Law School Case Brief
Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Prods. Co. - 514 U.S. 159, 115 S. Ct. 1300 (1995)
In general terms, a product 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, that is, if exclusive use of the feature would put competitors at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage.
Petitioner Qualitex Company has for years colored the dry cleaning press pads it manufactures with a special shade of green-gold. After respondent Jacobson Products began to use a similar shade on its own press pads, Qualitex registered its color as a trademark and added a trademark infringement count to the suit it had previously filed challenging Jacobson's use of the green-gold color. Qualitex won in the District Court, but the Ninth Circuit set aside the judgment on the infringement claim because, in its view, the Trademark Act of 1946 (Lanham Act) does not permit registration of color alone as a trademark.
Does the Trademark Act of 1946 permit registration of color alone as a trademark?
The Court ruled that Trademark Act of 1946 permits the registration of a trademark that consists, purely and simply, of a color. The Court opined that a color could satisfy the part of the statutory definition of a trademark, which required a person to "use" or "intend to use" the mark to identify and distinguish his or her goods, including a unique product, from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods, even if that source was unknown. The court held, however, that to the extent that a color was functional, the mark would have to be examined to determine if its use as a mark would permit one competitor to interfere with legitimate competition. Accordingly, the judgment that held Qualitex Company could not register a color as a trademark was reversed.
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