Sunday, August 14, 2005

7th Circuit decision re proof of secondary meaning in product configuration cases

The 7th Circuit recently issued what seems to be a significant decision about what is necessary to prove secondary meaning in product configuration trade dress case. And it seems to make a survey just about indispensable.

In Bretford Manufacturing, Inc. v. Smith System Manufacturing Corp., No. 03-3932 (7th Cir. Aug. 8, 2005) (Easterbrook, J.), the plaintiff asserted trade dress protection for the V-shaped table legs of its computer table. Following Wal-Mart v. Samara Brothers, the district court required the plaintiff to prove secondary meaning in the asserted product configuration trade dress, as opposed to claiming it was inherently distinctive.

So the plaintiff pointed to the fact that for 7 years, it was the only manufacturer of computer table with V-shaped legs, and during that time it spent over $4 million to promote the tables, and was successful in selling 200,000 tables. Not bad, eh?

Not good enough, said Judge Easterbrook. He reasoned that:
"In the end, all Bretford has to go on is the fact that it was the only maker of such tables for eight years and spent more than $4 million to promote sales. If that were enough to permit judgment in its favor, new entry would be curtailed unduly by the risk and expense of trademark litigation, for every introducer of a new design could make the same sort of claim." (Slip op. at 5.)
The rest of the panel, in awe of this Jedi master of law and economics, nodded in unanimous agreement.

I think this answers the wrong question. The question shouldn't be whether the plaintiff's assertion of trade dress rights in product configuration curtails new entry in that exact market. Of course it does. And the risk increases the longer the plaintiff is out there alone. But the Supreme Court didn't categorically reject product configuration cases because of this risk. It simply said that in such cases a plaintiff needs to prove secondary meaning. An accepted (if risky) way to prove up secondary meaning is to show a long period of exclusivity in the market, with substantial sales success, along with substantial promotional activity. In this case, those numbers were pretty impressive, and the Court didn't mention any countervailing evidence.

But if these numbers didn't cut it, then, at least in the 7th Circuit, it's going to be virtually impossible for anyone to prove secondary meaning in a product's design with sales & advertising figures alone. And I doubt that the Court that slapped down this evidence is going to be swayed by affidavits of selected consumers ("merely anecdotal," no doubt), no matter how many you can drum up. Plaintiffs are going to have to strongly consider ponying up for a real survey.

(Judge Easterbrook also addressed, in his inimitable style, a weak reverse passing off claim in the case.)

As always, it's fun to read a Judge Easterbrook opinion, but I think this one is wrong.

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