Trade Dress
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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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Belt Fastener Trade Dress Conveyed as Invalid for Being Functional

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court finding that a trade dress for a conveyor belt fastener was invalid as functional because its utilitarian advantages were disclosed in patents, advertising materials and internal corporate documents. Flexible Steel Lacing Co. v. Conveyor Accessories, Inc., Case No. 19-2035 (7th Cir. Apr. 7, 2020) (Ripple, J.).

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No Trade Dress Protection for Functional Shape and Color Scheme

Addressing the scope of trade dress protection, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the shape and color scheme of a product was functional and therefore only eligible for patent law’s protection of utilitarian inventions. CTB, Inc. v. Hog Slat, Inc., Case No. 18-2107 (4th Cir. Mar. 27, 2020) (Wynn, J.) (Keenan, J. concurring) (Rushing, J. concurring).

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