Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Brothers, Inc., 529 U.S. 205 (2000)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1999

Syllabus

WAL-MART STORES, INC. v. SAMARA BROTHERS, INC.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

No. 99-150. Argued January 19, 2000—Decided March 22, 2000

Respondent Samara Brothers, Inc., designs and manufactures a line of children's clothing. Petitioner Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., contracted with a supplier to manufacture outfits based on photographs of Samara garments. After discovering that Wal-Mart and other retailers were selling the so-called knockoffs, Samara brought this action for, inter alia, infringement of unregistered trade dress under 43(a) of the Trademark Act of 1946 (Lanham Act). The jury found for Samara. Wal-Mart then renewed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to support a conclusion that Samara's clothing designs could be legally protected as distinctive trade dress for purposes of 43(a). The District Court denied the motion and awarded Samara relief. The Second Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion.

Held: In a 43(a) action for infringement of unregistered trade dress, a product's design is distinctive, and therefore protectible, only upon a showing of secondary meaning. Pp. 209-216.

(a) In addition to protecting registered trademarks, the Lanham Act, in 43(a), gives a producer a cause of action for the use by any person of "any . . . symbo[l] or device . . . likely to cause confusion . . . as to the origin . . . of his or her goods." The breadth of the confusion-producing elements actionable under 43(a) has been held to embrace not just word marks and symbol marks, but also "trade dress"—a category that originally included only the packaging, or "dressing," of a product, but in recent years has been expanded by many Courts of Appeals to encompass the product's design. These courts have correctly assumed that trade dress constitutes a "symbol" or "device" for Lanham Act purposes. Although 43(a) does not explicitly require a producer to show that its trade dress is distinctive, courts have universally imposed that requirement, since without distinctiveness the trade dress would not "cause confusion . . . as to . . . origin," as 43(a) requires. In evaluating distinctiveness, courts have differentiated between marks that are inherently distinctive—i. e., marks whose intrinsic nature serves to identify their particular source—and marks that have acquired distinctiveness through secondary meaning—i. e., marks whose primary significance, in the minds of the public, is to identify the product's source rather than

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