This blog recently discussed the inability to protect movement during a sightseeing tour as trade dress (“Emotionally Yours”, 6/2/2020). Other types of trade dress can also have problems.

Forney Industries wanted to register its colorful packaging for welding and machining tools and accessories as trade dress. Forney described the trade dress as “the colors red into yellow with a black banner located near the top as applied to packaging for the goods. The dotted lines merely depict placement of the mark on the packing backer card” (See picture). Forney started using this packaging in 2008.

The USPTO refused registration. The USPTO decided that the packaging wasn’t inherently distinctive without a showing of secondary meaning. Secondary meaning is when the consumer sees a connection with a descriptive mark and the goods or source of the goods. Forney argued that the colors on its packaging was inherently distinctive and not merely descriptive. So it doesn’t have to show that the trade dress acquired secondary meaning. The USPTO rejected this argument.

Forney appealed. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) affirmed the USPTO. The Board held that packaging can be inherently distinctive. But a color mark applied to packaging cannot be inherently distinctive unless it’s applied to a specific shape.

Forney appealed to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. The Federal Circuit rejected the Board’s holding that color on packaging cannot be inherently distinctive. The Federal Circuit held the Board must review the relevant factors to determine whether “it is reasonable to assume that customers in the relevant market will perceive the trade dress as an indicator of source.” Those factors are whether the trade dress: (1) is a common, basic shape or design; (2) is unique or unusual in the particular field; (3) is a mere refinement of a commonly adopted and well-known form or ornamentation for a particular class of goods; or (4) is capable of creating a commercial impression distinct from any accompanying words.

Forney didn’t exactly win the day yet because the application has to go back to the Board for an evaluation of the factors.

WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. Inherent distinctiveness must always be viewed from the perspective of the consumer. The factors cited by the Federal Circuit give a handy set of consumer based factors. So when adopting trade dress as a source or product identifier, keep these factors in mind.