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January 5, 2004.

CRACOVIA BRANDS, INC., et al., Defendants

The opinion of the court was delivered by: MATHEW KENNELLY, District Judge


V & S Vin & Sprit Aktiebolag ("V & S"), the Swedish company that makes Absolut vodka, sued a Polish competitor, Przedsiebiorstwo Polmos Bialystok S.A. ("PPB"), and its Chicago-area distributor, Cracovia Brands, Inc. In an eight count complaint, V & S claimed that PPB and Cracovia infringed upon its Absolut trademark by manufacturing and marketing Absolwent vodka. V & S settled with Cracovia, and this Court entered a final judgment as to the claims against Cracovia on April 26, 2002. V & S has moved for summary judgment against PPB on two counts of its complaint, alleging trademark infringement and false designation of origin and unfair competition in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1114 and 1125(a). For the reasons stated below, the Court denies V & S's motion for summary judgment.


  As the Seventh Circuit has noted, "[t]he `keystone' of trademark infringement is `likelihood of Page 2 confusion' as to source, affiliation, connection or sponsorship of goods or services among the relevant class of customers and potential customers." Sands, Taylor & Wood Co. v. Quaker Oats Co., 978 F.2d 947, 957 (7th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). Whether a likelihood of confusion exists among consumers is a question of fact. CAE, Inc., v. Clean Air Engineering, Inc., 267 F.3d 660, 677 (7th Cir. 2001). "Courts are not empowered to make factual findings on motions for summary judgment." Sands, Taylor & Wood, 978 F.2d at 952. That means that for the Court to grant the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, we must conclude that "even resolving all factual disputes in favor" of PPB, V & S is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. In other words, V & S is entitled to summary judgment only if there is no factual dispute that consumers generally familiar with Absolut vodka would likely, upon seeing or hearing Absolwent vodka, believe that Absolwent is "in some way related to, or connected or affiliated with, or sponsored by" Absolut vodka. See James Burrough Ltd. v. Sign of the Beefeater, Inc., 540 F.2d 266, 274 (7th Cir. 1976).

  To prevail, it is not enough for V & S to show that "confusion is possible and may even have been desired" by PPB. Rust Env't & Infrastructure, Inc., v. Teunissen, 131 F.3d 1210, 1216 (7th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). Confusion "must be likely in order to enjoin use of the trademark" Id. (citation omitted). To determine whether confusion is likely, the Seventh Circuit has identified seven factors for the Court to consider in its analysis: "(1) similarity between the marks in appearance and suggestion; (2) similarity of the products; (3) area and manner of concurrent use; (4) degree of care likely to be exercised by consumers; (5) strength of complainant's mark; (6) actual confusion; and, (7) intent of defendant to palm-off his product as that of another." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "[N]one of the seven factors alone are dispositive, and the weight accorded to each factor Page 3 will vary from case to case." Id. at 1217 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). All the factors must be analyzed "with reference to the realities of consumer behavior in the relevant market." Dorr-Oliver, Inc. v. Fluid-Quip, Inc., 94 F.3d 376, 381 (7th Cir. 1996).

  Three of the factors are not really in dispute and weigh in favor of V & S. Both parties make and market vodka, though there is some disagreement as to whether Absolwent is marketed as a "luxury" vodka as Absolut is. Absolut and Absolwent are purchased in the same settings and locations. And Absolut is clearly a famous mark, and, as a result, is entitled to "more legal protection than an obscure or weak mark." Kenner Parker Toys Inc. v. Rose Art Indus., Inc., 963 F.2d 350, 353 (Fed. Cir. 1992).

  But despite the heightened protection afforded famous marks, these three factors are not enough to find in favor of V & S. The parties dispute the price at which Absolwent is sold in the Chicago area and the degree of care potential customers are likely to exercise in choosing or ordering a vodka. Furthermore, as the Seventh Circuit has noted, "although no one factor is decisive, the similarity of the marks, the intent of the defendant, and evidence of actual confusion are the most important considerations." Eli Lilly & Co v. Natural Answers, Inc., 233 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). PPB has raised a genuine issue as to each of these three factors.

