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decided: January 8, 1985.



O'connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 206.

Author: O'connor

[ 469 U.S. Page 191]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we consider whether an action to enjoin the infringement of an incontestable trade or service mark may be defended on the grounds that the mark is merely descriptive. We conclude that neither the language of the relevant statutes nor the legislative history supports such a defense.


Petitioner operates long-term parking lots near airports. After starting business in St. Louis in 1967, petitioner subsequently opened facilities in Cleveland, Houston, Boston, Memphis, and San Francisco. Petitioner applied in 1969 to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (Patent Office) to register a service mark consisting of the logo of an airplane and the words "Park 'N Fly."*fn1 The registration issued in August 1971. Nearly six years later, petitioner filed an affidavit with the Patent Office to establish the incontestable status of the mark.*fn2 As required by § 15 of the Trademark Act of 1946 (Lanham Act), 60 Stat. 433, as amended, 15 U. S. C. § 1065, the affidavit stated that the mark had been registered and in continuous use for five consecutive years, that there had been no final adverse decision to petitioner's claim of ownership or right to registration, and

[ 469 U.S. Page 192]

     that no proceedings involving such rights were pending. Incontestable status provides, subject to the provisions of § 15 and § 33(b) of the Lanham Act, "conclusive evidence of the registrant's exclusive right to use the registered mark. . . ." § 33(b), 15 U. S. C. § 1115(b).

Respondent also provides long-term airport parking services, but only has operations in Portland, Oregon. Respondent calls its business "Dollar Park and Fly." Petitioner filed this infringement action in 1978 in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon and requested the court permanently to enjoin respondent from using the words "Park and Fly" in connection with its business. Respondent counterclaimed and sought cancellation of petitioner's mark on the grounds that it is a generic term. See § 14(c), 15 U. S. C. § 1064(c). Respondent also argued that petitioner's mark is unenforceable because it is merely descriptive. See § 2(e), 15 U. S. C. § 1052(e). As two additional defenses, respondent maintained that it is in privity with a Seattle corporation that has used the expression "Park and Fly" since a date prior to the registration of petitioner's mark, see § 33(b)(5), 15 U. S. C. § 1115(b)(5), and that it has not infringed because there is no likelihood of confusion. See § 32(1), 15 U. S. C. § 1114(1).

After a bench trial, the District Court found that petitioner's mark is not generic and observed that an incontestable mark cannot be challenged on the grounds that it is merely descriptive. App. 75. The District Court also concluded that there was no evidence of privity between respondent and the Seattle corporation. App. 76. Finally, the District Court found sufficient evidence of likelihood of confusion. App. 76. The District Court permanently enjoined respondent from using the words "Park and Fly" and any other mark confusingly similar to "Park 'N Fly." App. 77.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. 718 F.2d 327 (1983). The District Court did not err, the Court of Appeals held, in refusing to invalidate petitioner's mark. Id., at 331. The Court of Appeals noted, however, that it

[ 469 U.S. Page 193]

     previously had held that incontestability provides a defense against the cancellation of a mark, but it may not be used offensively to enjoin another's use. Ibid. Petitioner, under this analysis, could obtain an injunction only if its mark would be entitled to continued registration without regard to its incontestable status. Thus, respondent could defend the infringement action by showing that the mark was merely descriptive. Based on its own examination of the record, the Court of Appeals then determined that petitioner's mark is in fact merely descriptive, and therefore respondent should not be enjoined from using the name "Park and Fly." Ibid.

The decision below is in direct conflict with the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Union Carbide Corp. v. Ever-Ready, Inc., 531 F.2d 366, cert. denied, 429 U.S. 830 (1976). We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict, 465 U.S. 1078 (1984), and we now reverse.


Congress enacted the Lanham Act in 1946 in order to provide national protection for trademarks used in interstate and foreign commerce. S. Rep. No. 1333, 79th Cong., 2d Sess., 5 (1946). Previous federal legislation, such as the Federal Trademark Act of 1905, 33 Stat. 724, reflected the view that protection of trademarks was a matter of state concern and that the right to a mark depended solely on the common law. S. Rep. No. 1333, at 5. Consequently, rights to trademarks were uncertain and subject to variation in different parts of the country. Because trademarks desirably promote competition and the maintenance of product quality, Congress determined that "a sound public policy requires that trademarks should receive nationally the greatest protection that can be given them." Id., at 6. Among the new protections created by the Lanham Act were the statutory provisions that allow a federally registered mark to become incontestable. §§ 15, 33(b), 15 U. S. C. §§ 1065, 1115(b).

