Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Third Circuit decision in family seed business trademark/trade secret dispute

The Third Circuit recently issued a long decision dealing primarily with a complicated dispute over trademark ownership rights in the context of a dispute between several entities that grew out of a successful family business. There was also an interesting question involving the intersection of trade secret rights and the Federal Seed Act.

I won’t even try to summarize the salient facts concerning the ownership and use of the Doebler family name in Doeblers’ Pennsylvania Hybrids, inc. v. Doebler, No. 04-3848 (March 23, 2006), but there were a couple of legal points discussed by the Third Circuit that bear mentioning. First, on the trademark side, one of the Doebler parties was on the manufacturing side, the other was on the marketing/sales side. Looking to Professor McCarthy’s treatise, the Third Circuit noted that in disputes where manufacturers and distributors are quarrelling over who owns the mark, McCarthy suggests that the courts first look to whether a contract takes care of the question. If not, McCarthy suggests that courts look to a multi-factor test to determine what a typical consumer of the goods would perceive about who owns the mark. The Third Circuit, while not rejecting this “consumer expectation” test (there was no contract dealing with the issue) in all circumstances, limited when it could be applied. It held that where, as in the Doebler case, it was clear that one of the parties started out owning the mark and the issue was whether subsequent events resulted in transfer or abandonment of rights, the “consumer expectation” test had no application. Because the party challenging the first owner was essentially saying that, through subsequent events, the original owner “forfeited” its rights in the mark, courts should strictly apply the traditional tests to determine whether there had been an assignment or abandonment, rather than use a “balancing test” to decide whether such a forfeiture of rights had occurred. (Ed. I find this to be pretty solid reasoning.)

On the trade secret side, the issue was whether the plaintiff’s brand names for different hybrid vegetable seed varietals could be “trade secrets.” I know, I know, how can a brand name be a trade secret?, you ask. Well, hybrids are the first generation of pure bred “inbred” varietals. Apparently, the hybrids’ brand names in this case uniquely corresponded to the two inbred varieties used to make them. It was the defendants’ knowledge of what inbreds made up each of the plaintiff’s hybrids that the plaintiff wanted the defendants to stop using. Under the trade secret claim, the plaintiffs had gotten an injunction at the district court prohibiting the defendants from selling any of the hybrids sold by the plaintiff or disclosing any of the pedigrees of those hybrids.

The Third Circuit reversed this aspect of the district court’s decision, primarily on the ground that the third-party “foundation” seed companies that sold inbred seeds to the parties (so they could make their hybrids) pretty much told all their customers for inbred seeds which inbred seed varieties to cross-breed in a given agricultural zone, and most customers followed this advice. So the combinations weren’t “secret” at all.

The Third Circuit was also concerned that considering the parentage of the plaintiff’s hybrids to be a trademark could potentially conflict with the Federal Seed Act (FSA). The FSA requires that seeds be sold under their varietal name. Regulations under the FSA require that hybrid designations are treated as varietal names, and that the first company to name a new varietal sets the varietal name that other companies must thereafter follow. So the defendants needed to be able to use their knowledge of the make-up of the plaintiffs’ varietals and the plaintiff’s varietal names to comply with the FSA and associated federal regulations.

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