Entrepreneur James Douglas was a victim of his own success. He was the clever fellow who coined the abbreviation “OBX” for the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Inspired by European automobile stickers that identified country of origin, Douglas designed oval stickers that soon began appearing on vehicles traveling up and down the eastern corridor.
Marketed through Douglas’ company OBX-Stock Inc., the OBX designation spread virally from vehicles to all kinds of “tourist sundries,” according to a new 4th Circuit opinion involving Douglas’ trademarked abbreviation. Other locales went for the same cachet, with “HH” for Hilton Head and “SOBX” for Southern Outer Banks. Company revenues soared to a $1 million a year.
After five attempts to get “OBX” trademarked, Douglas got help from his local congressional delegation and the U.S. Patent & Trademark office grudgingly added the mark to its register. With that muscle, the company’s cease-and-desist letters went out.
But the PTO did not have the last word, the 4th Circuit said in OBX-Stock v. Bicast Inc., issued Feb. 27.
The omnipresent mark was not associated with any particular product from Douglas’ company. It was a “geographically descriptive abbreviation that has no secondary meaning and therefore is not a valid trademark,” the court concluded in its published opinion.
By Deborah Elkins