Law School Case Brief
Traffix Devices v. Mktg. Displays - 532 U.S. 23, 121 S. Ct. 1255 (2001)
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. A functional feature is one the exclusive use of which would put competitors at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage.
A sign-stand manufacturer had two utility patents for the dual-spring design of a stand mechanism to keep temporary road and other outdoor signs upright in strong wind. The manufacturer alleged that its stands were recognizable to buyers and users, because the dual-spring design was visible near the base of the stand. After the patents expired, a competitor of the manufacturer sold sign stands with a visible dual-spring design that was copied from the manufacturer's design. The manufacturer sued the competitor under the Lanham Act (15 USCS 1051 et seq.), alleging, among other claims, trade dress infringement on the basis of the copied dual-spring design. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted the competitor's motion for summary judgment on the trade dress issue (971 F Supp 262). The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, reversing the trade dress ruling, said that the competitor, if it chose to use the dual-spring design, would have to find a way to set its sign stands apart from the manufacturer's stands to avoid infringing the manufacturer's trade dress (200 F3d 929).
Was an expired utility patent that served functional purposes only, entitled to trademark protection?
The United States Supreme Court held that any acquired secondary meaning was irrelevant, since trade dress protection was precluded by respondent's failure to sustain its burden of demonstrating that its design was not functional. Both the disclosure of the dual-spring design in the claims of the expired patents and respondent's prior patent infringement litigation indicated that the design provided a unique and useful mechanism to resist the force of the wind. Respondent's trade dress claim was thus precluded, since trade dress protection only extended to product features which were not functional. Judgment was reversed. Regardless of acquired secondary meaning, respondent's trade dress infringement claim was precluded, since its patent claims and prior patent infringement litigation concerning its dual-spring sign stand design indicated that the design was functional. Respondent thus failed to meet its burden of demonstrating non-functionality as required to claim trade dress protection.
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