The provisions of the Lanham Act concerning registration and incontestability distinguish a mark that is "the common

[ 469 U.S. Page 194]

     descriptive name of an article or substance" from a mark that is "merely descriptive." §§ 2(e), 14(c), 15 U. S. C. §§ 1052(e), 1064(c). Marks that constitute a common descriptive name are referred to as generic. A generic term is one that refers to the genus of which the particular product is a species. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. v. Hunting World, Inc., 537 F.2d 4, 9 (CA2 1976). Generic terms are not registrable, and a registered mark may be canceled at any time on the grounds that it has become generic. See §§ 2, 14(c), 15 U. S. C. §§ 1052, 1064(c). A "merely descriptive" mark, in contrast, describes the qualities or characteristics of a good or service, and this type of mark may be registered only if the registrant shows that it has acquired secondary meaning, i. e., it "has become distinctive of the applicant's goods in commerce." §§ 2(e), (f), 15 U. S. C. §§ 1052(e), (f).

This case requires us to consider the effect of the incontestability provisions of the Lanham Act in the context of an infringement action defended on the grounds that the mark is merely descriptive. Statutory construction must begin with the language employed by Congress and the assumption that the ordinary meaning of that language accurately expresses the legislative purpose. See American Tobacco Co. v. Patterson, 456 U.S. 63, 68 (1982). With respect to incontestable trade or service marks, § 33(b) of the Lanham Act states that "registration shall be conclusive evidence of the registrant's exclusive right to use the registered mark" subject to the conditions of § 15 and certain enumerated defenses.*fn3

[ 469 U.S. Page 195]

     Section 15 incorporates by reference subsections (c) and (e) of § 14, 15 U. S. C. § 1064. An incontestable mark that becomes generic may be canceled at any time pursuant to § 14(c). That section also allows cancellation of an incontestable mark at any time if it has been abandoned, if it is being used to misrepresent the source of the goods or services in connection with which it is used, or if it was obtained fraudulently or contrary to the provisions of § 4, 15 U. S. C. § 1054, or §§ 2(a)-(c), 15 U. S. C. §§ 1052(a)-(c).*fn4

[ 469 U.S. Page 196]

     One searches the language of the Lanham Act in vain to find any support for the offensive/defensive distinction applied by the Court of Appeals. The statute nowhere distinguishes between a registrant's offensive and defensive use of an incontestable mark. On the contrary, § 33(b)'s declaration that the registrant has an "exclusive right" to use the mark indicates that incontestable status may be used to enjoin infringement by others. A conclusion that such infringement cannot be enjoined renders meaningless the "exclusive right" recognized by the statute. Moreover, the language in three of the defenses enumerated in § 33(b) clearly contemplates the use of incontestability in infringement actions by plaintiffs. See §§ 33 (b)(4)-(6), 15 U. S. C. §§ 1115(b)(4)-(6).

The language of the Lanham Act also refutes any conclusion that an incontestable mark may be challenged as merely descriptive. A mark that is merely descriptive of an applicant's goods or services is not registrable unless the mark has secondary meaning. Before a mark achieves incontestable status, registration provides prima facie evidence of the registrant's exclusive right to use the mark in commerce. § 33(a), 15 U. S. C. § 1115(a). The Lanham Act expressly provides that before a mark becomes incontestable an opposing party may prove any legal or equitable defense which might have been asserted if the mark had not been registered. Ibid. Thus, § 33(a) would have allowed respondent to challenge petitioner's mark as merely descriptive if the mark had not become incontestable. With respect to incontestable marks, however, § 33(b) provides that registration is conclusive evidence of the registrant's exclusive right to use the mark, subject to the conditions of § 15 and the seven defenses enumerated in § 33(b) itself. Mere descriptiveness is not recognized by either § 15 or § 33(b) as a basis for challenging an incontestable mark.

