Weems Industries, Inc v. Plews, Inc
ORDER denying 25 Motion to Dismiss by Defendant. Signed by Judge Linda R Reade on 04/13/2017. (jjh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
CEDAR RAPIDS DIVISION
WEEMS INDUSTRIES, INC.,
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
RELEVANT PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
FACTUAL BACKGROUND . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Parties . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Overview of the Dispute . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
ANALYSIS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
A. Acquired Distinctiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
B. Functionality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
The matter before the court is Defendant Plews, Inc.’s (“Plews”) “Partial Motion
to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Amended Common Law Trademark Infringement Claim” (“Motion”)
(docket no. 25).
II. RELEVANT PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On October 28, 2016, Plaintiff Weems Industries, Inc. (“Weems”), filed an
Amended Complaint (docket no. 16)1 asserting the following claims: (1) Plews infringed
on Weems’s registered trademark by using the color chartreuse on the body of its
compressed air hoses in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1114(1), 1125(a); (2)
Plews infringed on Weems’s common law trademark by using the color chartreuse on the
body of its compressed air hoses; (3) Plews contributed to the infringement of Weems’s
trademark by supplying chartreuse air hoses to third parties for sale; (4) Plews interfered
with Weems’s contractual relations by employing one of Weems’s prior employees despite
having knowledge that such employee had entered into a non-compete agreement with
Weems; (5) Plews misappropriated Weems’s trade secrets in violation of Iowa’s version
of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, Iowa Code § 550.4; (6) Plews interfered with Weems’s
prospective contractual relations by misappropriating trade secrets and using them to coopt
Plews’s business relationships with third parties; (7) Plews’s use of the color chartreuse
on the body of its air hoses and distribution to third parties constitutes unfair competition
under federal law; and (8) Plews’s misappropriation of trade secrets and trademark
infringement constitutes unfair competition under Iowa law.
On November 17, 2016, Plews filed the Motion. On that same date, Plews filed
an Answer (docket no. 26), generally denying liability and setting forth affirmative
defenses. In the Answer, Plews did not respond to the factual allegations regarding Count
II, but stated that it had “separately moved to dismiss” Weems’s common law trademark
claim. See Answer at 18. On December 5, 2016, Weems filed a Resistance (docket no.
Weems amended its original Complaint (docket no. 2), pursuant to Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 15(a)(1)(B), in response to Plews’s first motion to dismiss (docket no.
11), which made similar arguments to those made in the Motion. See Fed. R. Civ. P.
15(a)(1)(B) (permitting a party to amend its pleading as a matter of course within twentyone days of service of a Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss).
27). On December 12, 2016, Plews filed a Reply (docket no. 28). Neither party has
requested oral argument and the court finds that oral argument is unnecessary. The
Motion is fully submitted and ready for decision.
III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Accepting all factual allegations in the Amended Complaint as true and drawing all
reasonable inferences in favor of Weems, the relevant facts are as follows:
Weems is a corporation organized and existing under the laws of the State of Iowa,
with its principal place of business in Marion, Iowa. Weems does business under the name
Legacy Manufacturing Company. Plews is a corporation organized and existing under the
laws of the State of Delaware, with its principal place of business in Dixon, Illinois.
B. Overview of the Dispute
Weems manufactures chartreuse-colored compressed air hoses and markets them
under the name “Flexzilla®.” Amended Complaint ¶ 8. Weems has marketed the
chartreuse color of its air hoses as a trademark (the “mark”), has termed the color
“ZillaGreen™” and adopted the slogan, “If it’s not ZillaGreen™, it’s not FlexZilla®.” Id.
¶ 22. These and other advertisements regarding the chartreuse air hoses have been
published through a variety of media throughout the United States including in catalogues
and trade journals, at trade shows and on Weems’s website. Id. ¶¶ 24-25. In all, Weems
has spent over $5,000,000 advertising and marketing its chartreuse products, including
water hoses, electrical cords, hose reels, pneumatic couplers and air hoses. Id. ¶¶ 24, 27.
