|TRAFFIX DEVICES, INC. V. MARKETINGDISPLAYS, INC. (99-1571) 532 U.S. 23 (2001)
200 F.3d 929, reversed and remanded.
[ Kennedy ]
The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.
TRAFFIX DEVICES, INC. v. MARKETING DISPLAYS, INC.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
Respondent, Marketing Displays, Inc. (MDI), holds now-expired utility patents for a dual-spring design mechanism that keeps temporary road and other outdoor signs upright in adverse wind conditions. MDI claims that its sign stands were recognizable to buyers and users because the patented design was visible near the sign stands base. After the patents expired and petitioner TrafFix Devices, Inc., began marketing sign stands with a dual-spring mechanism copied from MDIs design, MDI brought suit under the Trademark Act of 1964 for, inter alia, trade dress infringement. The District Court granted TrafFixs motion for summary judgment, holding that no reasonable trier of fact could determine that MDI had established secondary meaning in its alleged trade dress, i.e., consumers did not associate the dual-spring designs look with MDI; and, as an independent reason, that there could be no trade dress protection for the design because it was functional. The Sixth Circuit reversed. Among other things, it suggested that the District Court committed legal error by looking only to the dual-spring design when evaluating MDIs trade dress because a competitor had to find some way to hide the design or otherwise set it apart from MDIs; explained, relying on Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., 514 U.S. 159, 165, that exclusive use of a feature must put competitors at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage before trade dress protection is denied on functionality grounds; and noted a split among the Circuits on the issue whether an expired utility patent forecloses the possibility of trade dress protection in the products design.
Held: Because MDIs dual-spring design is a functional feature for which there is no trade dress protection, MDIs claim is barred. Pp. 411.
(a) Trade dress can be protected under federal law, but the person asserting such protection in an infringement action must prove that the matter sought to be protected is not functional, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(3). Trade dress protection must subsist with the recognition that in many instances there is no prohibition against copying goods and products. An expired utility patent has vital significance in resolving a trade dress claim, for a utility patent is strong evidence that the features therein claimed are functional. The central advance claimed in the expired utility patents here is the dual-spring design, which is an essential feature of the trade dress MDI now seeks to protect. However, MDI did not, and cannot, carry the burden of overcoming the strong evidentiary inference of functionality based on the disclosure of the dual-spring design in the claims of the expired patents. The springs are necessary to the devices operation, and they would have been covered by the claims of the expired patents even though they look different from the embodiment revealed in those patents, see Sarkisian v. Winn-Proof Corp., 697 F.2d 1313. The rationale for the rule that the disclosure of a feature in a utility patents claims constitutes strong evidence of functionality is well illustrated in this case. The design serves the important purpose of keeping the sign upright in heavy wind conditions, and statements in the expired patent applications indicate that it does so in a unique and useful manner and at a cost advantage over alternative designs. Pp. 48.
(b) In reversing the summary judgment against MDI, the Sixth Circuit gave insufficient weight to the importance of the expired utility patents, and their evidentiary significance, in establishing the devices functionality. The error was likely caused by its misinterpretation of trade dress principles in other respects.
200 F.3d 929, reversed and remanded.
Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.