The statutory provisions that prohibit registration of a merely descriptive mark but do not allow an incontestable

[ 469 U.S. Page 197]

     mark to be challenged on this ground cannot be attributed to inadvertence by Congress. The Conference Committee rejected an amendment that would have denied registration to any descriptive mark, and instead retained the provisions allowing registration of a merely descriptive mark that has acquired secondary meaning. See H. R. Conf. Rep. No. 2322, 79th Cong., 2d Sess., 4 (1946) (explanatory statement of House managers). The Conference Committee agreed to an amendment providing that no incontestable right can be acquired in a mark that is a common descriptive, i. e., generic, term. Id., at 5. Congress could easily have denied incontestability to merely descriptive marks as well as to generic marks had that been its intention.

The Court of Appeals in discussing the offensive/defensive distinction observed that incontestability protects a registrant against cancellation of his mark. 718 F.2d, at 331. This observation is incorrect with respect to marks that become generic or which otherwise may be canceled at any time pursuant to §§ 14(c) and (e). Moreover, as applied to marks that are merely descriptive, the approach of the Court of Appeals makes incontestable status superfluous. Without regard to its incontestable status, a mark that has been registered five years is protected from cancellation except on the grounds stated in §§ 14(c) and (e). Pursuant to § 14, a mark may be canceled on the grounds that it is merely descriptive only if the petition to cancel is filed within five years of the date of registration. § 14(a), 15 U. S. C. § 1064(a). The approach adopted by the Court of Appeals implies that incontestability adds nothing to the protections against cancellation already provided in § 14. The decision below not only lacks support in the words of the statute; it effectively emasculates § 33(b) under the circumstances of this case.


Nothing in the legislative history of the Lanham Act supports a departure from the plain language of the statutory

[ 469 U.S. Page 198]

     provisions concerning incontestability. Indeed, a conclusion that incontestable status can provide the basis for enforcement of the registrant's exclusive right to use a trade or service mark promotes the goals of the statute. The Lanham Act provides national protection of trademarks in order to secure to the owner of the mark the goodwill of his business and to protect the ability of consumers to distinguish among competing producers. See S. Rep. No. 1333, at 3, 5. National protection of trademarks is desirable, Congress concluded, because trademarks foster competition and the maintenance of quality by securing to the producer the benefits of good reputation. Id., at 4. The incontestability provisions, as the proponents of the Lanham Act emphasized, provide a means for the registrant to quiet title in the ownership of his mark. See Hearings on H. R. 82 before the Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Patents, 78th Cong., 2d Sess., 21 (1944) (remarks of Rep. Lanham); id., at 21, 113 (testimony of Daphne Robert, ABA Committee on Trade Mark Legislation); Hearings on H. R. 102 et al. before the Subcommittee on Trade-Marks of the House Committee on Patents, 77th Cong., 1st Sess., 73 (1941) (remarks of Rep. Lanham). The opportunity to obtain incontestable status by satisfying the requirements of § 15 thus encourages producers to cultivate the goodwill associated with a particular mark. This function of the incontestability provisions would be utterly frustrated if the holder of an incontestable mark could not enjoin infringement by others so long as they established that the mark would not be registrable but for its incontestable status.

Respondent argues, however, that enforcing petitioner's mark would conflict with the goals of the Lanham Act because the mark is merely descriptive and should never have been registered in the first place.*fn5 Representative Lanham,

[ 469 U.S. Page 199]

     respondent notes, explained that the defenses enumerated in § 33(b) were "not intended to enlarge, restrict, amend, or modify the substantive law of trademarks either as set out in other sections of the act or as heretofore applied by the courts under prior laws." 92 Cong. Rec. 7524 (1946). Respondent reasons that because the Lanham Act did not alter the substantive law of trademarks, the incontestability provisions cannot protect petitioner's use of the mark if it were not originally registrable. Moreover, inasmuch as petitioner's mark is merely descriptive, respondent contends that enjoining others from using the mark will not encourage competition by assisting consumers in their ability to distinguish among competing producers.