The color chartreuse is not a natural by-product of the production of air hoses,
instead requiring Weems to add specific dyes and/or pigments during the manufacturing
process to achieve it. Id. ¶ 9. In fact, other compressed air hoses in the market come in
a variety of other colors and shades, including orange, red, blue and black. Id. ¶ 10. It
is not less expensive to manufacture chartreuse colored air hoses and Weems maintains that
the color chartreuse is an “arbitrary embellishment” that was adopted primarily as a
source-identifying feature, rather than a utilitarian one. See id. ¶¶ 11-17. Weems has
maintained the continuous and substantial use of the color chartreuse, in connection with
compressed air hoses, since early 2007, at which time no other manufacturer was selling
a similar product. Id. ¶¶ 18, 19. On October 6, 2015, Weems registered its mark,
described as “the color chartreuse as applied to the entire hose body of the goods” on the
Principal Register, maintained by the United States “Patent and Trademark Office”
(“PTO”), as Registration No. 4,827,169 (the “‘169 Registration”). Id. ¶ 20.
Weems alleges that the color chartreuse as applied to the body of its air hoses has
acquired secondary meaning in the eyes of consumers—in other words, chartreuse-colored
air hoses have a source-identifying significance, such that consumers associate such
products with Weems. See id. ¶ 28. In particular, Weems has conducted at least one
customer survey of products, including, but not limited to, compressed air hoses, in the
pneumatics industry, and found that customers associate chartreuse-colored air hoses
exclusively with Weems, and not with any other company. Id. ¶ 29. Weems also alleges
that its “direct competitors have acknowledged that [its] chartreuse colored compressed air
hoses are ‘industry leading.’” Id. ¶ 31. Additionally, Weems is aware of at least one
distributor who has expressed actual confusion between Weems’s product and a
competitor’s similar product. See id. ¶ 58.
Shortly after Weems adopted the mark, Plews began selling a similarly-colored air
hose under its own brand, Amflo™. Id. ¶ 32. On May 3, 2010, Weems sent Plews2 a
letter, advising Plews that it owned the trademark at issue, and Plews’s attorney
acknowledged receipt of the letter. Id. ¶¶ 33, 34. Similarly, Weems “has continuously
and diligently pursued other entities that began producing confusingly similar chartreusecolored air hoses” and has been successful in defending its trademark in such actions. Id.
The letter was sent to Plews’s predecessor, Plews & Edelmann.
¶ 35. In 2015, Weems learned that Home Deopt was selling similarly colored compressed
air hoses and marketing them under its “Husky®” brand—Weems contacted Home Depot
and demanded that it cease and desist the use of Weems’s mark. Id. ¶¶ 45, 46. Plews
later contacted Weems and informed Weems that it had supplied some of the Husky®
branded air hoses to Home Depot. Id. ¶ 47. Around the same time, Plews began selling
a chartreuse-colored premium hybrid air hose dubbed the Ultra Air® hose under its Amflo™
brand. Id. ¶ 50. Plews has supplied its chartreuse-colored hoses to a variety of retailers
and continues to supply air hoses to Home Depot for its Husky® brand. Id. ¶¶ 51-53.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for dismissal of a complaint for
“failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The
question for a court considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is not whether the plaintiff will
ultimately prevail, but rather “whether his complaint [is] sufficient to cross the federal
court’s threshold.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 529-30 (2011) (citation omitted).
In order to cross the federal court’s threshold, the complaint need “not [be] a model of the
careful drafter’s art,” nor need it “pin plaintiff’s claim for relief to a precise legal theory.”
Id. at 530. To be sufficient, a complaint must simply state a “plausible ‘short and plain’
statement of the plaintiff’s claim, not an exposition of his legal argument.” Id. (citing 5
Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1219 (3d ed.
2004 & Supp. 2010)).
To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual
matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft
v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544,
570 (2007)). A claim satisfies the plausibility standard “when the plaintiff pleads factual
content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable
for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “The plausibility
standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer
possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at
556). Although a plaintiff need not provide “detailed” facts in support of his or her
allegations, the “short and plain statement” requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
8(a)(2) “demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me
accusation.” Id. at 677-78 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555) (internal quotation marks
omitted); see also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (“Specific facts are not
necessary [under Rule 8(a)(2)].”). It is insufficient to “plead facts that are ‘merely
consistent with’ a defendant’s liability.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550
U.S. at 557). “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic recitation
of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
“Where the allegations show on the face of the complaint [that] there is some
insuperable bar to relief, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate.” Benton v. Merrill
Lynch & Co., 524 F.3d 866, 870 (8th Cir. 2008) (citing Parnes v. Gateway 2000, Inc.,
122 F.3d 539, 546 (8th Cir. 1997)). Although the court must accept as true all factual
allegations contained in the Complaint, the court need not accept legal conclusions
disguised as facts. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).
