The Ninth Circuit rules in favor of furniture designer Herman Miller in his trade dress infringement lawsuit against a manufacturer of copies of imitation Eames and Aeron office chairs. The court upholds a jury finding that the commercial trim on the Eames chair is non-functional and overturns the district court’s erroneous instructions on the aesthetic functionality of the Aeron chair, ordering a new trial. However, the court overturned the jury’s conclusion on the dilution of the trademark of the Eames chair, finding that the evidence of Herman Miller was insufficient to exceed the high threshold of the household’s reputation. The case is Blumenthal Distributing, Inc. v Herman Miller, Inc., 963 F.3d 859 (9th Cir. 2020).
American furniture maker Herman Miller took legal action against Blumenthal Distributing, Inc. (d / b / a Office Star Products) for selling imitation office chairs that closely resembled the famous Eames and Aeron office chairs from Herman Miller, as shown below:
|Eames chairs||Aeron chair|
Herman Miller sued Office Star in United States District Court for the Central District of California for violation and dilution of its registered and unregistered trade dress in the Eames and Aeron chair models. A jury trial ruled in favor of Herman Miller for his Eames design, finding the Eames trade dress was non-functional and awarded nearly $ 3.4 million for willful trademark infringement and $ 3 million dollars for dilution. The jury, however, convicted Herman Miller for his Aeron design, ruling that the trade dress was functional and not protectable, with the district court ordering the cancellation of the registration of the Aeron trade dress in the United States Patent & Trademark. Office. Both parties appealed.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit (1) upheld the judgment in favor of Herman Miller on the infringement claim for Eames trade dress, (2) reversed the judgment in favor of Office Star on the Aeron trade dress, and was sent back for a new trial, and (3) reversed the judgment in favor of Herman Miller on the dilution claim for Eames trade dress.
- Breach of Eames business dress – Limiting its analysis to utility functionality alone (according to the Office Star briefing), the Ninth Circuit found that just because the Eames chair contains certain utility features does not mean that the chair’s overall appearance is functional in law. Herman Miller also presented extensive evidence, including publicity material touting the chairs’ distinctive design and testimony from the company’s own industrial design expert, demonstrating that the overall appearance of the Eames chair was the result of non-utilitarian design choices. and incorporated features chosen in large part for their aesthetic impact.
- Breach of Aeron business dress – The Ninth Circuit claimed that the district court misstated the aesthetic functionality law in its instructions to the jury, clarifying that a feature is not functional simply by being “part of the actual benefit that consumers wish to purchase when they buy the product ”. Although the jury charge was based on model instructions for the circuit, the Ninth Circuit canceled and returned for a new trial because the instruction did not faithfully reflect the existing jurisprudence on functionality and Office Star did not established that this error was harmless.
- Eames Commercial Coat Dilution – The Ninth Circuit pointed out that the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2006 eliminated niche notoriety as the basis of protection against dilution and established that a mark should be “widely recognized by the general consumer public in the United States as a source designation ”. Despite Herman Miller’s evidence of around $ 550,000 a year in advertising spending and the appearance of the chairs in several publications, museums, and television programs, including the hit show Mad Men, the court ruled that Herman Miller did not meet the high standard of “familiar name” for establishing reputation. A panel judge disagreed with this finding, saying she believed Herman Miller’s testimony sufficiently established “the household’s reputation”, especially since the general consumer public is not required to may Last name trademark holder, as the majority opinion seemed to suggest.
Key points to remember
Appeals courts have recently seen an increase in written opinions on the functionality of trade dress and this recent Ninth Circuit ruling reaffirms the proposition that mere inclusion of functional elements in trade dress does not make its overall appearance functional. . This principle aligns with a 2019 decision from the Seventh Circuit – Bodum USA, Inc. v A Top New Casting, Inc. – whereas the assessment of functionality is not simply whether an item of trade dress is generally ‘functional’, but rather whether design of this element is functional.
Further, the ruling reveals the Ninth Circuit’s incredibly high standard for establishing fame for dilution purposes, particularly when a panelist felt that “proof of the cultural significance of trade dress” can establish fame. . Herman Miller provides ample evidence of its cultural impact, its “ubiquity” in modern office environments, and prominent features of renowned museums and television shows, but this was insufficient for the majority of the panel.
* significant contribution from Erica Brackett.
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