Trademark System Bias

Welcome to a series about the threat and impact of questionable trademarks.
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Trademark System Bias, Part 04a: Print on Demand

Get ready to learn the real reasons why USPTO may face an exponential increase of ineligible trademark applications in the next few years. In this post, you’ll get a glimpse of how big the print-on-demand industry is.

USPTO is swamped with ineligible applications. And, notwithstanding the new requirement to have an attorney file trademark applications, the problem is likely to worsen. Such applications may increase exponentially due to the low barrier to entry into print-on-demand and IP policies at Amazon and Etsy that reward even faulty trademarks.

A Brief History of Print on Demand

Print-on-demand services have been available for years. Designbyhumans, Society6, and Redbubble are three of the more visible online platforms on which artists have been able to offer products featuring their work.

Etsy and Shopify stores and WordPress websites offer online business opportunities for minimal upfront costs. Drop-shippers such as Printify and Printful make it all possible.

Until recently, these were the main options, and each one held its own challenges of high shipping costs and unpredictable fulfillment delays. But in 2015, Amazon joined the game, and things really began to take off.

Merch By Amazon offers the use of Amazon’s million-dollar direct-to-garment (DTG) printers for free to third-party sellers globally. Amazon handles fulfillment and customer service. Merch participants only have to upload graphic designs (to adorn shirts, PopSockets, and other novelty products) to Amazon’s platform. Once the listing is created, the Merch participant collects royalties on every sale. Amazon takes care of everything else.

It’s the most amazing opportunity on the planet. I earned around $900 in my first year on Merch, using free software programs and YouTube tutorials (with no formal training in graphic design). The royalties came from products I uploaded during my first three months on the platform (before I got distracted by Amazon FBA and the Q4 holiday rush).

Print on Demand is a Growing Industry

Word of this opportunity is getting out. Here’s a graph of Google Trends data for “Print on Demand” and “Merch by Amazon” from October, 2019:

Searches for “Print on Demand” and “Merch By Amazon” from October, 2019

Even though Merch by Amazon paused with the Covid shutdown in the spring of 2020, interest quickly recovered. Notice the upswing on Google trends on this graph from July 16, 2020:

Searches for “Print on Demand” and “Merch By Amazon” are quickly rising on Google Trends (July, 2020)

A Growing Industry, A Growing Problem

How many current participants are in Merch By Amazon or selling on similar platforms (Etsy, RedBubble, etc.)? The number is unknown and unknowable. The largest Facebook group for Merch By Amazon has over 75,000 members and is growing rapidly.

Facebook Group for Amazon Merch and Kindle Direct, 75,000 Members as of May, 2020

Even if this industry wasn’t growing rapidly, a tsunami of questionable trademark applications is inevitable due to the way Print on Demand sellers use keywords to market their products and the value of keyword-rich brand names.

Understanding Keywords

In marketing terms, a “keyword” is a word or phrase used by consumers to find a product. It’s what shows up via auto-suggest when you begin typing in the Amazon, Etsy, or Google search bar.

For example, suppose you want to buy your cat-obsessed aunt a gift. You type in “crazy cat lady” and find that Amazon’s autosuggest results include a wide variety of products others have bought that also begin with “crazy cat lady”: gifts, action figure set, mug, shirt, hoodies, game, and stickers.

Amazon Crazy Cat Lady Results
Amazon Crazy Cat Lady Results (October, 2019)

Amazon, Etsy, Google shopping, and other platforms want to make money. Keywords (like those displayed in the autosuggest results above) are how they match up buyers with the stuff they want to buy. That’s why search algorithms on Amazon, Etsy, and Google reward business owners who include these keywords in their listings.

Benefits of Keyword-Rich “Brand” Names

In a competitive market, including keywords in a listing description is not enough. Marketing gurus in the industry promote keyword-rich brand names for increasing organic (unadvertised) sales:

Bottom line: print-on-demand sellers are highly motivated to create keyword-rich brand names.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, certain policies at Amazon and Etsy provide strong motivation for sellers to seek trademark registration of brand names that hinder competition. (See Part 4b of this series.)

This is Part 4a of a 12-part series about the threat and impact of questionable trademarks. The next post is Part 4b. Or see below for a complete list: