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Court To Clarify Design Protection

October 4, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court agreed Monday to use a dispute involving Wal-Mart Stores to clarify when a product’s design is distinctive enough to qualify for legal protection.

The court said it will hear Wal-Mart’s argument that it did not improperly copy the design used by another company that manufactures children’s clothing.

In 1995, Wal-Mart hired a firm to make children’s clothing to be sold under the Wal-Mart label and modeled after a design used by Samara Brothers, a children’s clothing manufacturer. According to court papers, Wal-Mart paperwork used in planning for the order shows photos of garments bearing the Samara label.

Samara sued Wal-Mart, alleging infringement of Samara’s copyright and of its products’ distinctive design, or ``trade dress.″

A jury ruled for Samara and awarded $912,856 in damages for copyright infringement and $240,458 for trade dress infringement.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the damages for copyright infringement and all but $68,633 of the award for trade dress violation. The court said there was enough evidence to show that ``Wal-Mart’s marketing of the knockoffs was willful piracy with an intent to deceive consumers as to the source″ of the product.

In the appeal granted Supreme Court review Monday, Wal-Mart’s lawyers said the appeals court’s ruling would reduce competition in the $100 billion garment industry. Samara was granted trade dress protection for ``a collection of designs that lacked a common theme,″ the lawyers said.

Samara’s lawyers said the company’s clothes were distinctive and that a Wal-Mart official said on the witness stand that ``he recognized garments with ‘the Samara type of look’ even without looking at the labels.″

The case is Wal-Mart Stores vs. Samara Brothers, 99-150.

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