What you need to know if you want to “trademark” a product configuration.
by Lawrence Stanley and Gordon Troy
In an era of fierce competition, brand owners are constantly looking for ways to foster brand identity, distinguish their products from those of competitors, and build and protect their marketing space. One method of doing that is by creating and promoting unique product configurations. Product features that have successfully registered as trademarks in the United States include shapes, designs, colors and smells. The possibilities are wide-ranging.
Furniture manufacturer Knoll has registrations for configurations of a couch, a table, two different chairs and a stool. Chocolate-maker Lindt and Sprungli registered a mark for chocolate in the three-dimensional shape of a closed umbrella. Guitar manufacturers have obtained registered marks for guitar body shapes, pearl fret board inlays and designs encircling the guitar’s sound hole. After taking its case to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), confectioner Hershey’s succeeded in registering the manner in which squares of its chocolate bars are scored. The TTAB also permitted registration of a fragrance (Plumeria blossoms) for thread and yarn; and allowed Bottega Veneta’s “intrecciato” leather weave design to be published for opposition, potentially paving the way for registration.
One of the attractions of making a key aspect of a product function as a trademark is that it eliminates the need to stamp the brand owner’s logo all over the product in order for it to be recognizable. The most compelling attraction, however, is that it closes off competitors from imitating a brand owner’s non-functional designs. It is the question of fair competition that leads the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) and the TTAB to disfavor registration in all but the most compelling instances. As one TTAB judge has observed:
[W]hen one is faced with a putative source indicator such as the configuration of a product or its packaging or any product feature that enhances the attractiveness of the product, it is logical to ask as a first question whether the public interest is best served by refusing to permit a particular feature to be taken from the “public domain.” This is, at root, a public policy question, and turns on whether the non-traditional indicator should remain permanently available for competitors to freely use.
While product features are almost never inherently distinctive, they can acquire distinctiveness – and hence, trademark status in the US – through exclusive use if they also satisfy certain criteria. A brief explanation of the analytical framework employed by the USPTO to determine the registrability of product configuration trademarks is helpful.
For a trademark to be registrable, it must be “distinctive.” A mark is “inherently distinctive” if its very nature serves to identify a particular source. Yves Saint Laurent’s interlocking “YSL” is inherently distinctive, but the shape of a product, a type of weave or a color must acquire distinctiveness by accruing what is referred to as “secondary meaning” in the mind of the consumer. A bit of a misnomer, “secondary meaning” occurs when the primary significance of the product feature is its association with the brand owner. Section 2(f) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(f), permits the registration of a mark “which has become distinctive of the applicant’s goods in commerce,” and provides that the USPTO may accept as prima facie proof of distinctiveness “substantially exclusive and continuous use” of the mark during the five years prior to “the date on which the claim of distinctiveness is made.”
In practice, however, the degree of proof of distinctiveness required by the USPTO will depend upon the particular product configuration. The umbrella-shaped chocolate mentioned above was accepted for registration without the submission of any proof of distinctiveness. But generally speaking, such proof will include declarations showing that the product has been in the marketplace for at least five years; the feature for which registration is sought has been promoted as the applicant’s trademark (as shown by the nature and extent of the applicant’s advertising); and the geographic distribution of the product has been widespread. The USPTO may also require declarations from distributors, shop owners and/or customers who claim to recognize the product feature as originating with the applicant.
A brand owner who can show that the feature for which it seeks registration has acquired distinctiveness may still need to defend against a claim that the mark is “functional.” There are two types of functionality: utilitarian and aesthetic. A product feature is said to have utilitarian functionality when the feature is essential to the use or purpose of the product, is dictated by the functions to be performed, or has a direct bearing on the product’s cost or quality. A
leather strap on a handbag is an example of utilitarian functionality: no brand owner could prevent another from using a leather strap. However, the particular way that the strap is attached to the bag, if non-essential, is capable of acquiring distinctiveness by identifying the brand owner as the bag’s source.
Brand owners who advertise a product feature as making their product more effective or superior to competing products are unlikely to overcome this hurdle. Bose, the company that manufactures “901” speakers, was denied registration of the unique shape of its cabinets despite the fact that it had clearly acquired distinctiveness among consumers in the 27 years that the speakers had been on the market. In upholding the Examining Attorney’s refusal to register, the TTAB found that Bose’s two expired utility patents “repeatedly disclose the utilitarian advantages of this particular configuration” and that its advertisements “tout the utilitarian advantages of the product design.” Aesthetic functionality is more difficult to parse. In general terms, a feature is aesthetically functional if the brand owner’s right of exclusive use would put competitors at a significant non-reputational disadvantage. In other words, trademark protection does not extend to ornamental features of a product that would significantly limit the range of competitive designs available. At the same time, however, “competitors are not guaranteed the greatest range for their creations, but only the ability to compete ‘fairly’ within a given market.” Consequently, the test for aesthetic functionality is both fact-specific and subjective.
