office box to receive my mail.  I guess the result will be that the Commissioner will cancel my trademark registration.  Maybe I will then feel the need to pursue a remedy in the federal court system.
 
One thoughtful person who heard of this most recent doubling-down by the Commissioner for Trademarks had this to say about it:
 
Here in Santa Cruz, as in much of the country, it would seem that the PTO’s policy would deny a homeless person, or a person living in a vehicle, the ability to register a trade mark. I can think of many perjoratives for such a discriminatory policy, but the nicest sounding one uses the words “violation of equal protection”.
 
Do you have clients who have legitimate reasons for using a post office box in their filings at the Trademark office?  If so, please post a comment below.

13 thoughts on “Commissioner for Trademarks doubles down on “no post office boxes”

  1. First, the PTO’s requirement is ill advised. Second, the PTO’s requirement is easily avoided. Simply contract for a commercial mail forwarding service (which uses an address instead of a PO Box), instead of contracting for a US government PO Box, and you are done. Rather than naming any particular service, here, just Google “mail forwarding services”.

    • Interesting suggestion. But how would that satisfy what Carl says is the USPTO’s demand of using the “location” / “principal place of business”?

      • I take it that what we are talking about is form or substance. The Commissioner has made it plain that she wishes to know where the applicant sleeps at night. She has made it plain that the way she is going to accomplish this aim is by refusing to accept a post office box. So what will the Commissioner do if the applicant for example uses the street address of the post office as an addressing artifice (as one commenter pointed out that one can do) or the rental of a private-mail-delivery box (as another commenter pointed out that one can do). Neither of these approaches actually reveals the head-on-the-pillow location to the Commissioner. Yet if the training given to the Trademark Office staff is to bounce the address only if the character string “P O Box” can be found, then the artifice will prevent the bouncing.

        The thing is that the USPTO provides an address verification API that will smoke out private-mail-delivery box addresses. You run the address through the API and one of the fields returned is a “yes” or “no” field for PMB. The Commissioner could use that field as a way to smoke out the applicant who uses a PMB to avoid having to hire US counsel. This would also require the development of a new form paragraph. “The Statement Of Use, otherwise acceptable in all respects, is unacceptable because the applicant is not represented by US counsel and the address provided is believed by the Office to be at a private mailbox service.”

        To be consistent, the Commissioner would also have to bounce SOUs in cases where the applicant used a street address of a post office to mask the use of a post office box.

        • This is an extremely anti-small business policy/position by the USPTO, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is being done in collusion with large trademark holders and big law. Have you contacted any small business organizations or media outlets about this issue?

        • According to the USPS:

          “You may apply for a PO Box in person at a Post Office™ or online at USPS.com®. An application process for PO Box service is not completely approved until your identity and current permanent physical address where you reside or conduct business is verified … All applicants listed (including both spouses and other individuals listed, except for minors) must present two forms of acceptable identification. One must be an acceptable primary of identification and the other an acceptable secondary form of identification.”
          (https://faq.usps.com/s/article/PO-Box-The-Basics#howdoiapply)

          So if this verified application process is good enough for the USPS, why is it not good enough for the USPTO or its Commissioner?

          Also, how many are aware the USPS claims exclusive trademark rights to several uses of the phrase “Post Box” (including for clothing, Serial No. 87560336), and has initiated several TTAB cases? Yet, the USPTO has granted several non-USPS entities exclusive trademark rights to various uses of the phrase “Post Box”? Could the USPS’s “post box” marks be declared invalid due to genericness etc?

    • Even the USPS allows specifying your PO box address as a street address, using the street address of the post office. As far as I know, the PTO has not objected to such an address.

  2. While well-intentioned (to weed out bogus foreign applicants), the baby that is being thrown out with the bath water is privacy. In this day and age, many, many businesses are “located” on one’s computer which “resides” in one’s home. There is nothing more sacred or important than preserving the sanctity of one’s home and private life against the unwanted solicitations or even unwanted actual visits (if you’re a celebrity, for example) of others. Maybe we should ask the Commissioner to publish her or his home address on the PTO web site and see how she or he feels about it.

  3. I, like you, Carl, just renewed a trademark registration owned by my law firm which also does not get mail delivery at a physical address.

    There is no home/domicile mail delivery where I live in practice law. I am hopeful that my address won’t be flagged as a POB, as it is a mail drop place that takes USPS, FedEx, UPS and anything else that someone might want to ship to me & actually have it be delivered.

    I also still don’t understand how a rule intending to require foreign applicant’s to provide the domicile got so out of whack that it’s now being enforced against US applicants/registrants & counsel.

    If you end up filing suit, I imagine the majority of the trademark bar will join you. I know I will!

    (Note — I am posting here anonymously in hopes that my renewal does not get flagged, though if it does I will definitely respond as you did, by providing my longitude and latitude.)

  4. Some small businesses are run by people who travel and do not have a primary office or business location, they do not necessarily even sleep in the same location routinely. Assuming that they have a web-based business, might it be appropriate to list a static ip address as their primary “location” for doing business?

  5. I, too, have a client who has a start-up business – already up and running, with investors, but she does not have an office separate from her home office. She uses a PO Box for her business, like many other small businesses, so that her HOME address is not in a public database for all to see. This is a reasonable concern. She is a US citizen, US resident, with a US attorney. There is no reason for this new misguided and invasive interpretation of the rule.
    I also have several clients who, as some mentioned above, have home offices or businesses in rural locations (New Mexico, western NY state, rural Pennsylvania, etc.), where they DO NOT RECEIVE mail other than at a PO Box at their Post Office, where they have to go pick it up. This whole thing is very ill-advised to say the least. Not using my name here so as not to prejudice any clients.

  6. I have several clients who are individuals or small businesses that change physical addresses as they move apartments or grow, but keep the same P.O. Box. They have a US attorney (me). No real purpose is being served by having to list, and then periodically update the address of, those clients, instead of permitting them to use a P. O. Box where they reliably get their mail.

  7. One of my single mom clients works from her home exclusively and has had to not only file a restraining order on a stalker, but moved houses to get to a safe place. Requiring her to list her home address puts her and her children at risk of harm or even death.

  8. Pingback: Trademark Office blinks on domicile address - Ant-like Persistence

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