Monday, September 21, 2009

Couple of Marginally Interesting TM Decisions (9th Cir. and Fed. Cir.)

Hey, They Copied My Product Idea and Owe Me Mega-$$

First, a Ninth Circuit decision dealing with the familiar and usually unsuccessful case of someone claiming that a defendant copied their idea for what ultimately became a tremendously successful product. At issue in Art Attacks Ink, LLC v. MGA Entertainment Inc., No. 07-56110 (9th Cir. Sept. 16, 2009) were the popular line of BRATZ dolls. The court shot down the plaintiff’s copyright claim because the plaintiff had insufficient evidence of copying or access by the defendants. The plaintiff’s trade dress claim foundered on the shoals of inadequate proof of secondary meaning.

Numbers as Secondary Trademarks

Hidden in the middle of the patent decision in Vita-Mix Corp. v. Basic Holding, Inc., No. 2008-1479 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 16, 2009), was the Federal Circuit’s discussion of whether the asserted trademark—here, the numerical designation 5000—functioned as a trademark or merely as a “grade designation.” The plaintiff used the number in the mark “Vita-Mix® 5000,” to distinguish it from the plaintiff’s previous products, the “Vita-Mix® 3600” and “Vita-Mix® 4500.” Given that the plaintiff didn't use the number apart from the mark “Vita-Mix® 5000,” and in light of plaintiff’s concession that the number served only to differentiate from the two previous “Vita-Mix®” products, the Federal Circuit held that "5000" reflected only the “style or grade” of product and possessed neither inherent nor acquired distinctiveness.

Commentary: The Vita-Mix case touches upon, but doesn’t really discuss, an issue that has always intrigued me: the tension between the numbers=style/grade “presumption” (if you can call it that) and the principle that a product can bear more than one trademark. Think, for example, whether the numbers in the following designations are trademarks or mere style/grade designations: BMW 530, BOEING 767, MITCHELL 300. There are probably circumstances at which a number used in this manner becomes a separately protectable trademark, but I’ve never had the opportunity to research exactly where that line is drawn.

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