There is a lot more to trademark law than just brand names and logos. A recent court decision involving the design for the famous KitchenAid stand mixer helps illustrate how far trademark protection can go — and how important that can be in a global economy.
Whirlpool sues two Chinese companies
A U.S. appeals court recently upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of appliance maker Whirlpool against two Chinese firms. Whirlpool, the owner of KitchenAid, accused the Chinese companies Shenzen Avoga and Senzen Sanlida of infringing its trademark rights with the design of two stand mixers that are similar to the American company’s famous KitchenAid mixer.
In their defense, the Chinese companies did not dispute that their mixers looked similar to the KitchenAid model. Instead, they argued that the KitchenAid’s design is merely functional, and that it therefore is ineligible for trademark protection. The appeals court disagreed, finding that there is no evidence that the design of the KitchenAid is purely functional. The court ordered that the Chinese companies stop selling their mixers in the United States.
Functionality and trademark protection
Trademark protects indicators of the source of a product By having exclusive rights to these indicators, a business can differentiate its product from those of its competitors. Common indicators that can be trademarked include brand names, logos, mottos and mascots, but in some cases they may include colors, sounds, smells, shapes and many other qualities that indicate the source and differentiate a product from others like it.
However, trademark ordinarily doesn’t protect machinery designs, recipes, formulas or other functional aspects of a product. Depending on the circumstances, some companies may be able to protect their innovations through patent or copyright, or treat them as trade secrets, but they may not protect them using trademark law.
Thus, some trademark disputes revolve around the question of whether a certain quality of a product is merely part of its function or instead an indicator of source that deserves trademark protection.
As you can see, trademark disputes often involve familiar products, but the legal issues they raise can be technical or even esoteric.