Electrolux turned the tables on former distributor-turned-competitor Imig, Inc., which filed a complaint against the famous vacuum and home appliance company, for interfering with relationships with perspective customers. Electrolux filed several counterclaims, alleging that Imig copied Electrolux’s protected trade dress, copyright protected user manuals, and that Imig made false claims in its advertising.
The district court dismissed all of Imig’s claims on summary judgment, and found for Electrolux on copyright infringement and false advertising. The court found that Imig had copied the user manuals in violation of U.S. Copyright law. From a false advertising perspective, the court found that specific numerically based claims about the Imig vacuum’s superiority were false on their face, because the products did not actually meet those objective standards. The remaining counterclaims proceeded to trial. On March 31, 2008, the court issued its finding that Electrolux had not met its burden of establishing a protectable trade dress in its vacuum and therefore, did not find Imig liable.
The facts show that Imig, afraid that it would lose its distributorship of the Electrolux SANITAIRE brand, developed its PERFECT brand vacuum as a replacement. Discovery produced evidence of copying: in creating the PERFECT design, Imig referred its Chinese manufacturer to the specifications of the SANITAIRE line. It was also revealed that Imig’s patent attorney sent a letter to a patent research company noting his clients’ desire “to make a private label vacuum cleaner that is virtually identical in appearance” to defendant’s vacuum. The court also noted numerous visual similarities between the SANITAIRE vacuum and the PERFECT vacuum.
Notwithstanding Imid’s clear intent to copy, the court did not find liability. The court noted that Electrolux had not met its burden of establishing trade dress infringement. In order to establish trade dress infringement, the court wrote, a company must show that the product design is distinctive and that consumers are likely to be confused by seeing the distinctive trade dress on another product. The court held that the elements claimed by Electrolux were functional in nature, and that the company had not proved otherwise, despite Electrolux’s survey evidence showing consumers recognized the various elements of the vacuum as being uniquely from the SANITAIRE brand. The court also determined that secondary meaning had not been established, even though the product had been in use for several years. Addressing the issue of confusion, the court, citing Cadbury Beverages, Inc. v. Cott Corp. determined that Eletrolux had to show a “probability – not merely a ‘possibility’ – of confusion,” a burden that it also did not meet. Even with the victory on the copyright and false advertising claims, we’re guessing Electrolux thinks the decision, well, sucks.
Practice Note: One method of distinguishing trade dress elements is to use “look for” advertising tactics in marketing the products. If a product contains non-functional elements that truly distinguish the product, a company can generate recognition around those features by directing clients to look for them when they make a purchase. Such use may be more persuasive than survey evidence in making clear to both customers and competitors what elements of a design are trade dress.