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Not So Clean: Federal Circuit Upholds Trade Dress Preliminary Injunction, Finds Defenses Improperly Plead

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a “narrow” preliminary injunction in a trade dress case, finding that the opponent of a registered configuration mark failed to prove its lack of secondary meaning and functionality defenses. SoClean, Inc. v. Sunset Healthcare Solutions, Inc., Case No. 21-2311 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 9, 2022) (Newman, Lourie, Prost, JJ.)

SoClean manufactures Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines. SoClean sued Sunset—a former distributor of SoClean products—for patent infringement and later added trademark infringement claims. At issue in this appeal was a single SoClean mark “for the configuration of replacement filters for its sanitizing devices.”

SoClean requested a preliminary injunction to stop Sunset from making or selling allegedly infringing CPAP filters. The district court granted the injunction but narrowly tailored the injunction to only enjoin Sunset from selling its filter cartridges without Sunset’s own brand name attached to the filter drawing so that customers would not falsely believe they were buying SoClean products. Sunset appealed.

While a party seeking preliminary injunction must prove all four eBay elements, this appeal focused on just one: “likelihood of success on the merits.” Sunset argued that the district court abused its discretion in finding that SoClean would likely defeat Sunset’s lack of secondary meaning defense and its functionality defense.

After noting that the parties agreed that SoClean’s trade dress was protectable only upon a showing that it had obtained secondary meaning, the Federal Circuit divided the secondary meaning issue into two subparts:

  1. Whether the district court should have questioned the validity of SoClean’s registration in light of Sunset’s evidence
  2. Whether the district court held Sunset to an improperly high standard of proof.

As to the first issue, the Court noted that federal registration is prima facie evidence of a mark’s validity. When, as here, the challenged mark was registered fewer than five years prior, the burden shifts from plaintiff to defendant, such that the defendant must rebut the presumption of validity. Sunset acknowledged that it had this burden, but its arguments to the district court focused only on the US Patent & Trademark Office’s decision to grant SoClean’s registration. The Court rebuffed that argument, noting that “scrutinizing the application process and deciding whether the trademark examiner was correct to issue the registration in the first place is the opposite” of the statutory presumption of validity.

Next, the Federal Circuit addressed Sunset’s standard of proof argument. The Court acknowledged that the district court misstated the law by suggesting that there was a “vigorous evidentiary requirement” on the challenging party, instead of simply a “preponderance of the evidence.” However, the Court also noted that the district court considered Sunset’s lack of secondary meaning evidence to be “equivocal, at best,” which “plainly fails to satisfy a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard.” Therefore, the Court judged the error to be harmless.

The Federal Circuit thus affirmed the finding that SoClean would likely defeat Sunset’s secondary meaning challenges.

The Federal Circuit next turned [...]

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Secondary Meaning: Consumers Connect Product with Single Anonymous Source

Reversing and remanding a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of an accused trade dress infringer, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit explained that trade dress does not need to be linked to a particular company. If consumers link the trade dress to any single (even anonymous) source or company, that is enough to constitute secondary meaning. P and P Imports LLC v. Johnson Enterprises LLC, DBA Tailgating Pros, Case Nos. 21-55013; -55323 (9th Cir. Aug. 24, 2022) (Tashima, Lee, Cardone, JJ.)

P&P makes and sells a jumbo red-white-and-blue Connect 4 game. Johnson sells a game almost identical in color, style and size. P&P sought to block Johnson from selling its game and sued for trade dress infringement under Lanham Act § 43(a) and unfair competition. During the district court proceeding, P&P’s expert submitted a consumer survey showing that most consumers associated P&P’s trade dress with a single source or company. He also submitted evidence of intentional copying and noted P&P’s advertising efforts as support for secondary meaning. The district court granted summary judgment for Johnson, ruling that P&P failed to present sufficient evidence of secondary meaning. The district court relied on the Ninth Circuit’s 2011 decision in Fleischer Studios v. A.V.E.L.A. to dismiss the survey evidence as irrelevant because the results showed a belief that P&P’s product is from a single source or company but did not show that trade dress was associated with P&P itself. P&P appealed.

