Washington, D.C. (AP by Richard Carelli) — The Supreme Court today refused to stop Utah from bragging about “the greatest snow on earth,” a phrase the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus says illegally dilutes its “Greatest Show on Earth” trademark.
The nation’s highest court, without comment, rejected an appeal filed by lawyers for the world-famous circus. The justices let stand rulings that threw out a 1996 lawsuit aimed at getting Utah to stop using the trademarked phrase to promote its winter sports attractions.
P.T. Barnum’s circus held the “Greatest Show” trademark since 1872, long before it merged with the Ringling Circus in 1919. Utah has used the “greatest snow” trademark since the 1960s, but that practice was challenged by the circus after Congress enacted the Federal Trademark Dilution Act of 1995.
Until that law was passed, federal trademark law protected only against trademark infringements. The 1995 law protects owners of “famous” trademarks “against another person’s commercial use … of a mark or trade name if such use … causes dilution of the distinctive quality of the mark.”
The act defines dilution as the lessening of the capacity of a famous mark to identify and distinguish goods or services, regardless of any competition between the two trademark owners or the likelihood of public confusion.
A federal judge in Alexandria, Va., and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the circus’ lawsuit before it reached a jury, ruling that no trademark dilution had occurred.
Proof of dilution requires a showing of “actual economic harm to the famous mark’s economic value by lessening its former selling power,” the appeals court ruled last March, adding that the circus had not offered such proof.
In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for the circus said the 4th Circuit court’s ruling conflicts with other federal appeals courts’ interpretation of the 1995 federal law. But Utah’s lawyers said no such conflict exists.
The circus’ appeal was supported in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted by companies holding famous trademarks, including Revlon, John Deere, Listerine, Harley-Davidson, Newsweek, Tide, Disney and Bank of America.
The brief said the 4th Circuit court’s ruling wrongly makes it harder to stop dilution than it is to stop infringement of a trademark.
The case is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows vs. Utah Division of Travel Development, 98-2004.