“To succeed on a common-law trademark infringement claim and to obtain
injunctive relief, a plaintiff must prove (1) that it has a valid trademark or a protectable
proprietary right in the [mark] it seeks to exclude others from using, and (2) that there has
been infringement of that right.” Commercial Sav. Bank v. Hawkeye Fed. Sav. Bank, 592
N.W.2d 321, 326 (Iowa 1999) (emphasis omitted). In order to have a valid trademark,
the Supreme Court has stated that: (1) the alleged mark must be distinctive; (2) the alleged
mark must be non-functional; and (3) another’s use of the mark must be likely to cause
confusion in consumers’ minds as to the source of the product bearing the alleged mark
or to which the alleged mark refers. See Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S.
763, 769 (1992). Here, Plews attacks the Amended Complaint and argues that it does not
allege facts sufficient to support a finding that the mark is distinctive or that the mark is
non-functional. The court shall address each of these arguments separately.
A. Acquired Distinctiveness
Plews asserts that the court should dismiss Count II of the Amended Complaint
because Weems has not alleged sufficient facts to support a finding that the color
chartreuse has “acquired distinctiveness” through secondary meaning.
See Brief in
Support of the Motion (docket no. 25-1) at 5. Plews argues that the mark cannot have
acquired distinctiveness before January of 2010 because Weems had applied for, and been
denied, registration on the Principal Register by the PTO at that time. Id. at 6-7.
According to Plews, the PTO determined that the mark had not acquired distinctiveness
at that point, and thus the registration was amended to the Supplemental Register. See id.
at 8. Plews contends that Weems must allege, with specificity, actions that it took granting
the mark secondary meaning between the time that its initial application to the Principal
Register was denied in 2010 and the time that it attained registration on the Principal
Register in 2015. Id. at 7. Plews further asserts that Weems failed to do so. Id. Plews
also argues that dismissal is appropriate because the type of evidence on which Weems
relies to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness is the same sort of evidence that it presented
to the PTO in 2010, when its initial application to the Principal Register was denied. Id.
at 8-9. Plews further observes that the surveys on which Weems relies made reference to
a wide range of products, and did not pertain solely to the compressed air hoses. Id. at
8. Finally, Plews asserts that the Amended Complaint is self-contradictory as to when
Weems attained exclusive and continuous use of the mark, making dismissal appropriate.
Id. at 9-10.
Weems argues that dismissal is not appropriate on these grounds because the inquiry
into whether a mark has acquired distinctiveness through secondary meaning is fact-
intensive. See Resistance at 4. Weems directs the court to factual allegations in the
Amended Complaint regarding customer testimony or surveys; exclusivity, length and
manner of the use of the mark; the amount and manner of Weems’s advertising efforts;
Weems’s established place in the market; and evidence of intentional copying of its mark.
See id. at 4-6. Weems further argues that Plews’s focus on any sort of “relevant time
period” during which the mark had to have acquired secondary meaning is misplaced
because “the time and segregation issues raised do not go to the sufficiency of its pleading,
but only its strength.” Id. at 6. Weems also states that its 2010 application to the
Principal Register was not rejected by the PTO, but rather Weems voluntarily amended its
application such that it would be placed on the Supplemental Register. See id. at 7.
Weems asserts that such an action does not constitute an admission that the mark had not
acquired distinctiveness. Id. Finally, Weems argues that, because it has plead actual
confusion in the marketplace between it and a competitor’s products, it has necessarily
demonstrated secondary meaning. Id. at 7-8.
