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Burdens Can’t Be Avoided No Matter How They’re Dressed Up

Addressing a multitude of issues, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling dismissing infringement of one patent and finding a trade dress invalid but reversed the invalidation of the other patent and vacated dismissal of an inequitable conduct defense. Mosaic Brands, Inc. v. Ridge Wallet LLC, Case Nos. 22-1001, -1002 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 20, 2022) (Newman, Prost, Stark, JJ.)

Mosaic Brands sued Ridge Wallet alleging infringement of a patent relating to a combination money clip and card holder adapted to retain paper currency and to removably store flexible cards such as credit cards, as well as Mosaic’s associated trade dress. Ridge denied the allegations and counterclaimed that Mosaic infringed a Ridge patent directed to a nearly identical wallet. In response to the counterclaim, Mosaic raised inequitable conduct as an affirmative defense.

During claim construction, the district court construed the terms “lip” and “varying thickness” in Mosaic’s patent. Following claim construction, the parties stipulated to noninfringement of Mosaic’s patent. The district court also found the trade dress of Mosaic’s wallet to be functional and thus invalid. As to Ridge’s patent, the district court granted summary judgment of invalidity based on a prior art product sold by Mosaic, and further denied summary judgment that Ridge had obtained its patent through inequitable conduct. Mosaic filed a motion for reconsideration regarding the inequitable conduct defense and to clarify remaining merits issues. The district court exercised its discretion to address the defense and identify deficiencies. The district court noted that Mosaic had only met a portion of its burden and later proceedings would present an opportunity to present more evidence of inequitable conduct. Both parties appealed.

The Federal Circuit first addressed a potential issue of appellate jurisdiction since the assertion of inequitable conduct was an affirmative defense and not a counterclaim yielding a final judgment to review. The Court found it had jurisdiction because the inequitable conduct defense merged and became final when the judgment denying summary judgment for inequitable conduct was entered.

Turning to the merits, the Federal Circuit addressed the two claim terms appealed by Mosaic. Mosaic argued that the district court’s interpretation of “lip” was too narrow because it required the lip to be made of “extruded plastic.” The Court quickly dispatched this argument by citing the specification of Mosaic’s patent, which described the lip as being made of extrudable plastic and extolled the benefits of such material. The Court focused on the context of how the patent used the phrase “the present invention” and found it to be limiting. As to the other claim term (“varying thickness”), Mosaic advocated for a plain and ordinary meaning of the term. The Court rejected Mosaic’s argument, finding that Mosaic failed to provide intrinsic evidence or meaningful explanation of how the district court’s construction differed from the plain and ordinary meaning. As such, the Court found that the district court made no error in either construction.

Turning to the appeal of Ridge’s patent, the Federal Circuit found that [...]

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Functionality Dooms Alleged Trade Dress Protection

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment of noninfringement in a trade dress suit, finding that the trade dress was functional and the attorneys’ fee award—as diminished by the district court—was appropriate. Pocket Plus, LLC v. Pike Brands, LLC, Case No. 21-3414 (8th Cir. Nov. 15, 2022) (Gruender, Melloy, Erickson, JJ.)

Since 2009, Pocket Plus has sold vertically oriented pouches that attach to waistbands or belts to carry water bottles, cell phones and other small objects. Pike Brands, d/b/a Running Buddy, began selling similar pouches in 2012 and introduced a vertical version in 2015. In 2021, Pocket Plus sent cease and desist letters to Running Buddy, then sued for trade dress infringement under Iowa common law and the Lanham Act. Running Buddy moved for summary judgment, arguing that Pocket Plus’s trade dress was unprotectable. Running Buddy also threatened Rule 11 sanctions because of the weakness of the case. After winning summary judgment, Running Buddy moved to recover attorneys’ fees, which the district court partially granted. Both parties appealed, with Pocket Plus challenging the summary judgment grant and both parties challenging the amount of the attorneys’ fee award.

