Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., 514 U.S. 159, 13 (1995)

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Cite as: 514 U. S. 159 (1995)

Opinion of the Court

merchant in order to designate the goods he manufactures or sells to distinguish the same from those manufactured or sold by another." McLean v. Fleming, 96 U. S. 245, 254. Yet, in interpreting the Trademark Acts of 1881 and 1905, 21 Stat. 502, 33 Stat. 724, which retained that common-law definition, the Court questioned "[w]hether mere color can constitute a valid trade-mark," A. Leschen & Sons Rope Co. v. Broderick & Bascom Rope Co., 201 U. S. 166, 171 (1906), and suggested that the "product including the coloring matter is free to all who make it," Coca-Cola Co. v. Koke Co. of America, 254 U. S. 143, 147 (1920). Even though these statements amounted to dicta, lower courts interpreted them as forbidding protection for color alone. See, e. g., Campbell Soup Co., 175 F. 2d, at 798, and n. 9; Life Savers Corp. v. Curtiss Candy Co., 182 F. 2d 4, 9 (CA7 1950) (quoting Campbell Soup, supra, at 798).

These Supreme Court cases, however, interpreted trademark law as it existed before 1946, when Congress enacted the Lanham Act. The Lanham Act significantly changed and liberalized the common law to "dispense with mere technical prohibitions," S. Rep. No. 1333, 79th Cong., 2d Sess., 3 (1946), most notably, by permitting trademark registration of descriptive words (say, "U-Build-It" model airplanes) where they had acquired "secondary meaning." See Abercrombie & Fitch Co., 537 F. 2d, at 9 (Friendly, J.). The Lanham Act extended protection to descriptive marks by making clear that (with certain explicit exceptions not relevant here)

"nothing . . . shall prevent the registration of a mark used by the applicant which has become distinctive of the applicant's goods in commerce." 15 U. S. C. 1052(f) (1988 ed., Supp. V).

This language permits an ordinary word, normally used for a nontrademark purpose (e. g., description), to act as a trademark where it has gained "secondary meaning." Its logic

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