These arguments are unpersuasive. Representative Lanham's remarks, if read in context, clearly refer to the effect of the defenses enumerated in § 33(b).*fn6 There is no question that the Lanham Act altered existing law concerning trademark rights in several respects. For example, § 22, 15 U. S. C. § 1072,

[ 469 U.S. Page 200]

     provides for constructive notice of registration and modifies the common-law rule that allowed acquisition of concurrent rights by users in distinct geographic areas if the subsequent user adopted the mark without knowledge of prior use. See Hanover Star Milling Co. v. Metcalf, 240 U.S. 403, 415-416 (1916) (describing pre-Lanham Act law). Similarly, § 14 cuts off certain grounds for cancellation five years after registration and thereby modifies the previous rule that the validity of a trademark could be attacked at any time. See White House Milk Products Co. v. Dwinell-Wright Co., 27 C. C. P. A. (Pat.) 1194, 111 F.2d 490 (1940). Most significantly, Representative Lanham himself observed that incontestability was one of "the valuable new rights created by the act." 92 Cong. Rec. 7524 (1946).

Respondent's argument that enforcing petitioner's mark will not promote the goals of the Lanham Act is misdirected. Arguments similar to those now urged by respondent were in fact considered by Congress in hearings on the Lanham Act. For example, the United States Department of Justice opposed the incontestability provisions and expressly noted that a merely descriptive mark might become incontestable. Hearings on H. R. 82, at 59-60 (statement of the U.S. Dept. of Justice). This result, the Department of Justice observed, would "go beyond existing law in conferring unprecedented rights on trade-mark owners," and would undesirably create an exclusive right to use language that is descriptive of a product. Id., at 60; see also Hearings on H. R. 102, at 106-107, 109-110 (testimony of Prof. Milton Handler); id., at 107, 175 (testimony of attorney Louis Robertson). These concerns were answered by proponents of the Lanham Act, who noted that a merely descriptive mark cannot be registered unless the Commissioner finds that it has secondary meaning. Id., at 108, 113 (testimony of Karl Pohl, U.S. Trade Mark Assn.). Moreover, a mark can be challenged for

[ 469 U.S. Page 201]

     five years prior to its attaining incontestable status. Id., at 114 (remarks of Rep. Lanham). The supporters of the incontestability provisions further observed that a generic mark cannot become incontestable and that § 33(b)(4) allows the nontrademark use of descriptive terms used in an incontestable mark. Id., at 110-111 (testimony of Wallace Martin, chairman, ABA Committee on Trade Mark Legislation).

The alternative of refusing to provide incontestable status for descriptive marks with secondary meaning was expressly noted in the hearings on the Lanham Act. Id., at 64, 69 (testimony of Robert Byerley, New York Patent Law Assn.); Hearings on S. 895 before the Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Patents, 77th Cong., 2d Sess., 42 (1942) (testimony of Elliot Moyer, Special Assistant to the Attorney General). Also mentioned was the possibility of including as a defense to infringement of an incontestable mark the "fact that a mark is a descriptive, generic, or geographical term or device." Id., at 45, 47. Congress, however, did not adopt either of these alternatives. Instead, Congress expressly provided in §§ 33(b) and 15 that an incontestable mark could be challenged on specified grounds, and the grounds identified by Congress do not include mere descriptiveness.

The dissent echoes arguments made by opponents of the Lanham Act that the incontestable status of a descriptive mark might take from the public domain language that is merely descriptive. Post, at 214-216. As we have explained, Congress has already addressed concerns to prevent the "commercial monopolization," post, at 214, of descriptive language. The Lanham Act allows a mark to be challenged at any time if it becomes generic, and, under certain circumstances, permits the nontrademark use of descriptive terms contained in an incontestable mark. Finally, if "monopolization" of an incontestable mark threatens economic competition, § 33(b)(7), 15 U. S. C. § 1115(b)(7), provides a defense on the grounds that the mark is being used to violate federal

[ 469 U.S. Page 202]

     antitrust laws. At bottom, the dissent simply disagrees with the balance struck by Congress in determining the protection to be given to incontestable marks.


Respondent argues that the decision by the Court of Appeals should be upheld because trademark registrations are issued by the Patent Office after an ex parte proceeding and generally without inquiry into the merits of an application. This argument also unravels upon close examination. The facts of this case belie the suggestion that registration is virtually automatic. The Patent Office initially denied petitioner's application because the examiner considered the mark to be merely descriptive. Petitioner sought reconsideration and successfully persuaded the Patent Office that its mark was registrable.

