Herman Miller, Inc. – a leading furniture brand and purveyor of the iconic Eames Chair Design – suffered a loss at US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) in its bid to protect as “trade dress” the design of the chair. The case involves a well-known chair design dating from the 1940’s, by designers Ray and Charles Eames. The chair ultimately was recognized by Time Magazine as the Best Design of the 20th Century, and now is in the design collections of numerous museums. Herman Miller sought registration of most of the chair’s configuration as a mark, depicted in more than one view, for “furniture, namely, chairs.”

The court weighed each of the Morton-Norwich factors, concluding that the proposed three-dimensional product configuration as a whole indicates that it is functional. The court found that patent evidence, the advertisements touting utilitarian advantages of the design, and the limited availability of alternative designs that would work equally well, proved functionality.

Key Take Aways:

  1. Beware of patent evidence in trade dress protection due to risk that distinctive design elements be treated as de jure functional. In general, examining attorneys no longer make this distinction in Office actions that refuse registration based on functionality. De facto functionality is not a ground for refusal. In re Ennco Display Sys. Inc., 56 USPQ2d 1279, 1282 (TTAB 2000); In re Parkway Mach. Corp., 52 USPQ2d 1628, 1631 n.4 (TTAB 1999).
  2. Ensure that advertising promotes the nonfunctional design elements, such “look for” advertising. Examples include evidence, including SEO data, that connected the applicant’s efforts to promote the applied-for mark as a trademark and consumers’ ability to conceive of the applied-for mark as such, and examples of unsolicited media coverage