Cookie Trade Dress Infringement Case Crumbles in Face of Functionality Challenge

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The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that trade dress protection did not extend to the design of a chocolate-dipped, stick-shaped cookie, because the product configuration was useful. Ezaki Glico Kabushiki Kaisha v. Lotte Int’l America Corp., Case No. 19-3010 (3d Cir. Oct. 8, 2020) (Bibas, J.).

Ezaki Glico is a Japanese confectionary company that makes and sells the snack food Pocky, which is a thin, stick-shaped cookie with one side dipped in chocolate (or a flavored cream) and the other uncoated. Pocky cookies have been sold in the United States for more than 40 years, during which time Ezaki Glico obtained two trade dress registrations for the Pocky design and a patent for a “Stick Shaped Snack and Method for Producing the Same.”

In 2015, Ezaki Glico sued its competitor, Lotte, alleging that Lotte’s similarly designed cookie, Pepero, infringed the Pocky trade dress. The district court granted Lotte’s motion for summary judgment, finding the Pocky product configuration functional and therefore not protected by trade dress. Ezaki Glico appealed.

Ezaki Glico argued that the Pocky trade dress is not functional because it is not essential to its design. The Third Circuit disagreed, stating “that test is too narrow.” The Court explained that functionality applies to features that are useful, even if they are not necessarily essential. The Court enumerated four indicators of functionality:

  • Evidence that the feature or design makes the relevant product work better
  • Examples of marketing materials touting the usefulness of the feature or design
  • Existence of a utility patent
  • Availability of other designs.

The Third Circuit found that most of these factors supported the finding of functionality. First, the design makes the product work better because “[e]very feature of Pocky’s registration relates to the practical functions of holding, eating, sharing, or packing the snack.” Ezaki Glico’s advertisements also promoted the functional features of Pocky’s design: they featured phrases such as “convenient design,” “the no mess handle of the Pocky Stick,” and “easier for multi-tasking without getting chocolate on your hand.” Likewise, the Court was unpersuaded by Ezaki Glico’s evidence of alternative designs, finding that “[e]very aspect of Pocky is useful. The nine other designs do not make it less so.”

The existence of the utility patent, however, was not a supporting factor in the functionality analysis. The Third Circuit explained that “the patent’s innovation is a better method for making the snack’s stick shape. The method is useful for making the shape whether or not the shape itself is useful for anything.” Although the district court improperly considered this factor in its analysis, the Third Circuit noted that the misstep was “immaterial” given that the district court ultimately reached the correct conclusion.

Practice Note: It is not necessary for a design feature to be essential for it to be considered functional. Trade dress may be considered functional—and therefore not protectable via trademark law—if it is merely useful to the design.

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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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