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TrafFix Devices Inc v Marketing Displays Inc

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TrafFix? Devices, Inc. v. Marketing Displays, Inc.
532 U.S. 23 (2001)
Supreme Court of the United States

Facts: Robert Sarkisian obtained two utility patents for a mechanism for the dual-spring design he used on outdoor signs to keep them upright despite adverse wind conditions. Marketing Displays, Inc. (P) obtained the rights to the patents and established a business in the manufacture and sale of signs incorporating the patented dual-spring design. After the patent expired, TrafFix? Devices (D), sold sign stands with a spring mechanism that looked like MDI’s.

Lawsuit: MDI sued TrafFix? claiming trade dress protection in the product’s design.

District Court: The district court ruled against P on its trade dress claim stating that the dual-spring design was functional and could not be protected.

Sixth Circuit: The Court of Appeals reversed the trade dress ruling, noting that there was a split among Courts of Appeals in other Circuits on the issue whether the existence of an expired utility patent forecloses the possibility of the patentee’s claiming trade dress protection in the product’s design.
o The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve this conflict.

Rule: The person who asserts trade dress protection ahs the burden of proving that the matter sought to be protected is not functional.

Rule: Trade dress protection may not be claimed for product features that are functional.

Rule: A product feature is functional, and cannot serve as a TM, if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article.

Issue and Holding: Whether the P’s dual-spring design is functional and, therefore, not entitled to trade dress protection?—YES

Reasoning: The springs are necessary to the operation of the device. The dual-spring design serves the purpose of keeping the sign upright even in heavy wind conditions, which cannot be achieved using a single spring.

Judgment: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

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