TMEP 1202.02(a)(vi): Aesthetic Functionality

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1202.02(a)(vi)    Aesthetic Functionality

"Aesthetic functionality" refers to situations where the feature may not provide a truly utilitarian advantage in terms of product performance, but provides other competitive advantages. For example, in Brunswick Corp. v. British Seagull Ltd., 35 F.3d 1527, 1531, 1533, 32 USPQ2d 1120, 1122, 1124 (Fed. Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1050 (1995), the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s determination that the color black for outboard motors was functional because, while it had no utilitarian effect on the mechanical working of the engines, it nevertheless provided other identifiable competitive advantages, i.e., ease of coordination with a variety of boat colors and reduction in the apparent size of the engines.

The concept of "aesthetic functionality" (as opposed to "utilitarian functionality") has for many years been the subject of much confusion. While the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (the predecessor to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit) appeared to reject the doctrine of aesthetic functionality in In re DC Comics, Inc., 689 F.2d 1042, 1047-1050, 215 USPQ 394, 399-401 (C.C.P.A. 1982), the Supreme Court later referred to aesthetic functionality as a valid legal concept in TrafFix Devices, Inc. v. Mktg. Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 33, 58 USPQ2d 1001, 1006 (2001). The confusion regarding aesthetic functionality stems in part from widespread misuse of the term "aesthetic functionality" in cases involving ornamentation issues, with some courts having mistakenly expanded the category of "functional" marks to include matter that is solely ornamental, essentially on the theory that such matter serves an "aesthetic function" or "ornamentation function." It is this incorrect use of the term "aesthetic functionality" in connection with ornamentation cases that was rejected by the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. See In re DC Comics, Inc., 689 F.2d 1042, 1047-1050, 215 USPQ 394, 397, 399-401 (C.C.P.A. 1982) (majority opinion and Rich, J., concurring) (holding, in a case involving features of toy dolls, that the Board had improperly "intermingled the concepts of utilitarian functionality and what has been termed ‘aesthetic functionality;’" and rejecting the concept of aesthetic functionality where it is used as a substitute for "the more traditional source identification principles of trademark law," such as the ornamentation and functionality doctrines).

Where the issue presented is whether the proposed mark is ornamental in nature, it is improper to refer to "aesthetic functionality," because the doctrine of "functionality" is inapplicable to such cases. The proper refusal is that the matter is ornamental and, thus, does not function as a mark under §§1, 2, and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, and 1127. See TMEP §§1202.03-1202.03(g) regarding ornamentation.

The Supreme Court’s use of the term "aesthetic functionality" in the TrafFix case appears limited to cases where the issue is one of actual functionality, but where the nature of the proposed mark makes it difficult to evaluate the functionality issue from a purely utilitarian standpoint. This is the case with color marks and product features that enhance the attractiveness of the product. The color or feature does not normally give the product a truly utilitarian advantage (in terms of making the product actually perform better), but may still be found to be functional because it provides other real and significant competitive advantages and, thus, should remain in the public domain. See Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Prods. Co., 514 U.S. 159, 165, 34 USPQ2d 1161, 1163-1164 (1995) (stating that a product color might be considered functional if its exclusive use "would put competitors at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage," even where the color was not functional in the utilitarian sense).

In M-5 Steel Mfg., Inc. v. O’Hagin’s Inc., 61 USPQ2d 1086, 1096 (TTAB 2001), the Board considered the proper use of the aesthetic functionality doctrine in connection with product designs for metal ventilating ducts and vents for tile or concrete roofs:

This case seems to involve elements of both utilitarian and aesthetic functionality. Here, for example, there is evidence of utility in applicant’s patent application, as well as statements touting the superiority of applicant’s design in applicant’s promotional literature, and statements that applicant’s design results in reduced costs of installation. On the other hand, there is no question that applicant’s roof designs which match the appearance of surrounding roof tiles are more pleasing in appearance because the venting tiles in each case are unobtrusive.

Citing extensively from the TrafFix, Qualitex, and Brunswick cases, the Board concluded that the product designs were functional for a combination of utilitarian and aesthetic reasons. Id. at 1097.

Note that this type of functionality determination – while employed in connection with a normally "aesthetic" feature such as color – is a proper use of the functionality doctrine, necessitating a §2(e)(5) refusal where the evidence establishes that a color or other matter at issue provides identifiable competitive advantages and, thus, should remain in the public domain. In In re Florists’ Transworld Delivery Inc., 106 USPQ2d 1784 (TTAB 2013), for example, the record included evidence reflecting that, in the floral industry, color has significance and communicates particular messages (e.g., elegance, bereavement, Halloween), which extend to floral packaging. The Board found, therefore, that the examining attorney had demonstrated a competitive need for others in the industry to use black in connection with floral arrangements and packaging therefor and concluded that the proposed mark was functional under §2(e)(5). This is the opposite of an ornamentation refusal, where the matter at issue serves no identifiable purpose other than that of pure decoration.

Generally speaking, examining attorneys should exercise caution in the use of the term "aesthetic functionality," in light of the confusion that historically has surrounded this issue. In most situations, reference to aesthetic functionality will be unnecessary, since a determination that the matter sought to be registered is purely ornamental in nature will result in an ornamentation refusal under §§1, 2, and 45 of the Trademark Act, and a determination that the matter sought to be registered is functional will result in a functionality refusal under §2(e)(5). Use of the term "aesthetic functionality" may be appropriate in limited circumstances where the proposed mark presents issues similar to those involved in the Florists’ Transworld Delivery, M-5 Steel, and Brunswick cases discussed above – i.e., where the issue is one of true functionality under §2(e)(5), but where the nature of the mark makes the functionality determination turn on evidence of particular competitive advantages that are not necessarily categorized as "utilitarian" in nature. Any such use of the term "aesthetic functionality" should be closely tied to a discussion of specific competitive advantages resulting from use of the proposed mark at issue, so that it is clear that the refusal is properly based on the functionality doctrine and not on an incorrect use of "aesthetic functionality" to mean ornamentation.

See TMEP §§1202.05 and 1202.05(b) for additional discussion and case references regarding the functionality issue in connection with color marks.