The question before the Ninth Circuit was whether a manufacturer’s red-white-and-blue jumbo rendition of Connect 4 qualified as a protectable trade dress. This required the Court to determine whether P&P’s trade dress had acquired secondary meaning. Secondary meaning exists when “in the minds of the public, the primary significance of [the trade dress] is to identify the source of the product rather than the product itself.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the district court applied an incorrect legal standard for determining secondary meaning and that P&P presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment. The Court explained that many factors determine whether secondary meaning exists, including “direct consumer testimony; survey evidence; exclusivity, manner, and length of use of a mark; amount and manner of advertising; amount of sales and number of customers; established place in the market; and proof of intentional copying by the defendant.” The Court also noted that in the past it had found the presence of intentional copying and survey evidence sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Turning to the evidence presented by P&P, the Ninth Circuit explained that the district court’s analysis (which required consumers to both recognize P&P’s trade dress and be able to name P&P as the source) conflicted with the Court’s “long-established precedent[] requiring association with only a single—even anonymous—source,” and thus the district court erred by requiring evidence of specific association for secondary meaning. The Court also found strong suggestions that Johnson intentionally copied the P&P game, including the fact that Johnson conducted market research, ordered a copy of the [...]

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Tableware Designer Gets Heavenly Results on Its Pearly Plates

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court decision, reversing the dismissal of a copyright claim based on lack of standing and finding ownership of the copyright in the claimant based on an assignment of that claim. The Fifth Circuit also found that the plaintiff had a protectible trade dress under the Lanham Act based on secondary meaning. Beatriz Ball, LLC v. Barbagallo Co., LLC, Case No. 21-30029 (5th Cir. July 12, 2022) (Jones, Haynes, Costa, JJ.) (per curiam).

Beatriz Ball, the founder of Beatriz Ball, LLC, alleged that Pampa Bay was marketing and distributing products that infringed on Ms. Ball’s registered copyrights and unregistered trade dress for its “Organic Pearl” line of tableware. Ms. Ball brought suit against Pampa Bay in Louisiana federal court, asserting claims for copyright infringement under the Copyright Act and unfair competition under § 43 of the Lanham Act.

Pampa Bay has marketed and distributed products similar to the Organic Pearl collection but made with cheaper materials since 2016. Ms. Ball alleged that Pampa Bay infringed upon her copyright and its unregistered trade dress because the products are confusingly similar and look and feel like the Organic Pearl trade dress in every way. The district court ruled against Ms. Ball, finding that it had not established that its unregistered trade dress acquired “secondary meaning” as is required for protection of an unregistered trade dress under the Lanham Act. The district court further held that Ms. Ball lacked standing to bring the copyright claims as a result of a lack of legal interest because when “Beatriz Ball Collection” transferred ownership in the copyrights to “Beatriz Ball, LLC,” the language of the assignment did not specifically transfer the right to a cause of action for prior infringements predating the assignment. The assignment clause in issue read:

Assignment. Assignor [Beatriz Ball and Beatriz Ball Collection] hereby irrevocably conveys, transfers, and assigns to Assignee [Beatriz Ball, LLC], and Assignee hereby accepts, all of Assignor’s right, title and interest in and to any and all copyrights, whether registered or not and whether or not applications have been filed with the United States Copyright Office or any other governmental body. This assignment expressly includes any and all rights associated with those copyrights.

The district court found that because the assignment did not specifically transfer the assignor’s right to causes of action for prior infringements, the LLC lacked standing to challenge infringements pre-dating the assignment. The district court therefore never reached the merits of the copyright claim.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit first reviewed the standing issue to determine if the LLC owned the copyrights at the time of the alleged infringement or if the right to vindicate prior infringements had been effectively assigned to Ms. Ball. Reversing the district court’s ruling, the Court concluded that the LLC had standing to bring the suit as the actual copyright holder. The Court reasoned that § 411(b)(1), which provides that a registration with “inaccurate information” can support an infringement action [...]

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