 (1) Similarity of the marks

  PPB commissioned a study to measure the degree of confusion when consumers see the marks side-by-side with other brands of vodka. V & S argues this study measures only a fraction of the confusion in the marketplace because vodka is bought by the glass in restaurants and bars, where the aural — rather than the visual — similarity between the two marks is the basis of confusion. Vodka is Page 4 purchased both by the bottle in stores and by the glass in restaurants and bars by placing verbal orders, so both the visual and aural similarity of the marks must be considered. Because the study commissioned by PPB provides a measure of actual confusion caused by the visual similarities between the two marks, the Court defers its discussion of the visual similarities of the marks to the section on actual confusion.

  The parties hotly contest the level of aural similarity between Absolut and Absolwent. "Slight differences in the sound of similar trademarks will not protect the infringer." G.D. Searle & Co. v. Chas. Pfizer & Co., 265 F.2d 385, 387 (7th Cir. 1959) (citation omitted). Thus the question is whether "went" is so different from "ut" that confusion is unlikely. Both parties have preferred the testimony of linguists who agree that Absolut and Absolwent share six letters and have the same prefix (which is obvious even to non-linguists) but disagree on everything else — including whether the two marks have one syllable in common or two. V & S's expert Ronald Butters has filed a declaration stating that the similarity of the marks' prefixes is more important than the differences in the suffixes; PPB's expert Alan Kaye argues the opposite. Thus the experts disagree on how similar the words actually will sound when pronounced. There is no legal rule that similarity in suffixes is more important than similarity in prefixes, or vice versa. See G.D. Searle, 265 F.2d at 388-89 (listing numerous cases involving marks with dissimilar prefixes and similar suffixes, and noting that in some cases the marks were found confusingly similar and in others they were not). Thus the Court is left with the conflicting judgments of the parties' expert witnesses.

  V & S has attempted to discredit Kaye's expert report, pointing to admissions he offered during his deposition. See, e.g., Kaye Dep. at 157, 160 (stating the two marks are "rather close"). But Page 5 when his statements are taken in context and his entire deposition testimony is viewed in the light most favorable to PPB, as is required when evaluating V & S's motion for summary judgment, it cannot be said that the manifest weight of his testimony favors a finding of a likelihood of confusion. Furthermore, many of V & S's challenges to Kaye's testimony ask the Court to make credibility determinations, which are inappropriate on a motion for summary judgment. A genuine issue exists in this case as to the likelihood of confusion due to the aural similarities of the marks. Therefore, V & S is not entitled to summary judgment

 (2) Actual confusion

  The Seventh Circuit has said that "the plaintiff need not show actual confusion in order to establish likelihood of confusion." Sands, Taylor & Wood, 978 F.2d at 960 (citations omitted; emphasis in original). But evidence of actual confusion "is substantial evidence of likelihood of confusion." Tisch Hotels, Inc. v. Americana Inn, Inc., 350 F.2d 609, 612 (7th Cir. 1965). "Actual confusion can be shown by either direct evidence or by survey evidence." Rust, 131 F.3d at 1218. V & S has offered a declaration including direct evidence of actual confusion; PPB has commissioned a survey to measure the lack of actual confusion.

  V & S has submitted the declaration of Jacek Dabrowski, chief operating officer of Cracovia Brands, the Chicago-area distributor of Absolwent vodka. Dabrowski states that he has "confused the names Absolut and Absolwent because of their similarity." Dabrowski Decl. ¶ 7. V & S argues that this declaration constitutes evidence of actual confusion. PPB challenges Dabrowski's credibility, pointing out that Dabrowski signed the declaration after the Court had granted V & S's motion for an order to show cause why Cracovia should not be held in contempt for violating its settlement with V & S. Page 6 The Court cannot make credibility determinations on a motion for summary judgment. PPB has raised a genuine issue as to whether Dabrowski's statement constitutes evidence of actual ...

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