Colorful Non-Functionality Argument Misses the (Design) Mark

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Addressing the functionality of colors in design marks, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s entry of judgment for a trademark owner on its unfair competition and trademark claims, ruling that where color is used as an indicator of size or parts matching, it is functional and does not qualify as trade dress. Sulzer Mixpac AG v. A&N Trading Co., Case No. 19-2951 (2d Cir. Feb. 18, 2021) (Pooler, J.)

Sulzer Mixpac and A&N Trading are competitors that manufacture and supply mixing tips, which dentists use to create impressions of teeth for dental procedures. Mixpac obtained trademarks for the colors yellow, teal, blue, pink, purple and brown (collectively, the Candy Colors) as applied to mixing tips. Mixpac filed suit against A&N, claiming unfair competition; common law trademark infringement; and trademark infringement, trademark counterfeiting and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act. A&N countersued, claiming that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors on mixing tips was functional and therefore not entitled to trademark protection. The district court concluded that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors was non-functional (based in part on the increased cost of adding color to the mixing tips, and noting that other competitors used clear tips), and entered judgment and a permanent injunction in favor of Mixpac. A&N appealed.

The Second Circuit reversed, explaining that the district court erred by failing to apply the Louboutin three-part aesthetic functionality test to Mixpac’s marks. Under the Louboutin test, to determine whether a design feature is non-functional and thus entitled to trademark protection, courts look to whether the design feature (1) is “essential to the use or purpose” of the product, (2) “affects the cost or quality” of the product, and (3) has a significant effect on competition. A&N argued that the mixing tips’ color coding helps users identify useful product characteristics, such as diameter, and that it aids users in selecting the correct tip. Applying the Louboutin test in the first instance and citing trial testimony, the Second Circuit concluded that the colors signify diameter, which assists users when selecting the proper cartridge, as the colors “enable users to quickly match the proper mixing tip with the proper cartridge, and (citing Louboutin) thereby ‘improve[] the operation of the goods.'”

Practice Note: In trade dress cases, be sure to apply the Louboutin three-part aesthetic functionality test. Failure to do so may lead to reversal on appeal. In this case, the Second Circuit noted that “[t]he district court erred because it did not apply this test when it considered only that Mixpac’s use of the Candy Colors adds to manufacturing costs and that other companies use different or no colors.”

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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