“The general rule regarding distinctiveness is clear: An identifying mark is
distinctive and capable of being protected if it either (1) is inherently distinctive or (2) has
acquired distinctiveness through secondary meaning.” Two Pesos, Inc., 505 U.S. at 769
(emphasis omitted); see also Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Bros., Inc., 529 U.S. 205,
211 (2000) (“[A] mark has acquired distinctiveness, even if it is not inherently distinctive,
if it has developed secondary meaning, which occurs when, ‘in the minds of the public,
the primary significance of a [mark] is to identify the source of the product rather than the
product itself.’” (second alteration in original) (quoting Inwood Labs., Inc. v. Ives Labs.,
Inc., 456 U.S. 844, 851 n.11 (1982))). The Supreme Court has held that color marks can
never be inherently distinctive. See Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Prods. Co., 514 U.S. 159,
162-63 (1995). Therefore, in order to state a plausible claim for common law trademark
infringement, the Amended Complaint must assert facts supporting a finding of acquired
“In determining whether a mark has acquired distinctiveness, i.e., secondary
meaning, ‘the chief inquiry is whether in the consumer’s mind the mark has become
associated with a particular source.’” Lovely Skin, Inc. v. Isthar Skin Care Prods., LLC,
745 F.3d 877, 882 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Co-Rect Prods., Inc. v. Marvy! Advert.
Photography, Inc., 780 F.2d 1324, 1332-33 (8th Cir. 1985)). Courts consider a variety
of factors in determining whether a mark has acquired distinctiveness, including: (1) length
of time of a mark’s use; (2) the effectiveness of marketing efforts; and (3) intentional
copying of the mark by a competitor. See Co-Rect Prods., 780 F.2d at 1332-33 (citing
Sec. Ctr., Ltd. v. First Nat’l Sec. Ctrs., 750 F.2d 1295, 1301 (5th Cir. 1985); Brooks Shoe
Mfg. v. Suave Shoe Corp., 716 F.2d 854, 860 (2d Cir. 1983)). There is no bright-line rule
regarding length of use, but courts generally require a substantial amount of time before
granting trademark protection. See id. at 1332 (collecting cases and noting that courts had
found nine months, ten months, two years and nine years’ use to be insufficient, but also
noting that other courts have found that three years and ten years’ use were sufficient).
The Code of Federal Regulations, with respect to registry on the Principal Register, states
that the appropriate amount of time to consider is “[f]ive years substantially exclusive and
continuous use in commerce.” 37 C.F.R. § 2.41(a)(2). Additionally, the Code of Federal
Regulations lists the following as other relevant evidence of distinctiveness: statements or
other evidence “showing duration, extent, and nature of the use in commerce and
advertising expenditures in connection therewith” and “statements from the trade or public,
or both.” Id. § 2.41(a)(3).
Here, Weems has pled continuous and substantial use of its mark since 2007. See
Amended Complaint ¶ 19. Weems has also detailed its advertising efforts. For example,
it alleges that it has dubbed the chartreuse color of the hoses “ZillaGreen™” and adopted
the slogan, “If it’s not ZillaGreen™, it’s not FlexZilla®.” Id. ¶ 22. Weems states that it
has spent in excess of $5,000,000 in advertisements in various media—and further alleges
that the advertising efforts have been successful to the point where its competitors have
acknowledged that products bearing its mark are industry leading, customer surveys
demonstrate that products bearing its mark are associated specifically with Weems and use
of the mark by competitors has produced at least one instance of actual confusion in the
marketplace. See id. ¶¶ 24-25, 29, 31, 58. Such facts are sufficient to allege acquired
The court reiterates that complaints need “not [be] a model of the careful drafter’s
art.” Skinner, 562 U.S. at 529-30; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) (describing the
pleading standard as requiring “a short and plain statement” of the claim). So long as the
facts as alleged in the pleading are sufficient to state a plausible claim for relief, the
complaint will survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Here, even though the statements regarding Weems’s efforts are undated, the court does
not view that alone as a bar to suit. Though perhaps not pled with a high degree of
specificity, assuming all of the allegations are true, Weems has alleged at least a
“plausible” claim for relief. For example, though the Amended Complaint does not
specifically allege the time period during which Weems undertook advertising efforts, or
when it conducted customer surveys, it is at least plausible that such actions occurred
during the time that Plews views as relevant.