More generally, respondent is simply wrong to suggest that third parties do not have an opportunity to challenge applications for trademark registration. If the Patent Office examiner determines that an applicant appears to be entitled to registration, the mark is published in the Official Gazette. § 12(a), 15 U. S. C. § 1062(a). Within 30 days of publication, any person who believes that he would be damaged by registration of the mark may file an opposition. § 13, 15 U. S. C. § 1063. Registration of a mark provides constructive notice throughout the United States of the registrant's claim to ownership. § 22, 15 U. S. C. § 1072. Within five years of registration, any person who believes that he is or will be damaged by registration may seek to cancel a mark. § 14(a), 15 U. S. C. § 1064(a). A mark may be canceled at any time for certain specified grounds, including that it was obtained fraudulently or has become generic. § 14(c), 15 U. S. C. § 1064(c).

The Lanham Act, as the dissent notes, post, at 217, authorizes courts to grant injunctions "according to principles of equity." § 34, 15 U. S. C. § 1116. Neither respondent nor the opinion of the Court of Appeals relies on this provision

[ 469 U.S. Page 203]

     to support the holding below. Whatever the precise boundaries of the courts' equitable power, we do not believe that it encompasses a substantive challenge to the validity of an incontestable mark on the grounds that it lacks secondary meaning. To conclude otherwise would expand the meaning of "equity" to the point of vitiating the more specific provisions of the Lanham Act.*fn7 Similarly, the power of the courts to cancel registrations and "to otherwise rectify the register," § 37, 15 U. S. C. § 1119, must be subject to the specific provisions concerning incontestability. In effect, both respondent and the dissent argue that these provisions offer insufficient protection against improper registration of a merely descriptive mark, and therefore the validity of petitioner's mark may be challenged notwithstanding its incontestable status. Our responsibility, however, is not to evaluate the wisdom of the legislative determinations reflected in the statute, but instead to construe and apply the provisions that Congress enacted.


The Court of Appeals did not attempt to justify its decision by reference to the language or legislative history of the Lanham Act. Instead, the court relied on its previous decision in Tillamook County Creamery v. Tillamook Cheese & Dairy Assn., 345 F.2d 158, 163 (CA9), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 903 (1965), for the proposition that a registrant may not rely on incontestability to enjoin the use of the mark by others. Examination of Tillamook, however, reveals that there is no persuasive justification for the judicially created distinction between offensive and defensive use of an incontestable mark.

[ 469 U.S. Page 204]

     the incontestable status of the mark in an infringement action, Union Carbide concluded, and a "'[defendant] faced with an incontestable registered mark cannot defend by claiming that the mark is invalid because it is descriptive.'" Id., at 377 (quoting 1 J. McCarthy, Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 11.16, p. 377 (1st ed. 1973)).

Other courts have subsequently followed Union Carbide and concluded that a plaintiff may rely on the incontestable status of a trade or service mark in an infringement action. See, e. g., United States Jaycees v. Philadelphia Jaycees, 639 F.2d 134, 137 (CA3 1981); Soweco, Inc. v. Shell Oil Co., 617 F.2d 1178, 1184-1185 (CA5 1980), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 981 (1981). The Patent Office has also rejected any offensive/defensive distinction with respect to the use of an incontestable mark. See Ansul Co. v. Malter International Corp., 199 U. S. P. Q. 596, 599-600 (TTAB 1978). Thus, the doctrine relied on by the Court of Appeals in this case is best described as flawed in its origin and subsequently discredited by its progenitors.


We conclude that the holder of a registered mark may rely on incontestability to enjoin infringement and that such an action may not be defended on the grounds that the mark is merely descriptive. Respondent urges that we nevertheless affirm the decision below based on the "prior use" defense recognized by § 33(b)(5) of the Lanham Act. Alternatively, respondent argues that there is no likelihood of confusion and therefore no infringement justifying injunctive relief. The District Court rejected each of these arguments, but they were not addressed by the Court of Appeals. 718 F.2d, at 331-332, n. 4. That court may consider them on remand. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


718 F.2d 327, reversed and remanded.

[ 469 U.S. Page 206]

     JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.

In trademark law, the term "incontestable" is itself somewhat confusing and misleading because the Lanham Act expressly identifies over 20 situations in which infringement of an allegedly incontestable mark is permitted.*fn1 Moreover, in § 37 of the Act, Congress unambiguously authorized judicial review of the validity of the registration "in any action involving a registered mark."*fn2 The problem in this case arises because of petitioner's attempt to enforce as "incontestable" a mark that Congress has plainly stated is inherently unregistrable.

