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Court Pares Protection for Designs

March 20, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court narrowed the protection companies sometimes can claim for the design or packaging of their products.

The court ruled unanimously Tuesday that a company that makes stands for temporary highway signs _ such as ``road work ahead″ _ cannot claim protection under federal law for its mechanism that keeps the signs upright in windy weather.

The justices ruled against Marketing Displays Inc., which makes the sign mechanism, and in favor of its competitor, TrafFix Devices Inc.

Federal law protects the ``trade dress″ _ the design or packaging _ of a product if it is distinctive enough that it serves to identify the manufacturer. Competitors cannot use such designs in a way that is likely to cause confusion about who made the product.

However, such protection cannot be claimed for product features that are functional, rather than serving to identify a product’s manufacturer.

Marketing Displays had a patent on the dual-spring design that holds its signs upright in the wind. The patent expired in 1989, and TrafFix designed and began selling similar traffic sign stands five years later.

Marketing Displays sued TrafFix in 1995, saying it violated Marketing Displays’ trade dress protection. A federal judge in Detroit ruled against Marketing Displays, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and said the company could pursue the trade-dress claim.

The Supreme Court ruled that the appeals court was wrong. The fact that a company once had a patent for a design is ``strong evidence″ that the design was functional and not entitled to trade-dress protection, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.

The justices did not decide whether prior patent protection always means a design cannot be given trade-dress protection. But Kennedy said Marketing Displays had the burden of showing its design was not functional, and it did not do so.

The case is TrafFix Devices v. Marketing Displays, 99-1571.

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On the Net: For the Supreme Court web site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov

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