In 2013, the TTAB refused registration by Florists’ Transworld Delivery of the color black as applied to packaging for flowers. Colors, the TTAB found, serve an aesthetic function because they carry particular meanings when it comes to flowers. The color black may convey elegance or may be used “on somber occasions, such as the context of death” and there is thus a “competitive need” to use the color black to communicate the appropriate or desired message from the purchaser to the recipient of flowers.
A case in point
When Bottega Veneta (BV) sought US registration of its well-known leather weave in 2007, it must have been confident that its application would sail through the USPTO. BV had been using the intrecciato weave (the term used by the company in its advertising) since 1975. It appeared on over 80% of BV’s leather goods. Sales in the six years prior to the application were US $275 million. Advertising expenditures in the same period totaled US $18 million and many advertisements publicized the uniqueness of the design. Fashion reviewers referred to the intrecciato as BV’s “signature.” In addition, companies selling imitations or near-imitations made reference to BV – a de facto recognition that the weave is a source identifier. As one seller wrote:
Don’t let the woven leather fool you — this is not a Bottega Veneta bag … To the ladies and gentlemen who buy the intrecciato Bottega Veneta bags … everyone knows you’re spending the dough because the intrecciato is “exclusive” at the moment.
Despite the fact that the intrecciato had become distinctive, the mark would not be published for opposition until December 2013. BV’s application and the Office Actions that followed provide a textbook case of what not to do when filing an application to register a product feature and what can go wrong.
BV’s application was filed under Section 44(e) of the Lanham Act, which permits registration under the Paris Convention based on a prior foreign registration, in this case, in Italy. While a 44(e) registration normally grants the applicant certain advantages, BV still had to satisfy the requirements of Section 2(f) that its mark was both distinctive and non-functional.
BV started out on the wrong footing. First, it failed to provide an adequate description of the goods in Class 18. Instead, it recited nearly the entire description of products in the Italian registration (consisting of the full Nice classification heading), thus running afoul of basic USPTO procedure which requires applicants to list in ordinary commercial terms only those goods or services for which the applicant actually uses or has a bona fide intent to use the mark. Second, the description of the mark was inadequate because it failed to describe the mark accurately. The application’s description read: “The mark consists of Interlaced woven strips of leather arranged in a distinctive repeating pattern that is used over all or substantially all of the goods.”
It was this overbroad description, potentially encompassing a wide range of designs of interwoven strips of leather, which led the Examining Attorney to look at BV’s weave generically rather than focusing on the specific nature of the intrecciato and how it differed from the weaves of nearly all of BV’s competitors. His objections to registration set out in five Office Actions attacked BV on every technical and substantive ground available. He argued that the
intrecciato design lacked distinctiveness, could not function as a trademark because it was solely ornamental, and was functional from both a utilitarian and aesthetic perspective. Combing the internet, he found thousands of products with leather weave designs to support his contentions.
In the face of this opposition, BV began amending the description of the mark and the delineation of goods, and gathered evidence that the weave was non-functional and widely recognized as unique in the fashion world. BV easily demonstrated that the intrecciato wasn’t stronger than other weaves and that it provided no economic advantage to BV because it was actually more expensive. The Examining Attorney, however, was unmoved. A weave is a weave is a weave, he found, eventually issuing a Final Refusal.
When the matter reached the TTAB, BV was describing its mark narrowly and precisely: “a configuration of slim, uniformly-sized strips of leather, ranging from 8 to 12 millimeters in width, interlaced to form a repeating plain or basket weave pattern placed at a 45-degree angle over all or substantially all of the goods.” The TTAB criticized the Examining Attorney for failing to distinguish the intrecciato from other weaves: “After carefully reviewing all of the evidence showing weave designs on handbags, there are a very small number that can be considered to have the very same features as those described in applicant’s mark,” the TTAB observed.
By giving a “very narrow reading of the proposed mark,” the TTAB was able to find that the intrecciato was not aesthetically functional because BV’s competitors would be able to use any weave other than the specifically described BV configuration. As for manufacturers and sellers of similar bags uncovered by the Examining Attorney, the TTAB held that if they were not intentionally imitating the intrecciato because their bags have “the look of applicant’s bags” and “it is the association with applicant that consumers want to obtain,” then the best place for them to be heard would be in an opposition following publication of the mark. Following that decision, the mark was published. As of this writing, the mark has been opposed for footwear (Class 25) and BV filed a request to divide the application so that registration may issue for goods in Class 18.
The practitioner applying to register product configuration trademarks must be aware of the hurdles that clients may face and begin to address them in the initial trademark application. While it is always difficult to predict how an Examining Attorney will respond to an application, the client should be advised long in advance what evidence it may need to gather to demonstrate that its unique product configuration functions as a trademark and is registrable as one.
(Initially published in The Trademark Lawyer, March/April 2014. You can download the printed article here: 2014 Trademark Lawyer)