The Eighth Circuit began by noting that the issue of validity was complicated by Pocket Plus’s shifting explanation of what its trade dress was, explaining that its “definition evolved throughout the litigation,” becoming increasingly detailed. Eventually, the Court reasoned that regardless of which definition prevailed, the result was the same.

Addressing the noninfringement finding, the Eighth Circuit recited the relevant legal principles, explaining that to prove infringement, a plaintiff must show that its trade dress is nonfunctional and distinctive and that a lack of protection may confuse customers. The Court explained that it must consider trade dress in its entirety—not as individual elements—and determine whether features are protectable “arbitrary embellishment” or simply essential to product use. In this case, Pocket Plus never registered its trade dress so it did not benefit from a presumption of nonfunctionality. Pocket Plus argued that its vertical orientation and over-the-hip design were nonfunctional elements since competitors made pouches differently and that packaging illustrations likewise made the trade dress nonfunctional. The Court was not persuaded, finding that each feature the plaintiff pointed to was designed to “affect [the pouch’s] suitability for carrying objects,” making each feature essential to purpose and therefore functional. Because the Court found functionality, it affirmed noninfringement without addressing the other requirements.

The Eighth Circuit next considered the attorneys’ fees. Under the Lanham Act, a court may, in its discretion, grant attorneys’ fees to the winning party but only in “exceptional cases” after “considering the totality of the circumstances.” Pocket Plus argued that this case was not “exceptional” while Running Buddy argued that the district court abused its discretion in awarding only a portion of the attorneys’ fees.

The Eighth Circuit addressed both exceptionality and the amount awarded, in turn. To be “exceptional,” a case must be objectively unreasonable, motivated by ill will or frivolous. The Court noted Pocket Plus’s weak [...]

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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 [...]

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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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Bayou Jambalaya: Sanction Motions, Motions to Vacate and Trade Dress Injunctions

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a three-part ruling that affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to vacate as void the judgment based on Rooker-Feldman doctrine because the earlier state and district court decisions were not “inextricably intertwined,” affirmed the district court’s permanent injunction because the district court based it on the Fifth Circuit’s prior decision, and affirmed the denial of a motion for Rule 11 sanctions because the filed motion was different from the Rule-11-mandated notice that was originally served. Uptown Grill, L.L.C. v. Camellia Grill Holdings, Inc., Case No. 21-30639 (5th Cir. Aug. 23, 2022) (Higginbotham, Higginson, Oldham, JJ.)

This dispute arises from three agreements between Uptown Grill and Camellia Grill: the “Cash Sale, the Bill of Sale and the License Agreement. The Cash Sale and Bill of Sale transferred property from Camellia Grill to Uptown Grill. The License Agreement granted a license to Uptown Grill to use certain trademarks and trade dress. In 2011, Camellia Grill sued Uptown Grill for breach of the License Agreement in state court. The state court found that the appellee breached the license and restored to the appellant all rights to the marks. The court did not, however, construe the Bill of Sale.

While the state court litigation was on appeal, Camellia Grill sued Uptown Grill in federal court for trademark infringement. The district court found that the Bill of Sale transferred the trademarks to Uptown Grill before execution of the License Agreement, and therefore found that Camellia Grill’s infringement claim failed. However, the district court also found that the License Agreement limited Uptown Grill’s use of the trade dress to a single restaurant, and the court issued an injunction to that effect. The Fifth Circuit affirmed these findings in a 2019 decision in Uptown Grill, LLC v. Camellia Grill Holdings, Inc., but remanded the issue of whether Uptown Grill’s use of the Camellia grill trade dress at the new restaurant location constituted a breach of the License Agreement.

On remand, Camellia Grill moved for summary judgment that Uptown Grill breached the License Agreement by using the Camellia Grill trade dress after the termination of the License Agreement. Uptown Grill moved for partial summary judgment on the trade dress injunctions, arguing that Camellia Grill lacked standing since Uptown Grill was not using any trade dress at any new locations. Camellia Grill also filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, under which “inferior federal courts do not have the power to modify or reverse state court judgments’ except when authorized by Congress.” Finally, Uptown Grill moved for sanctions against Camellia Grill for “abusive and harassing conduct.” The district court denied both Camellia Grill’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and Uptown Grill’s motion for sanctions. The district court determined that Uptown Grill had breached the License Agreement’s post-termination provisions. The court also decided that the trade dress elements should be limited to that which is protectable under [...]

