TMEP 1202.02(b): Distinctiveness of Trade Dress

This is the October 2015 Edition of the TMEP

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1202.02(b)    Distinctiveness of Trade Dress

Regardless of whether a proposed trade dress mark is refused as functional under §2(e)(5), the examining attorney must also examine the mark for distinctiveness. Trade dress that is not inherently distinctive and that has not acquired distinctiveness under §2(f) must be refused registration. The statutory basis for the refusal of registration on the Principal Register on the ground that the trade dress is nondistinctive is §§1, 2, and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, and 1127, for trademark applications, or §§1, 2, 3, and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, 1053, and 1127, for service mark applications.

In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v Samara Bros., 529 U.S. 205, 215, 54 USPQ2d 1065, 1069 (2000), the Supreme Court distinguished between two types of trade dress – product design and product packaging. If the trade dress falls within the category of product "design," it can never be inherently distinctive. Id. at 212, 54 USPQ at 1068 (“It seems to us that design, like color, is not inherently distinctive.”). Moreover, the Court held that in close cases in which it is difficult to determine whether the trade dress at issue is product packaging or product design, “courts should err on the side of caution and classify ambiguous trade dress as product design, thereby requiring secondary meaning.” Id. at 215, 54 USPQ2d at 1070; see In re Slokevage, 441 F.3d 957, 78 USPQ2d 1395 (Fed. Cir. 2006). (Note: If the trade dress is functional, it cannot be registered despite acquired distinctiveness. TrafFix Devices, Inc. v. Mktg. Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 33, 58 USPQ2d 1001, 1007 (2001)).

A claim of acquired distinctiveness under §2(f) will not overcome a functionality refusal, but may overcome a nondistinctiveness refusal. For example, if the examining attorney issues a refusal on the basis that a product packaging mark is functional and, in the alternative, is nondistinctive, and the applicant asserts acquired distinctiveness in response, the examining attorney must maintain the previously issued functionality refusal, if appropriate, and determine whether the applicant’s evidence would be sufficient to overcome the nondistinctiveness refusal, if the functionality refusal is ultimately reversed.

If the examining attorney fails to separately address the sufficiency of the applicant’s evidence of acquired distinctiveness, this may be treated as a concession that the evidence would be sufficient to establish distinctiveness, if the mark is ultimately found not to be functional. See In re Dietrich, 91 USPQ2d 1622, 1625 (TTAB 2009) (holding that an examining attorney had “effectively conceded that, assuming the mark is not functional, applicant’s evidence is sufficient to establish that the mark has acquired distinctiveness,” where the examining attorney rejected the applicant’s §2(f) claim on the ground that applicant’s bicycle wheel configuration was functional and thus unregistrable even under §2(f), but did not specifically address the sufficiency of the §2(f) evidence or the question of whether the mark would be registrable under §2(f), if it were ultimately found to be nonfunctional). See TMEP §§1209.02(a)(ii) and 1212.02(i) regarding assertion of acquired distinctiveness in response to an Office action and claiming acquired distinctiveness with respect to incapable matter.