The mark "Park 'N Fly" is at best merely descriptive in the context of airport parking.*fn3 Section 2 of the Lanham Act

[ 469 U.S. Page 207]

     plainly prohibits the registration of such a mark unless the applicant proves to the Commissioner of the Patent and Trademark Office that the mark "has become distinctive of the applicant's goods in commerce," or to use the accepted shorthand, that it has acquired a "secondary meaning." See 15 U. S. C. §§ 1052(e), (f). Petitioner never submitted any such proof to the Commissioner, or indeed to the District Court in this case. Thus, the registration plainly violated the Act.

The violation of the literal wording of the Act also contravened the central purpose of the entire legislative scheme. Statutory protection for trademarks was granted in order to safeguard the goodwill that is associated with particular enterprises.*fn4 A mark must perform the function of distinguishing the producer or provider of a good or service in order to have any legitimate claim to protection. A merely descriptive mark that has not acquired secondary meaning does not perform that function because it simply "describes the qualities or characteristics of a good or service." Ante, at 194. No legislative purpose is served by granting anyone a monopoly in the use of such a mark.

Instead of confronting the question whether an inherently unregistrable mark can provide the basis for an injunction against alleged infringement, the Court treats the case as though it presented the same question as Union Carbide Corp. v. Ever-Ready, Inc., 531 F.2d 366 (CA7), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 830 (1976), a case in which the merely descriptive mark had an obvious and well-established secondary meaning. In such a case, I would agree with the Court that the descriptive character of the mark does not provide an infringer with a defense. In this case, however, the provisions

[ 469 U.S. Page 208]

     of the Act dealing with incontestable marks do not support the result the Court has reached. I shall first explain why I agree with the conclusion that the Court of Appeals reached; I shall then comment on each of the three arguments that the Court advances in support of its contrary conclusion.


The word "incontestable" is not defined in the Act. Nor, surprisingly, is the concept explained in the Committee Reports on the bill that was enacted in 1946.*fn5 The word itself implies that it was intended to resolve potential contests between rival claimants to a particular mark. And, indeed, the testimony of the proponents of the concept in the Committee hearings that occurred from time to time during the period when this legislation was being considered reveals that they were primarily concerned with the problem that potential contests over the ownership of registrable marks might present.*fn6 No one ever suggested that any public purpose would be served by granting incontestable status to a mark that should never have been accepted for registration in the first instance.

In those hearings the witnesses frequently referred to incontestability as comparable to a decree quieting title to real property.*fn7 Such a decree forecloses any further contest over ownership of the property, but it cannot create the property itself. Similarly the incontestability of a trademark

[ 469 U.S. Page 209]

     precludes any competitor from contesting the registrant's ownership, but cannot convert unregistrable subject matter into a valid mark. Such a claim would be clearly unenforceable.*fn8

The case that petitioner principally urges in support of reversal, Union Carbide Corp. v. Ever-Ready, Inc., supra, does not conflict with this simple proposition. The court there was dealing with a contest between two companies over the name "Eveready." There was no question that the name had acquired a well-established secondary meaning, although it was not originally registered under § 1052(f).*fn9 The problem presented in such a case is properly resolved by

[ 469 U.S. Page 210]

     giving effect to the incontestable language of the Act, but a wholly different question is presented when the record establishes that a mark should not have been registered at all.

The legislative history of the incontestability provisions indicates that Congress did not intend to prevent the use of mere descriptiveness as a substantive defense to a claim of infringement if the mark has not acquired secondary meaning. The testimony in the Committee hearings concerning the public interest in preventing the grant of monopoly privileges in the use of merely descriptive phrases expressly relied on the administrative practice that was incorporated into § 2(f), 15 U. S. C. § 1052(f),*fn10 as a protection against the improper registration of merely descriptive marks. Thus, Dr. Karl Pohl testified:

" On the question of so-called non-technical trademarks, Professor Handler assumes that they have been improperly registered.

"Now, where does that idea originate?

