Stretching Trademark Laws To Protect Product Design And Packaging

Originally published in Landslide Volume 4, Number 3, January/February 2012. © 2012 by the American Bar Association.

"Design patents often are difficult to enforce. Utility patents undergo extensive examination and, once granted, have only a limited term. Any chance we can use trademark law to protect unique product designs and packaging?"

"Glad you asked."

Increasingly, companies are using trademark law in an effort to protect unique aspects of product design and packaging. This article examines the governing legal principles, with particular emphasis on cases decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Federal Circuit) and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). This article addresses the legal requirements that must be satisfied to protect product design and packaging under trademark law. The article also offers specific recommendations intended to assist you and your clients in achieving trademark protection in this developing area.

Legal Framework

The legal framework used to analyze whether design features--also referred to as trade dress--are entitled to trademark protection can be summarized as follows: First, as a threshold matter, it must be determined whether the claimed trade dress is functional. If so, the trade dress cannot be registered or protected as a trademark. In general terms, a feature is "functional" and cannot serve as a trademark "if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article."1 The functionality doctrine limits the types of product configurations and design features that can be registered and protected under trademark law.

If the claimed trade dress is found not to be functional, the party claiming rights must satisfy additional legal requirements before achieving registration or protection. The Supreme Court addressed these requirements in the key case of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Bros.,2 where the court distinguished between "product-design" trade dress and "product-packaging" trade dress. The two categories can be described as follows:

"Product-packaging" trade dress is composed of the overall combination and arrangement of the design elements that make up the product's packaging, including graphics, layout, color, or color combinations; and "Product-design" trade dress covers a product's shape or configuration and other product design features. As discussed below, inherent distinctiveness does not entitle product-design trade dress to protection under the trademark laws. Only after product-design trade dress is shown to have acquired secondary meaning will it be entitled to such protection. Product-packaging trade dress, on the other hand, can be protected either if it is inherently distinctive or if it has acquired secondary meaning.

The legal framework outlined above is illustrated in figure 1.

Figure 1. Legal framework used in analyzing whether trade dress is entitled to trademark protection.

Product-Design Trade Dress

Generally speaking, product design is more difficult to protect under trademark law than product packaging. The Supreme Court in Wal-Mart recognized that consumers ordinarily do not perceive a product's design as identifying the source of the product; rather, product design generally renders the product itself more useful or more appealing.3 Product-design trade dress can be "inherently distinctive" in the sense that it is arbitrary or fanciful; however, inherent distinctiveness does not entitle product-design trade dress to protection under the U.S. Trademark Act, also known as the Lanham Act. Only after product-design trade dress is shown to have acquired secondary meaning will it be entitled to such protection.4

The practical effect of this rule is that product-design trade dress is not entitled to protection immediately upon first use. Rather, legal protection will attach only after the party claiming rights has used and promoted the product-design trade dress for a period of time, such that consumers have come to associate it with a particular producer or brand; i.e., that secondary meaning has been achieved.

Product-Packaging Trade Dress

The Supreme Court in Wal-Mart observed that, unlike product design, the packaging or "dressing" of a product often is recognized by consumers as identifying the product's source.5 Indeed, "the very purpose of attaching a particular word to a product, or encasing it in a distinctive packaging, is most often to identify the source of the product."6 Product-packaging trade dress can be protected either: (1) if it is inherently distinctive, or (2) if it has acquired secondary meaning. Proof of secondary meaning is not required for product-packaging trade dress that is found to be inherently distinctive.

Distinguishing between Product-Design and Product-Packaging

Distinguishing between product-design and product-packaging trade dress can be difficult. The Supreme Court concluded that, to the extent there are close cases, "courts should err on the side of caution and classify ambiguous trade dress as product design, thereby requiring secondary meaning."7 This rule, which treats "ambiguous trade dress" as product design, requires the party claiming rights to make a showing of secondary meaning in order for the trade dress to be registered and protected under trademark law.

An illustration of the problem can be found in a case in which the Federal Circuit was called upon to distinguish between product design and product packaging, a case involving a design used for clothing. Applicant Slokevage applied to register a trade dress configuration located on the rear of various clothing items. The goods in the application were identified as "pants, overalls, shorts, culottes, dresses, [and] skirts."8 The mark included cut-out areas in the garment and attached flaps with a closure device (see illustration 1).

The applicant chose not to claim secondary meaning under Lanham Act § 2(f), instead arguing that the trade dress was inherently distinctive. Affirming the TTAB, the Federal Circuit concluded that the trade dress was product-design trade dress (rather than product-packaging trade dress) and therefore not eligible for inherent distinctiveness. As such, the trade dress could not be registered absent a showing of secondary meaning. Because Slokevage did not submit evidence of secondary meaning, registration was refused.

The Federal Circuit acknowledged that Wal-Mart did not set forth the factors that distinguish between product-packaging and product-design trade dress. Nevertheless, the court found Wal-Mart informative because it provided examples of trade dress that constitutes product design. Slokevage's proposed trade dress was incorporated into the garment itself and comparable to the trade dress that the Supreme Court in Wal-Mart had classified as product design, not product packaging. The court thus concluded that Slokevage's trade dress constitutes product design, not entitled to protection on the basis of inherent distinctiveness.

Slokevage urges that her trade dress is not product design because it does not alter the entire product but is more akin to a label being placed on a garment. We do not agree. The holes and flaps portion are part of the design of the clothing--the cut-out area is not merely a design placed on top of a garment, but is a design incorporated into the garment itself.9

The mere fact that the proposed trade dress covered only a portion of the product did not prevent it from being product design.

Moreover, while Slokevage urges that product design trade dress must...

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