Trademark Infringement: Importing Gray Market Goods and Seizure by Customs

Importers purchasing products from abroad may find that they bought more than they bargained for if the merchandise bears a trademark or trade name.  For the protection of registered U.S. trademarks and trade names U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP” or “Customs”) limits the admissibility of foreign trademarks or trade names1 if they appear virtually identical to those already registered in the US. Ultimately, Customs may seize and forfeit imported gray market goods and impose fines and penalties on the importer. 19 CFR 133.23.

Gray Market Goods Defined

Gray market goods are articles manufactured abroad that bear either a genuine trademark or trade name that is either identical to, or substantially indistinguishable from, a trademark or trade name owned and recorded by a United States citizen or corporation. 19 CFR 133.23(a). The concept can be a bit confusing, but key to understanding is to remember that gray market goods bear a legitimate trademark or trade name but are imported into the U.S. without the consent of the owner of the U.S. trademark.  In other words, when a trademark or trade name has been applied to merchandise for use in a foreign country but are imported into the United States, then the goods bearing that trade mark or trade name are considered gray market goods.

Container Ship

The term gray market goods is used to distinguish them from goods that might be sold on black market; gray market goods are sold through legal but unauthorized or unintended channels of commerce. Gray market goods are different from counterfeit goods by the genuineness of their trade mark or trade name; counterfeit goods carry a trademark or trade name which the law calls “spurious.” Sometimes used or refurbished goods fall in the category of gray market goods, and particular laws apply to their lawful importation.

Restricted Entry for Certain Gray Market Goods

Trademarks  and trade names of U.S. owners are entitled to protection against imports of gray market goods under two conditions.  First, the U.S. owner must register its mark with CBP through the Intellectual Property Rights e-Recordation (IPRR) system. Second, the U.S. trademark and the foreign trademark must be owned by two different people or companies2.  The satisfaction of these conditions subjects all incoming gray market goods to “restricted” scrutiny, and Customs identifies them as such in its IPRR database; if the conditions  have not been satisfied, the goods are deemed non-restricted.

CBP will almost invariably detain restricted gray market goods for up to 30 days; and what transpires within that time will ultimately determine their seizure and eventual forfeiture or their release. 19 CFR §§ 133.23, 133.25.

Due to a counterfeit’s total lack of authenticity, the statutory penalties for attempting to import a good bearing counterfeit mark are more severe than those for attempting to import an infringing gray good. For the most part, however, the procedures for determining whether an allegedly counterfeit mark should be released or seized do not differ from those of gray goods, set forth below. 19 CFR 133.21.

The Road to Release

When a gray good is detained, the importer bears the burden of establishing that its mark fits one of the exceptions, such as showing that the foreign trademark or trade name was applied under the authority of the foreign owner who is the same as the U.S. owner; or, the foreign and domestic goods on which the marks or names are  identical physically and materially. The rationale of this difference-demanding exception may seem counterintuitive; however, the objective of grayRoadmarket rules is to prevent an influx of products which will cause customer confusion. If the marks or names of the products are nearly identical, as is always the case with gray market goods, their physical or material components must also be so similar that the average buyer in the marketplace is not likely to be confused as to the source of the products. 19 CFR 133.23(d). Showing the the imported goods qualify for one these exceptions allows Customs to release them.

A key to successfully challenging detention is requesting a sample of seized or detained merchandise suspected, or alleged, to bear a counterfeit or infringing trademark.

The Road to Seizure

Although this article does not deal with counterfeits directly, it is worthy mentioning that harsher penalties await counterfeit items. CBP has the authorization to obliterate the counterfeit mark or name and destroy the goods if there is no safe way to recycle them. 19 CFR 133.21. CBP may also impose fines on individuals who aid or direct the importation of goods bearing a counterfeit mark or name with the intent of public distribution. The first fine will not be more than the amount the goods would have had if they were genuine. For the second and every subsequent seizure, the fine will not exceed twice that amount. 19 CFR 133.27.

Bearing in mind the goals of preventing customer confusion and ensuring imported are products safe, CBP is authorized to take certain steps to ensure that infringing goods never reach the channels of commerce. An importer’s failure show the applicability of the foregoing exceptions within the 30 day detention period will trigger seizure and forfeiture proceedings. 19 CFR 133.23(f). Additionally, within the 30 day window, CBP may alert the U.S. owner of the presence of the gray goods to obtain assistance in determining whether the gray goods infringe upon the trademark or trade name of the U.S. owner. The U.S. owner may then procure a sample of the imported goods for a more detailed examination. 19 CFR 133.25. If CBP, aided by the efforts of the U.S. owner, finds that the gray goods infringe upon the trademark or trade name of the U.S. owner, it may seize the goods and commence with forfeiture proceedings. 19 CFR 133.23(f).

Still Hope

In the event of seizure and forfeiture, the importer retains its rights to contest the seizure and forfeiture, including the right to samples of seized merchandise and to petition Customs for relief from the forfeiture. Petitions for Relief and/or lawsuits in the federal district court’s can raise important issues and challenge the basis for seizure by, among other issues, contesting whether the goods are, in fact, gray market goods, whether they differ in quality, whether there is likelihood of confusion, the legitimacy of the source, the authority under which the trademark was applied, and others.

If your goods have been seized or forfeited, or if you are are importing goods bearing a trademark or trade name which is similar to one already registered in the U.S., it is in your best interest to obtain the advice of an attorney with experience in Customs laws and the laws surrounding intellectual property. As you can see, the process of clearing an item through the border can be a nuanced process in which time constraints and complex factual questions play a critical role.

Feel free to use this article to supplement your own knowledge, but do not let it serve as a substitute for legal counsel familiar with the various restrictions and exceptions of the law. Please do not hesitate to contact our office to assist you in taking the next step.

  1. Sometimes collectively called “marks” here []
  2. Furthermore, the companies cannot subject to common ownership or common control — such as parent companies and subsidiaries, etc. []

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