The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a district court’s decision that a candymaker cannot trademark the shape and colors of watermelon candy, finding that the combined colors and shape of the candy are functional because they help signal to consumers that the candies have a watermelon flavor. PIM Brands Inc. v. Haribo of America, Inc., Case No. 22-2821 (3rd Cir. Sept. 7, 2023) (Chagares, Bibas and Matey, JJ)
PIM is a leading confectionary company that introduced its Sour Jacks Wedges, a chewy gummy candy, in the early 2000s.
PIM obtained a federal trademark registration in “the shape of a wedge for candy, with an upper green section with white speckles, followed by a narrow middle white section and followed by a lower red section with white speckles.”
Haribo, a well-known German confectionery company, introduced its own watermelon-flavored sweet treat in 2019. Like the Sour Jacks Wedges, Haribo’s candy is red, white and green, with an elongated watermelon wedge shape. PIM sued Haribo for trademark and trade dress infringement under the Lanham Act and for unfair competition under New Jersey common law, alleging that Haribo copied PIM’s Sour Jacks Wedges design.
Haribo countered that PIM’s trade dress was functional and requested that the district court cancel PIM’s trademark. Haribo claimed that it designed its chewy candy’s shape and colors to match its flavor (watermelon) and that PIM’s trademark should not have been granted since it closely resembled an actual slice of watermelon. The district court agreed, finding that PIM’s trademark design was functional and not protectable since PIM’s combination of colors and shape helps identify the candy’s watermelon flavor. PIM appealed.
PIM acknowledged that the coloring of its watermelon candy was functional since it identified the candy’s flavor. However, PIM argued that the candy’s wedge shape identified the brand and challenged the district court’s decision because it did not consider the wedge shape in isolation from the colors when assessing functionality.
The Third Circuit rejected PIM’s argument, concluding that each feature of the candy’s trade dress serves a single function, which is to identify its flavor, and therefore is ineligible for trademark protection. The Court explained that a design is functional if it is useful for anything beyond branding. The Court cited to its 2021 decision in Ezaki Glico v. Lotte International America, explaining that “[e]ven if the design chosen both promotes a brand and also ‘makes a product work better,’ it is functional and unprotectable.” The Court went on to explain that if design choices (e.g., shape and color) serve the same function (e.g., identifying the flavor), they should be considered together.
PIM further argued that its Sour Jacks Wedges do not match exactly with watermelon, noting that the bottom could be more curved and have a thinner band of darker green, the wedge could be wider, the point could be sharper and a deeper red, and there could be black seeds. The Third Circuit rejected this argument, noting PIM’s own admission that “because this candy is an impulse buy,” it “do[es]n’t need to be the Mona Lisa.”
In affirming the district court’s decision, the Third Circuit noted that while functionality is a powerful doctrine, it is not a high bar. All the design needs to do is give the product a significant competitive edge beyond identifying its source. The Court explained that PIM may have created the wedge shape to distinguish its product from the rest of the market, but common sense shows that the candy makes consumers think of a slice of watermelon based on both its color scheme and shape. Since PIM’s watermelon candy resembles a slice of watermelon, it is functional and therefore unprotectable.