However, even considering Plews’s arguments regarding Weems’s lack of specific
dates in the Amended Complaint, the court is still unpersuaded. With respect to any
efforts undertaken prior to 2010, when the mark was placed on the Supplemental Register,
the court notes that the United States Code specifically states that “[r]egistration of a mark
on the supplemental register shall not constitute an admission that the mark has not
acquired distinctiveness.” 15 U.S.C. § 1095. Thus, it is possible to view the amending
of the application to the Supplemental Register, even if prompted by the PTO’s indication
that the mark had not acquired distinctiveness, as an admission against interest that
measures taken prior to 2010 may not have been sufficient to establish acquired
distinctiveness. However, this does not estop Weems from alleging them as evidence that
the mark had secondary meaning prior to that date, as recognized by a preeminent treatise
on trademark law. See 3 McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 19:43 (4th
ed. 2004 & Supp. 2017) (citing Cal. Cooler, Inc. v. Loretto Winery, Ltd., 774 F.2d 1451
(9th Cir. 1985)) (“[A]pplication for the Supplemental Register is an admission against
interest that the term . . . does not yet have secondary meaning. . . . There is a significant
evidentiary distinction between an estoppel and an admission against interest.”).
With respect to efforts undertaken after Weems attained registration on the Principal
Register in 2015, the court believes that such measures need not be discounted in
determining whether Weems has stated a claim of common law trademark infringement.
Plews’s argument that efforts taken after registration of a mark are insufficient to support
a common law trademark infringement claim appears to rest on the correct assumption that
efforts taken after registration cannot demonstrate the acquisition of secondary meaning
because the PTO has already determined that secondary meaning was established at the
time of registration. This argument fails because, in the event the court determines that
it should cancel the ‘169 Registration, as Plews requests, see Answer at 36, that would
leave the common law rights underlying the mark undisturbed. See San Juan Prods., Inc.
v. San Juan Pools of Kan., Inc., 849 F.2d 468, 474 (10th Cir. 1988) (“Unlike the
registration of a patent, a trademark registration of itself does not create the underlying
right to exclude. Nor is a trademark created by registration.” (emphasis and citation
omitted)); see also, e.g., Crash Dummy Movie, LLC v. Mattel, Inc., 601 F.3d 1387, 1391
(Fed. Cir. 2010) (“[C]ancellation of a trademark registration does not necessarily translate
into abandonment of common law trademark rights.”). While it is true that “[a] plaintiff
must establish secondary meaning in a mark at the time and place that the defendant began
the use of the mark,” Commerce Nat’l Ins. Servs., Inc. v. Commerce Ins. Agency, Inc.,
214 F.3d 432, 438 (3d Cir. 2000), this does not necessarily exclude actions taken after the
registration of a trademark, so long as the trademark had acquired secondary meaning
prior to a defendant’s use of the mark. While Weems does not specifically allege when
it took certain efforts to establish that its mark had acquired distinctiveness, it is not barred
from pursuing its claims merely because some of its efforts may have taken place after its
mark obtained registration on the Principal Register. Whether such efforts predated
Defendant’s alleged infringement is not properly decided on a motion to dismiss where the
factual allegations plausibly state a claim. Accordingly, the court shall deny the Motion
on these grounds.
Plews argues that the court should dismiss Count II of the Amended Complaint
because Weems has not alleged facts sufficient to support its allegations that the mark is
non-functional. See Brief in Support of the Motion at 10-11. Plews claims that Weems
merely parrots the factors of the test for determining whether a mark is functional without
supporting factual allegations. Id. at 11. Plews argues that, because such allegations are
conclusory, the Amended Complaint cannot survive a motion to dismiss. Id. Plews
further argues that Weems has contradicted statements made in its 2010 application to the
Principal Register that the chartreuse color “has the potential to be more visible than some
other colors” by now stating that the mark is non-functional. Id. at 12 (quoting Exhibit
A (docket no. 11-2) at 6). Plews also points to “several consensus and federal standards
[that] identify the color green—including chartreuse—[as being] functional.” Id. at 12.
