The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a district court’s summary judgment grant in favor of a fine jewelry producer for trademark infringement, counterfeiting and unfair competition because factual disputes exist around whether the accused infringer’s use of the word “Tiffany” was merely descriptive of a particular ring setting, thereby supporting a fair use defense to infringement. Tiffany and Company v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, Case Nos. 17-2798-cv, -19-338, -19-404 (2nd Cir. Aug. 17, 2020) (Livingston, J.).

In 2012, a Costco customer alerted Tiffany that she believed Costco was selling diamond engagement rings advertised as Tiffany rings. When Tiffany approached Costco about the issue in December 2012, Costco asserted that its point-of-sale displays bearing the Tiffany name referred to the diamond setting styles of its rings, and that other similar point-of-sale displays also identified common ring settings such as “bezel” or “cathedral” settings. Costco also claims that within one week after Tiffany’s December 2012 outreach, it voluntarily removed all uses of “Tiffany” from its jewelry displays and has not since used the word “Tiffany” to identify any rings or setting styles.

Nevertheless, in 2013, Tiffany filed suit against Costco for trademark infringement and counterfeiting under the Lanham Act, and unfair competition in violation of New York state law, based on Costco’s sales of otherwise unbranded diamond engagement rings identified by point-of-sale signs containing the word “Tiffany.” In response, Costco raised the affirmative defense of fair use, arguing that its use of “Tiffany” on certain signage for rings was not as a source-identifying trademark, but merely to describe a particular six-prong diamond setting style. Costco also filed a counterclaim seeking to cancel certain federal trademark registrations for the TIFFANY mark as “generic” for a specific jewelry setting, and not entitled to registered trademark protection.

The district court granted Tiffany’s motion for summary judgment finding Costco liable for trademark infringement and counterfeiting as a matter of law. The district court then revised a jury’s damages award finding that Costco was liable for willful or intentional infringement to the tune of more than $21 million. Costco appealed.

On appeal, Costco argued it had successfully raised a question of material fact as to its liability for trademark infringement and counterfeiting and was entitled to present its fair use defense to a jury. The Second Circuit addressed the lower court’s trademark “likelihood of confusion” assessment under its own Polaroid factors and explained that if a factual inference must be drawn to arrive at a particular finding on a Polaroid factor, and if a reasonable trier of fact could reach a different conclusion, the district court may not properly resolve that issue on summary judgment. Here, the Court determined that Costco raised a triable question of fact as to at least three of the Polaroid factors, namely, (1) whether Costco’s customers were actually confused as to the source or affiliation of its diamond engagement rings, (2) whether Costco adopted Tiffany’s trademark in bad faith and (3) whether the relevant population of consumers was sufficiently [...]

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