Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., Inc.

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Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., Inc.
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 9, 1995
Decided March 28, 1995
Full case name Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., Inc.
Citations 514 U.S. 159 (more)
115 S. Ct. 1300; 131 L. Ed. 2d 248; 1995 U.S. LEXIS 2408; 63 U.S.L.W. 4227; 34 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1161; 95 Cal. Daily Op. Service 2249; 95 Daily Journal DAR 3867; 8 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 653
Prior history C.D. Cal. found for plaintiff, 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21172; judgment set aside by the Ninth Circuit, 13 F.3d 1297 (1994), reversed
Holding
Under the Lanham Act, a color can be registered as a trademark. Individual colors, however, cannot be deemed "inherently distinctive," so the registrant must demonstrate that the color has acquired "secondary meaning" in consumers' minds as indicating the source of the registrant's goods.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Breyer, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Lanham Act

Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., Inc., 514 U.S. 159 (1995), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that a color could meet the legal requirements for trademark registration under the Lanham Act, provided that it has acquired secondary meaning in the market.

Facts and Procedural History[edit]

Plaintiff Qualitex Co. had used a green-gold color for the pads which it sold to dry cleaning firms to use in their dry cleaning presses. Defendant Jacobson Products Co. was a rival of Qualitex. In 1989, Jacobson began selling their own pads to dry cleaners which were a similar color to those of Qualitex. In response, Qualitex filed a lawsuit against Jacobson in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for unfair competition. In 1991, Qualitex registered the green-gold color of its pads with the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a trademark, and subsequently added a trademark infringement count to its lawsuit. The District Court found for Qualitex, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit set aside the judgment, on the grounds that color alone could not be registered as a trademark.

Decision[edit]

Justice Breyer, writing for a unanimous court, overturned the Ninth Circuit’s decision, holding that the Lanham Act was very broad in its definition of what a trademark could be. The definition section of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1127, defines trademarks as including “any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof”. Breyer reasoned that colors could constitute descriptive trademarks, because while colors do not automatically evoke a connection to any product by themselves, they could take on secondary meaning over time, in the course of use in the marketplace. In this way, a color could serve the chief purpose of trademarks, that of identifying the source of a particular product.

Breyer also determined that the functionality doctrine was no bar to the registration of the plaintiff’s color as a trademark. He determined that a product feature is only functional “if it is essential to the purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article”. 514 U.S. at 165. The color in this case acted purely as a symbol, and served no other purpose. Jacobson argued that there are only a limited number of colors that could be used for the products at issue here, and that many colors are very similar looking, but Breyer dismissed this concern, saying that if the defendant’s concerns were proven to be valid, the functionality doctrine would then come into play. Breyer further held that a color could be trademarked separately from any trade dress protection.

See also[edit]

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