When Similar Trade Dress Is Trademark Infringement

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Trademark law is designed to protect both the producers of goods, and consumers. It essentially prevents one company from using the name or logo of another company to describe its own goods, in a way that would cause consumer confusion. This harms the consumer, because it leads them to buy one product when they think they are buying another, and it harms the other company, because it steals sales from them, and if the imposter product bearing their mark is inferior to the one that they produce, it harms their reputation.

While names and logos are often the subject of trademark law, “trade dress” can also be protected. Trade dress refers to the packaging, configuration, and appearance of a product. These things are often used by consumers to indicate the source of goods. For example, most consumers can identify the unique shape of a Coca-Cola bottle. Knowing that no other company uses that shape for its bottles, most consumers would be able to identify a bottle of Coke even without seeing the label. This is an example of trade dress serving as an indication of source.

If the trade dress of a product is unique, and this uniqueness has led consumers to associate it with a specific product, it is protected by trademark law. No other manufacturer can use similar trade dress if it would cause consumer confusion as to the source of goods. So, if a rival soft drink company started putting its product in a bottle very similar in shape and appearance to the Coca-Cola bottle, they may be liable for trademark infringement, if Coca-Cola could show that this imitation is likely to cause consumer confusion. However, if it is shown that consumers could easily tell the difference between the 2 products, even with the similar bottles, there will be no liability.

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Last Modified: 06-12-2012 11:50 AM PDT

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