A US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel vacated a grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff, holding that the first sale doctrine applies when a trademarked product is incorporated into a new product. Bluetooth SIG Inc. v. FCA US LLC, Case No. 21-35561 (9th Cir. Apr. 6, 2022) (per curiam).
Bluetooth SIG administers standards for Bluetooth technology. SIG owns and licenses the trademarks below to product manufacturers:
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) makes cars that contain Bluetooth-equipped head units. The head units are made by third-party suppliers that have been qualified by SIG, but FCA has not taken steps to qualify the Bluetooth capabilities in its cars. FCA uses the SIG trademarks on its head units and publications.
SIG sued FCA under the Lanham Act for trademark infringement. In its defense, FCA asserted the first sale doctrine. Under the doctrine, the right of a producer to control the distribution of its trademarked product does not extend past the first sale of the product. For example, a purchaser who stocks, displays and resells a producer’s product under a producer’s trademark violates no trademark rights under the Lanham Act. The district court granted partial summary judgment for SIG on the first sale issue, finding that the first sale doctrine was inapplicable because FCA’s conduct went beyond “stocking, displaying, and reselling a product.” FCA appealed.
The Ninth Circuit found that the lower court erred when it took a narrow view of the Ninth Circuit’s 1995 decision in Sebastian Int’l, Inc. v. Longs Drugs Stores Corp., in which the Court stated that “it is the essence of the ‘first sale’ doctrine that a purchaser who does no more than stock, display, and resell a producer’s product under the producer’s trademark violates no right conferred upon the producer by the Lanham Act.” The panel noted that the Sebastian Court never purported to articulate the outer bounds of the first sale doctrine; instead it simply captured the unauthorized resale of genuine goods.
The Ninth Circuit explained that the first sale doctrine also applies when a trademark is used to refer to a component incorporated into a new end product as long as the seller adequately discloses how the trademarked product was incorporated. The Court cited to the 1925 Supreme Court precedent in Prestonettes, Inc. v. Coty, which effectively extends the first sale doctrine beyond the examples stated in Sebastian. In Prestonettes, the Supreme Court held that trademark law did not prohibit a manufacturer from using a trademark, not to indicate the goods, but to say that the trademarked product was a component in a product being offered as new and changed. The Ninth Circuit also noted its 1998 holding in Enesco Corp. v. Price/Costco, in which it found that the first sale doctrine protected a retailer that resold dolls in allegedly inadequate packaging to the extent the repackaging was disclosed. The Enesco Court explained that if the public was adequately informed that Price/Costco repackaged the product and the product was subsequently damaged, the public would not be confused as to the cause of the damage.
The Ninth Circuit noted that in Prestonettes and Enesco, the focus was on the seller’s disclosure of how a trademarked product was incorporated into the new product and whether adequate disclosures were made. Because the district court never reached this issue, the Court remanded to the lower court to address it in the first instance.