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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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Colorful Non-Functionality Argument Misses the (Design) Mark

Addressing the functionality of colors in design marks, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s entry of judgment for a trademark owner on its unfair competition and trademark claims, ruling that where color is used as an indicator of size or parts matching, it is functional and does not qualify as trade dress. Sulzer Mixpac AG v. A&N Trading Co., Case No. 19-2951 (2d Cir. Feb. 18, 2021) (Pooler, J.)

Sulzer Mixpac and A&N Trading are competitors that manufacture and supply mixing tips, which dentists use to create impressions of teeth for dental procedures. Mixpac obtained trademarks for the colors yellow, teal, blue, pink, purple and brown (collectively, the Candy Colors) as applied to mixing tips. Mixpac filed suit against A&N, claiming unfair competition; common law trademark infringement; and trademark infringement, trademark counterfeiting and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act. A&N countersued, claiming that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors on mixing tips was functional and therefore not entitled to trademark protection. The district court concluded that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors was non-functional (based in part on the increased cost of adding color to the mixing tips, and noting that other competitors used clear tips), and entered judgment and a permanent injunction in favor of Mixpac. A&N appealed.

The Second Circuit reversed, explaining that the district court erred by failing to apply the Louboutin three-part aesthetic functionality test to Mixpac’s marks. Under the Louboutin test, to determine whether a design feature is non-functional and thus entitled to trademark protection, courts look to whether the design feature (1) is “essential to the use or purpose” of the product, (2) “affects the cost or quality” of the product, and (3) has a significant effect on competition. A&N argued that the mixing tips’ color coding helps users identify useful product characteristics, such as diameter, and that it aids users in selecting the correct tip. Applying the Louboutin test in the first instance and citing trial testimony, the Second Circuit concluded that the colors signify diameter, which assists users when selecting the proper cartridge, as the colors “enable users to quickly match the proper mixing tip with the proper cartridge, and (citing Louboutin) thereby ‘improve[] the operation of the goods.'”

Practice Note: In trade dress cases, be sure to apply the Louboutin three-part aesthetic functionality test. Failure to do so may lead to reversal on appeal. In this case, the Second Circuit noted that “[t]he district court erred because it did not apply this test when it considered only that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors adds to manufacturing costs and that other companies use different or no colors.”




Knock It Off, Knockoffs? Ninth Circuit Affirms Trade Dress Rights but Not Fame

Taking on issues of functionality and fame relating to trade dress rights, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s judgment after a jury trial on claims of infringement and dilution of trade dress rights in furniture. The Ninth Circuit distinguished utilitarian functionality from aesthetic functionality, and reaffirmed the high burden on the proponent of dilution to establish that the mark has become a “household name.” Blumenthal Distributing, Inc. DBA Office Star v. Herman Miller, Inc., Case Nos. 18-56471, -56493 (9th Cir. June 25, 2020) (Korman, J.).

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Chalk One Up to the Knock-Off

Addressing issues of design patent infringement, copyright infringement, trade dress infringement and unfair competition, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment on all claims. Lanard Toys Limited v. Dolgencorp LLC, Ja-Ru, Inc., Toys “R” Us-Delaware, Inc., Case No. 2019-1781 (Fed. Cir. May 14, 2020) (Lourie, J.).

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Federal Circuit Confirms Color Marks of Certain “Character” Can Be Inherently Distinctive for Product Packaging

Reviewing a decision from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded the Board’s refusal to register a trademark consisting of a gradient of multiple colors applied to product packaging, and relied on Supreme Court precedent in concluding that color marks can be inherently distinctive when used on product packaging “depending upon the character of the color design.” In re Forney Industries, Inc., Case No. 2019-1073 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 8, 2020) (O’Malley, J.)[precedential].

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