Trademark law is designed to protect both the producer of a good 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. Consumer confusion is harmful to consumers as it can cause a consumer to buy one product, when they think they are buying another. It also harms companies, because an imposter product steals sales from the original company and if the imposter product is inferior, it can harm the original company's reputation.
What Is Trade Dress?
While names and logos are often protected under trademark law, "trade dress" can also be protected. Trade dress refers to the packaging, configuration, and appearance of a product, things that are often used by consumers to indicate the source of the 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 the 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 can show that this imitation is likely to cause consumer confusion. However, if it is shown that consumers can easily tell the difference between the two products, even if the bottles are similar, there will be no liability for trademark infringement.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
When it comes to trademarks it is often difficult for a non-lawyer to tell if there has actually been an infringement. This is why it is important to consult with an experienced intellectual property lawyer if you feel that your mark has been infringed upon or if you have been accused of trademark infringement.