Weems argues that, like acquired distinctiveness, whether a mark is functional is
a fact-intensive inquiry that should not be decided on a motion to dismiss. See Resistance
at 8. Weems further argues that the allegations in the Amended Complaint are not so
conclusory that dismissal is warranted. Id. at 8-9. Weems asserts that, merely because
the color chartreuse has a utilitarian purpose, that does not render it functional as applied
to compressed air hoses because of “the wide varieties of colors available to competitors”
that serve the same function. Id. at 9-10. Finally, Weems argues that the federal
standards that Plews references are inapplicable because they merely reference the color
“green,” do not apply to the compressed air hoses at issue and designate commercial
standards, inapplicable to the uses for which Weems sells its hoses. Id. at 10.
“In trademark law, ‘a product feature is functional, and cannot serve as a
trademark, if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or
quality of the article.’” Frosty Treats Inc. v. Sony Comput. Entm’t Am. Inc., 426 F.3d
1001, 1007 (8th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting TrafFix Devices,
Inc. v. Mktg. Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 32 (2001)). “Furthermore, ‘to be functional
in the trade dress sense, the feature must be necessary to afford a competitor the means to
compete effectively.’” Id. (quoting Home Builders Ass’n of Greater St. Louis v. L&L
Exhibition Mgmt., Inc., 226 F.3d 944, 948 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Eighth Circuit Court of
Appeals has described the functionality test as follows:
If the particular feature is an important ingredient in the
commercial success of the product, the interests in free
competition permits its imitation in the absence of a patent or
copyright. On the other hand, where the feature or, more
aptly, design, is a mere arbitrary embellishment, a form of
dress for the goods primarily adopted for purposes of
identification and individuality and, hence, unrelated to basic
consumer demands in connection with the product, imitation
may be forbidden where the requisite showing of secondary
meaning is made. Under such circumstances, since effective
competition may be undertaken without imitation, the law
Gateway, Inc. v. Companion Prods., Inc., 384 F.3d 503, 508 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting
Prufrock Ltd. v. Lasater, 781 F.2d 129, 133 (8th Cir. 1986)). Put another way, if the
trade dress places a competitor “at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage,” then
it is functional. Id. (citing Qualitex, 514 U.S. at 165). “[W]hen the color applied to goods
serves a primarily utilitarian purpose it is not subject to protection as a trademark.”
Master Distribs, Inc. v. Pako Corp., 986 F.2d 219, 224 (8th Cir. 1993) (quoting In re
Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 774 F.2d 1116, 1120-21 (Fed. Cir. 1985)).
However, courts have also recognized that “[s]ome designs adopted for the purpose
of identification are not wholly useless but perform a utilitarian function” and marks that
are “merely incidentally functional” may still be protectible—the underlying inquiry
remains “whether protection against imitation will hinder the competitor in competition.”
Truck Equip. Serv. Co. v. Fruehauf Corp., 536 F.2d 1210, 1218 (8th Cir. 1975),
superseded on other grounds, 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a), as recognized in Wildlife Research
Ctr., Inc. v. Robinson Outdoors, Inc., 409 F. Supp. 2d 1131, 1136 n.3 (D. Minn. 2005);
see also Allied Mktg. Grp., Inc. v. CDL Mktg., Inc., 878 F.2d 806, 813 (5th Cir. 1989)
(“A design that ‘merely assists in a product or configuration’s utility’ is not functional and
may be protected.” (quoting Sicilia Di R. Biebow & Co. v. Cox, 732 F.2d 417, 429 (5th
Cir. 1984))); Warner Bros., Inc. v. Gay Toys, Inc., 724 F.2d 327, 331 (2d Cir. 1983) (“A
design feature of a particular article is ‘essential’ only if the feature is dictated by the
functions to be performed; a feature that merely accommodates a useful function is not
enough.”). But see Arlington Specialties, Inc. v. Urban Aid, Inc., 847 F.3d 415, 420 (7th
Cir. 2017) (“The question is not . . . whether the claimed trade dress has ‘less utility’ than
Here, the Amended Complaint contains various allegations stating that the color
chartreuse is not a natural by-product of the production of the hoses, nor does it impact the
cost of production of the hoses. See Amended Complaint ¶¶ 9, 14. The Amended
Complaint also alleges that the color chartreuse is not essential to, and does not provide
a utilitarian benefit for the use of, compressed air hoses. Id. ¶¶ 12-13, 15. It states that
