Wednesday, August 17, 2005

7th Circuit's Recent Trade Dress/Reverse Passing Off Decision (follow-up)

Something has been slowly gnawing at me concerning the issue I didn't discuss in my 8/14 entry concerning the 7th Circuit's decision in Bretford Manufacturing, Inc. v. Smith System Manufacturing Corp., No. 03-3932 (7th Cir. Aug. 8, 2005) (Easterbrook, J.).

It involves the Court's rejection of the plaintiff's reverse passing off claim. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant, which was trying to but hadn't yet been able to produce a knock-off computer table, nevertheless cobbled together a sample table based mostly on its own components, but including the important V-shaped legs feature removed from one of the plaintiff's tables. The plaintiff then used the sample as part of its successful pitch to get the Dallas school system to place a sizeable order for tables.

Judge Easterbrook looked at the Supreme Court's decision in Dastar Corp. v. 20th Century Fox Film Corp., and read it really broadly. Remember, Dastar turned on the meaning of the word "source" in the Lanham Act, and in the specific context of a derivative video work based on an pre-existing work whose copyright had expired -- i.e., a "communicative" product, and one that was presumptively in the public domain. Ignoring these facts, Judge Easterbrook said that Dastar asks only whether the consumer knows who has produced the finished product, regardless of whose components go into it. He rhetorically asked, essentially, whether it's reverse passing off if the table seller doesn't disclose that it got its wood from Oregon Clear Cut Lumberyard, its nuts and bolts from Smith Screw Company, and vinyl molding from Jones Vinyl Corp. Of course the answer is no. Duh.

But this case was different. Oregon Clear Cut and Smith and Jones don't sell tables. They sell components used to make a variety of things, including tables. When a competitor in the table business, however, sees its product being sold under another's mark, that's reverse passing off. And when what is taken is less than the complete product, then most circuits take the position that the question is whether the defendant's product is substantially different from the product the plaintiff sells -- a grey area that will change with each case. In my view it's way too simplistic and wrong, as well as based on an overbroad reading of Dastar, to say that there's no reverse passing off in any case when the customer knows who assembled the product.

Let's take Judge Easterbrook's position to an extreme to see if it holds. Let's say Pepsi decides to change its business model. It decides to buy COKE brand soft drink (good TM usage!) from Sam's Club, pour it into a big vat, add one grain of Domino brand sugar per each 12 ounces, and rebottle under the PEPSI brand. Under Judge Easterbrook's analysis, this is not reverse passing off because Pepsi made the finished product and the consumer is told that. C'mon. No way.

In any event, however, I don't think that Judge Easterbrook needed to address this tricky issue (or to make such a sweeping pronouncement of the death of reverse passing off) -- although he clearly wanted to -- because it seems to me that there was a standing issue "standing" in the way. In a nutshell, there was no mention of any showing that the defendant's use of the plaintiff's component caused it to lose the Dallas sale (so much for the damage claim), and since the Dallas pitch was a one-time, non-repeated thing, there was no standing to ask for an injunction.

Whether I'm right or not on the goofy standing issue, it's clear that the 7th Circuit is now a risky place to bring a reverse passing off claim.

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