Trade Dress in Patent Law

What is Trade Dress?

Generally, trade dress relates to a product’s physical appearance, including its size shape, color and design. Texture is sometimes considered part of the product’s physical appearance. It can also refer to the manner in which a product is packaged, wrapped, labeled, presented, promoted or advertised.

When the plaintiff thinks that the defendant’s trade dress is likely to cause confusion with the plaintiff’s product, the plaintiff can sue under 15 United States Code 1125.  Section 1125 is entitled “False designations of origin, false descriptions, and dilution forbidden.”

Can an invention that is patented also have trade dress protection?

It depends – trade dress protection may be available.

An Illustrative case for False Designation of Origin

The drawing below from US Patent 3,646,696 is set forth below. The plaintiff’s invention was used for such things as “Road Work Ahead” signs.

Trade Dress Illustration: Patent Law Drawing

After the ‘696 Patent expired, the defendant copied the plaintiff’s design.  The plaintiff argued that defendant’s copying of springs 16 and 18 was a trade dress false designation of origin.

Points of Contention

The Court indicated:

  • Trade dress can be protected under federal law
  • The design or packaging of a product may acquire a distinctiveness which serves to identify the product with its manufacturer or source
  • A design or package which acquires secondary meaning is a trade dress which may not be used in a manner likely to cause confusion as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of the goods
  • The [Trademark Act] provides a cause of action when any word, term name, or device, or any combination thereof is likely to cause confusion as to the origin, sponsorship or approval of the goods
  • Trade dress protection exists with the recognition that in many instances there is no prohibition against copying goods and products
  • Unless a Patent or Copyright protects an item, it will be subject to copying
  • The plaintiff must prove that the trade dress asserted is not functional

The defendant argued that plaintiff’s springs 16 and 18 shown in the above drawing were functional.

What the Court Determined

In the case of Traffix Devices, Inc. v. Marketing Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 29-30 (2001), the Supreme Court of the United States, held:

  • A prior patent, we conclude, has vital significance in resolving the trade dress claim.
  • A utility patent is strong evidence that the features therein claimed are functional.
  • Where the expired patent claimed the features in question, one who seeks to establish protection must carry the heavy burden of showing that the feature is not functional
  • This can be accomplished, for instance, by showing that it is merely an ornamental, incidental, or arbitrary aspect of the device.

A trade dress that is functional is not enforceable under the Lanham Act [the Trademark Act].

Elements of a utility Patent are presumed functional.  However, on page 34 of Traffix Devices, Inc., the Supreme Court did not completely bar trade dress protection for current or previously patented items.  Mr. Justice Kennedy wrote:

“In a case where a manufacturer seeks to protect arbitrary, incidental, or ornamental aspects of features of a product found in the patent claims, such as arbitrary curves in the legs or an ornamental pattern painted on the springs, a different result might obtain. There the manufacturer could perhaps prove that those aspects do not serve a purpose within the terms of the utility patent.”

The Basic Trade Dress Question

To answer the initial question, if the part of the patented invention is functional it cannot be protected under the Trademark Act.  If the part of the patented invention is arbitrary, incidental or ornament, protection of the Trademark Act may be available.

Need More Information?

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