It is extremely important for companies to protect their intellectual property. Developing a comprehensive intellectual property plan is essential to protecting your investment and protecting your consumers from confusion. Trademarking your brand names, slogans and company name as well as copyrighting blog content, original imagery, and other original works of authorship are commonly know areas of focus for companies and entrepreneurs. You want to be in control of your brand, your content and your creations.
Now, according to one federal court, companies can use trademark law to protect the unique look and feel of their websites from imitators. As a result of this ruling, companies should consider registering their websites as trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (the “USPTO”).
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently ruled in Ingrid & Isabel, Inc. v. Baby Be Mine, LLC, No. 13-01806 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 1, 2014) that the look and feel of a website used to market and sell products and services can constitute protectable trade dress under Section 43 of the Lanham Act. See 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) (2012). Trade dress, a derivative of trademark law, protects the total image of a business or product, including the arrangement of identifying features such as graphics, packaging, designs, shapes, colors, textures, and décor.
This is an important development for companies seeking to protect their brand online. Your website is an important part of your brand as a company. It is often a customer’s first impression and point of sale. Previous case-law suggested that a website could constitute protectable trade dress only if the website itself was the product. See Conference Archives, Inc. v. Sound Images, Inc., No. 06-00076, 2010 WL 1626072 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010) The Ingrid & Isabel case provides an opportunity to expand those protections. This decision is reminiscent of the USPTO allowing Apple, Inc. to register a trademark for the design and layout of its unique retail stores. Your website is in effect your online store. This is a great example of the law starting to catch up with the times. Companies seeking to take advantage of this protection must make sure their website is 1)distinctive or has acquired secondary meaning and is 2) nonfunctional.
- The court noted that the “Supreme Court has held that ‘design, like color is not inherently distinctive’ [citing a case involving Wal-Mart.] Given the conceptual similarity between ‘look and feel’ and ‘design,’ Wal-Mart suggests that Plaintiff must show that its website‘s ‘look and feel’ is distinctive through its secondary meaning.” This eludes to the fact that the design of a website is not “inherently” distinct. You want to secure these protections before someone seeks to copy your website. However, per previous case-law “secondary meaning may be inferred from evidence of deliberate copying of the trade dress…” Therefore, if you can show that your competitor deliberately copied your website, that will help to support your claim for acquired distinctiveness.
- Functional elements cannot be protected as trade dress. However, according to the court in Ingrid & Isabel “the placement and arrangement of functional elements can produce a non-functional aesthetic whole.”
This is also an important decision from a cybersecurity perspective. Most consumers are lured into phishing and other fraud scams when malicious actors mimic the look and feel of a brand’s website. Armed with a similar site they can lure unsuspecting consumers to insert personally identifiable information and financial data into their fake site. This can result in identity theft and financial loss. This is another tool in a trademark owner or company’s arsenal to combat fraud and protect their customers.
If your website is distinct, talk to an attorney about protecting it. This is an important consideration and should be part of developing a comprehensive intellectual property plan.
Trade dress protection has existed for decades, but its usefulness for websites and other Internet-based applications has been limited. It will be interesting to see how courts continue to apply the law to websites, mobile apps, and other non-traditional mediums.
Note that the court didn’t determine the ultimate outcome of this case; that’s still in dispute. This ruling merely allowed Ingrid & Isabel’s claim on this point to proceed to trial.