"They have very carefully circumscribed procedure for getting these marks on the register. It will by no means be easy, Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee, it will be exceedingly difficult to get these descriptive words on the register. The Patent Office will, in the first place, reject them, and you will have

[ 469 U.S. Page 211]

     to submit a substantial body of evidence that these words by long-continued usage, have acquired a secondary meaning, and by that long-continued usage have acquired that special status which entitles them to be protected in their secondary meaning sense.

"Therefore, to call these marks improperly registered trade-marks is, I believe, a misnomer.

"Now, if you look at the problem from that point of view, you will see that the apprehensions of Mr. Handler are more or less obviated. I believe personally that they are completely obviated, but as to non-technical trademarks and only a very carefully circumscribed number of trade-marks will be entitled to that protection."*fn11

The record in this case demonstrates that Professor Handler's concern was justified, and that Dr. Pohl's assurance to the Committee was somewhat misleading; for the "Park 'N Fly" mark issued without any evidence of secondary meaning having been presented to the Patent and Trademark Office. In light of this legislative history, it is apparent that Congress could not have intended that incontestability should preserve a merely descriptive trademark from challenge when the statutory procedure for establishing secondary meaning was not followed and when the record still contains no evidence that the mark has ever acquired a secondary meaning.

If the registrant of a merely descriptive mark complies with the statutory requirement that prima facie evidence of secondary meaning must be submitted to the Patent and Trademark Office, it is entirely consistent with the policy of the Act to accord the mark incontestable status after an additional

[ 469 U.S. Page 212]

     five years of continued use. For if no rival contests the registration in that period, it is reasonable to presume that the initial prima facie showing of distinctiveness could not be rebutted. But if no proof of secondary meaning is ever presented, either to the Patent and Trademark Office or to a court, there is simply no rational basis for leaping to the conclusion that the passage of time has transformed an inherently defective mark into an incontestable mark.

No matter how dedicated and how competent administrators may be, the possibility of error is always present,*fn12 especially in non-adversary proceedings.*fn13 For that reason

[ 469 U.S. Page 213]

     the Court normally assumes that Congress intended agency action to be subject to judicial review unless the contrary intent is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.*fn14 In this statute Congress has expressed no such intent. On the contrary, it has given the courts the broadest possible authority to determine the validity of trademark registrations "in any action involving a registered mark."*fn15 The exercise of that broad power of judicial review should be informed by the legislative purposes that motivated the enactment of the Lanham Act.*fn16

Congress enacted the Lanham Act "to secure trade-mark owners in the goodwill which they have built up."*fn17 But without a showing of secondary meaning, there is no basis upon which to conclude that petitioner has built up any goodwill that is secured by the mark "Park 'N Fly." In fact, without a showing of secondary meaning, we should presume

[ 469 U.S. Page 214]

     that petitioner's business appears to the consuming public to be just another anonymous, indistinguishable parking lot. When enacting the Lanham Act, Congress also wanted to "protect the public from imposition by the use of counterfeit and imitated marks and false trade descriptions."*fn18 Upon this record there appears no danger of this occurrence, and as a practical matter, without any showing that the public can specifically identify petitioner's service, it seems difficult to believe that anyone would imitate petitioner's marks, or that such imitation, even if it occurred, would be likely to confuse anybody.*fn19

On the basis of the record in this case, it is reasonable to infer that the operators of parking lots in the vicinity of airports may make use of the words "park and fly" simply because those words provide a ready description of their businesses, rather than because of any desire to exploit petitioner's goodwill.*fn20 There is a well-recognized public interest in prohibiting the commercial monopolization of

[ 469 U.S. Page 215]

     phrases such as "park and fly." When a business claims the exclusive right to use words or phrases that are a part of our common vocabulary, this Court should not depart from the statutorily mandated authority to "rectify the register," 15 U. S. C. § 1119, absent a clear congressional mandate. Language, even in a commercial context, properly belongs to the public unless Congress instructs otherwise.*fn21 In this case we have no such instruction; in fact, the opposite command guides our actions: Congress' clear insistence that a merely descriptive mark, such as "Park 'N Fly" in the context of airport parking, remain in the public domain unless secondary meaning is proved.

The basic purposes of the Act, the unambiguous congressional command that no merely descriptive mark should be registered without prior proof that it acquired secondary meaning, and the broad power of judicial review granted by § 37 combine to persuade me that the registrant of a merely descriptive mark should not be granted an injunction against

[ 469 U.S. Page 216]

     infringement without ever proving that the mark acquired secondary meaning.