a variety of other colors are available to compressed air hose manufacturers such as
orange, red, blue and black. Id. ¶ 10. The court finds that, while a close call, the
Amended Complaint states facts sufficient to support a finding that the mark is
nonfunctional. While the court recognizes that the chartreuse color may make it easier to
see the air hose and thus perhaps prevent it from becoming a tripping hazard, a feature of
which Weems is apparently aware, see Brief in Support of the Motion at 12 (noting that,
in the prosecution of the ‘169 Registration, Weems indicated that the chartreuse color had
the potential to be more visible than other colors), the color is more a feature that is
incidentally functional than a feature “which constitutes an improvement in the operation
of the goods.” Warner Bros., Inc. , 724 F.2d at 331. The court is guided by the fact that
the foreclosure of the use of the color chartreuse on compressed air hoses would not hinder
competition because competitors can and do produce air hoses in a variety of colors, many
of which are or could be made to be just as visible as chartreuse. See Amended Complaint
¶ 10. Additionally, accepting Weems’s allegations as true, its primary purpose in adopting
the mark was not to make its hoses visible, but rather “for purposes of identification and
individuality.” Id. ¶ 17; see Master Distribs, Inc., 986 F.2d at 224.
Plews alleges that the allegations in the Amended Complaint are conclusory, and
thus do not survive a motion to dismiss. See Brief in Support of the Motion at 11.
However, the cases on which Plews relies merely state that the alleged mark is
nonfunctional, parrot various legal standards regarding functionality or vaguely state that
nonspecific aspects of the mark are nonfunctional. See id. at 11 (citing cases). Here, the
Amended Complaint has alleged facts underlying its allegations that the color chartreuse
is nonfunctional. For example, it states that other competitors manufacture hoses in
different colors, that it must take specific steps to achieve the color chartreuse on its hoses,
the color is not a natural by-product of the hose’s manufacturing process and other
allegations. Such allegations are dissimilar to the bare, conclusory allegations in the cases
Furthermore, the court is unpersuaded by Plews’s reference to certain federal
standards regarding the color of air hoses. The court may consider materials necessarily
embraced by the pleadings, as well as items subject to judicial notice and exhibits attached
to the complaint, on a motion to dismiss without conversion to a motion for summary
judgment.3 See Williams v. Emp’r’s Mut. Cas. Co., 845 F.3d 891, 903-04 (8th Cir. 2017).
Even taking the Small Business Handbook from the “Occupational Safety and Health
Administration” (“OSHA”) into account, however, the court finds that it does not preclude
Weems from alleging a claim of common law trademark infringement. The OSHA
materials specifically refer to “welding, cutting and brazing,” activities for which Weems
claims its hoses are not suited. See Exhibit 2 at 5 (formatting omitted); see also Resistance
at 10. Additionally, as Weems notes, the OSHA handbook’s reference to an “oxygen
hose” color requirement merely states “green,” without specific reference to the color
chartreuse. Exhibit 2 at 5. The color chartreuse is better described as a yellow-green
color, which does not necessarily fall under the OSHA standard. Finally, it is unclear,
based on the OSHA materials, whether a compressed air hose would be required to be
green, as Plews argues, or black (“for inert gas and air hoses”) as Weems argues. See
Brief in Support of the Motion at 12; Resistance at 10; Exhibit 2 at 5. In any event, the
court cannot conclude that dismissal is proper based on the OSHA standards at this time.
As the court noted with respect to acquired distinctiveness, a plaintiff is not required to
perfectly draft its complaint, and the pleading standard is not onerous. See Skinner, 562
U.S. at 529-30. While Weems may not ultimately persuade a trier of fact that its mark is
The court notes that the materials on which Plews relies were attached as Exhibit
2 (docket no. 9-2) to its answer to the original complaint, but were not attached to its
Answer to the Amended Complaint.
nonfunctional, it has pleaded sufficient facts to plausibly state that it is nonfunctional and
defeat a motion to dismiss. Accordingly, the court shall deny the Motion.
In light of the foregoing, the Motion (docket no. 25) is DENIED. All counts
against Plews remain in the action..
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 13th day of April, 2017.
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