Sunday, October 02, 2005

6th Circuit decision concerning product configuration trade dress (Les Paul guitars)

This case is a couple of weeks 0ld -- sorry. Been really busy at my real job. Oh yeah, and fleeing from a hurricane.

The 6th Circuit in Gibson Guitar Corp. v. Paul Reed Smith Guitars, L.P., No. 04-5836 (6th Cir. Sept. 12, 2005) pretty much flatly rejected application of "initial interest confusion" in product configuration cases. The plaintiff argued that, at a distance in a music store, customers may initially be attracted to the defendant's guitars because the shape of them is sorta similar to the shape of plaintiff's Les Paul guitars. The court rejected this "at a distance" type of confusion, because it was concerned that so many products look sufficiently at a distance that such a test would almost always be satisfied, making it, really, no test at all. The court was also concerned that the inability of such cases to be tossed on summary judgment, which is similar to Justice Scalia's concern, in Wal-Mart v. Samara Brothers, that applying inherent distinctiveness concepts to product configuration trade dress could lead to anti-competitive strike suits that would unduly hinder competition. While the court said it was limiting its holding to the facts of the case, the reasoning it used is going to be hard to escape in future cases in the 6th Circuit.

The court also rejected "post sale confusion," but on wrong-headed reasoning. Under the heading "Post-Sale Confusion," it addressed, not post-sale confusion, but a "lack of irreparable harm" argument. In essence what the court said was that post-sale confusion isn't applicable here because the defendant's guitars aren't inferior to plaintiff's. Seems to me that's a weak rebuttal to a defendant's argument of, "What's the harm if people are confused? My guitars are good." Of course, the correct response to that argument, when made in opposition to an irreparable harm argument, is that it is the loss of control of one's reputation that is the harm, since the defendant can at any time decide to produce shoddy merchandise. The point is, the plaintiff no longer controls its own goodwill's destiny.

To complicate things, the heading the Court used for the actual post-sale confusion argument was "Gibson's Smoky Bar Theory of Confusion." In this argument, Gibson apparently argued (persuasively I would have thought) that if a consumer saw a performer in a concert or club using defendant's guitar and didn't like the sound of the performance, the consumer might mistakenly attribute the poor sound to plaintiff's guitars. Seems right to me. But the Court rejected it, again on the ill-considered basis that the defendant's guitars were high quality, and that "Gibson is helped, rather than harmed, by any such confusion."

I've always thought that the 6th Circuit was rather hit-or-miss with trademark and trade dress cases, and this one, I think, is a "miss."