The Court relies on three different, though not unrelated, arguments to support its negative answer to the question "whether an action to enjoin the infringement of an incontestable mark may be defended on the grounds that the mark is merely descriptive," ante, at 191: (1) the language of § 33(b) is too plain to prevent any other conclusion; (2) the legislative history indicates that Congress decided not to deny incontestable status to merely descriptive marks; and (3) the practical value of incontestable status would be nullified if the defense were recognized. Each of these arguments is unpersuasive.

The Plain Language

After the right to use a registered mark has become incontestable, § 33(b) provides that "the registration shall be conclusive evidence of the registrant's exclusive right to use the registered mark." 15 U. S. C. § 1115(b). Read in isolation, this provision surely does lend support to the Court's holding. Indeed, an isolated and literal reading of this language would seem to foreclose any non-statutory defense to an action to enjoin the infringement of an incontestable mark. The Court, however, wisely refuses to adopt any such rigid interpretation of § 33(b).*fn22

[ 469 U.S. Page 217]

     An examination of other provisions of the Act plainly demonstrates that no right to injunctive relief against infringement automatically follows from the achievement of incontestable status. Thus, § 34 states that courts with proper jurisdiction "shall have power to grant injunctions, according to the principles of equity and upon such terms as the court may deem reasonable." 15 U. S. C. § 1116. If a registrant establishes the violation of any right, § 35 additionally emphasizes that any recovery shall be "subject to the principles of equity." 15 U. S. C. § 1117. These sections are in addition to the broad power that § 37 grants to courts in "any action involving a registered mark" to "determine the right to registration, order the cancellation of registrations, in whole or in part, restore canceled registrations, and otherwise rectify the register with respect to the registrations of any party to the action." 15 U. S. C. § 1119. Moreover, it is well established that injunctions do not issue as a matter of course,*fn23 and that "the essence of equity jurisdiction has been the power of the Chancellor to do equity,"*fn24 particularly when an important public interest is involved.*fn25

[ 469 U.S. Page 218]

     In exercising its broad power to do equity, the federal courts certainly can take into account the tension between the apparent meaning of § 33(b) and the plain command in §§ 2(e), (f) of the Act prohibiting the registration of a merely descriptive mark without any proof of secondary meaning. Because it would be "demonstrably at odds with the intent of [Congress]"*fn26 to grant incontestable status to a mark that was not eligible for registration in the first place, the Court is surely authorized to require compliance with § 2(f) before granting relief on the basis of § 33(b).*fn27

The Legislative History

The language of §§ 2(e), (f) expressly demonstrates Congress' concern over granting monopoly privileges in merely descriptive marks. However, its failure to include mere descriptiveness in its laundry list of grounds on which incontestability could be challenged is interpreted by the Court today as evidence of congressional approval of incontestable status for all merely descriptive marks.

This history is unpersuasive because it is perfectly clear that the failure to include mere descriptiveness among the grounds for challenging incontestability was based on the understanding that such a mark would not be registered without a showing of secondary meaning. See supra, at 210-211. To read Congress' failure as equivalent to an endorsement of incontestable status for merely descriptive

[ 469 U.S. Page 219]

     marks without secondary meaning can only be described as perverse.

The Practical Argument

The Court suggests that my reading of the Act "effectively emasculates § 33(b) under the circumstances of this case." Ante, at 197. But my reading would simply require the owner of a merely descriptive mark to prove secondary meaning before obtaining any benefit from incontestability. If a mark is in fact "distinctive of the applicant's goods in commerce" as § 2(f) requires, that burden should not be onerous. If the mark does not have any such secondary meaning, the burden of course could not be met. But if that be the case, the purposes of the Act are served, not frustrated, by requiring adherence to the statutory procedure mandated by Congress.*fn28

[ 469 U.S. Page 220]

     In sum, if petitioner had complied with § 2(f) at the time of its initial registration, or if it had been able to prove secondary meaning in this case, I would agree with the Court's disposition. I cannot, however, subscribe to its conclusion that the holder of a mark which was registered in violation of an unambiguous statutory command "may rely on incontestability to enjoin infringement." Ante, at 205; see also ante, at 196. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.


* J. Thomas McCarthy filed a brief for the American Intellectual Property Law Association et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

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