TMEP 1202.02(a)(v)(C): Availability of Alternative Designs in Functionality Determinations

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1202.02(a)(v)(C)    Availability of Alternative Designs in Functionality Determinations

An applicant attempting to rebut a prima facie case of functionality will often submit evidence of alternative designs to demonstrate that there is no "competitive need" in the industry for the applicant’s particular product design. See TMEP §1202.02(a)(iii)(A). In order to be probative, the alternative design evidence must pertain to the same category of goods as the applicant’s goods. See, e.g., In re Zippo Mfg. Co., 50 USPQ2d 1852, 1854 (TTAB 1999); In re EBSCO Indus. Inc., 41 USPQ2d 1917, 1920 (TTAB 1997).

However, in TrafFix Devices, Inc. v. Mktg. Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 58 USPQ2d 1001 (2001), the Supreme Court clearly indicated that if the record shows that a design is essential to the use or purpose of a product, or if it affects the cost or quality of the product, it is unnecessary to consider whether there is a competitive need for the product feature. The Court explained:

[W]e have said "in general terms, a product feature is functional, and cannot serve as a trademark, if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article." Expanding upon the meaning of this phrase, we have observed that a functional feature is one the "exclusive use of [which] would put competitors at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage." The Court of Appeals in the instant case seemed to interpret this language to mean that a necessary test for functionality is "whether the particular product configuration is a competitive necessity."... This was incorrect as a comprehensive definition. As explained in Qualitex, supra, and Inwood, supra, a feature is also functional when it is essential to the use or purpose of the device or when it affects the cost or quality of the device... Where the design is functional under the Inwood formulation there is no need to proceed further to consider if there is a competitive necessity for the feature.

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There is no need, furthermore, to engage, as did the Court of Appeals, in speculation about other design possibilities, such as using three or four springs which might serve the same purpose. Here, the functionality of the spring design means that competitors need not explore whether other spring juxtapositions might be used. The dual-spring design is not an arbitrary flourish in the configuration of MDI’s product; it is the reason the device works. Other designs need not be attempted (emphasis added).

TrafFix, 532 U.S. at 32-34, 58 USPQ2d at 1006-1007 (citations and additional internal quotations omitted); see also In re Becton, Dickinson & Co., 675 F.3d 1368, 1376, 102 USPQ2d 1372, 1378 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (quoting Valu Eng’g Inc. v. Rexnord Corp., 278 F.3d 1268, 1276, 61 USPQ2d 1422, 1427 (Fed. Cir. 2002)) ("[I]f functionality is found based on other considerations, there is ‘no need to consider the availability of alternative designs, because the feature cannot be given trade dress protection merely because there are alternative designs available.’").

Nonetheless, since the preservation of competition is an important policy underlying the functionality doctrine, competitive need generally remains an important factor in a functionality determination. See Valu Eng'g, Inc., 278 F.3d at 1277, 61 USPQ2d at 1428 ("[I]n determining ‘functionality,’ the Board must assess the effect registration of a mark would have on competition.").

Accordingly, the examining attorney should request information about alternative designs in the initial Office action, pursuant to 37 C.F.R. §2.61(b), i.e., inquire whether alternative designs are available for the feature embodied in the proposed mark and whether the alternatives are more costly to produce.

Where the evidence indicates that the applicant’s configuration is the best or one of a few superior designs available, this evidence will strongly support a finding of functionality. See, e.g., In re Dietrich, 91 USPQ2d 1622, 1636 (TTAB 2009) ("[T]he question is not whether there are alternative designs that perform the same basic function, but whether the available designs work ‘equally well.’") (citation omitted); In re N.V. Organon, 79 USPQ2d 1639, 1645-46 (TTAB 2006) (concluding that, since the record showed that orange flavor is one of the most popular flavors for medicine, it cannot be said that there are true or significant number of alternatives); In re Gibson Guitar Corp., 61 USPQ2d 1948, 1951 (TTAB 2001) (finding that applicant had not shown there were alternative guitar shapes that could produce the same sound as applicant’s configuration, and noting that the record contained an advertisement obtained from the website of a competitor, whose guitar appeared to be identical in shape to applicant’s configuration, which stated that the shape of the guitar produces a better sound).

A configuration of a product or its packaging that embodies a superior design feature and provides a competitive advantage to the user is functional. In N.V. Organon, 79 USPQ2d at 1648-49, the Board found that by masking the unpleasant taste of the medicinal ingredients in pharmaceuticals, "flavor performs a utilitarian function that cannot be monopolized without hindering competition in the pharmaceutical trade. To allow registration of ‘an orange flavor’ as a trademark would give applicant potentially perpetual protection for this flavor, resulting in hindrance of competition."

Functionality may be established by a single competitively significant application in the recited identification of goods, even if there is no anticompetitive effect in other areas of use, since competitors in that single area could be adversely affected. Valu Eng'g, 278 F.3d at 1278, 61 USPQ2d at 1428 ("[I]f the Board identifies any competitively significant single use in the recited identification of goods for which the mark as a whole is functional, the Board should deny registration.").

If evidence shows the existence of a number of functionally equivalent alternative designs that work "equally well," such that competitors do not need applicant’s design to compete effectively, this factor may not support functionality. Dietrich, 91 USPQ2d at 1636, citing Valu Eng'g, 278 F.3d at 1276, 61 USPQ2d at 1427. However, once deemed functional under other Morton-Norwich factors, the claimed trade dress cannot be registered merely because there are functionally equivalent alternative designs. Valu Eng'g, 278 F.3d at 1276, 61 USPQ2d at 1427. Existence of comparable alternative designs does not transform a functional design into a nonfunctional design. Id.