JAY FRANCO & SONS v. FRANEK (August 11, 2010)

In the late 1980s, Clemens Franek sought and received trademark registration status for his "radical" round beach towel. Almost 20 years later, Franek brought suit under the Lanham Act against Jay Franco & Sons for its unauthorized sale of round beach towels. Franco counterclaimed to invalidate the mark. Judge Dow (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to Franco. Franek appeals.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Posner and Evans affirmed. The Court first noted that Franek's long continuous use of the mark made it "uncontestable" – so Franek did not have to show that the mark had acquired a secondary meaning. But the mark is still susceptible to challenge on whether it is merely functional. Patent law provides protection to functional designs -- trademark law does not. The Supreme Court defined functional in TrafFix Devices as "essential to the use or purpose of the device or when it affects the cost or quality of the device." One way of identifying whether a design is useful is with reference to existing utility patents. The Court noted that the round towel’s design was quite similar to a portion of a utility patent granted for a towel-bag. The existence of the patent, under TrafFix, is strong evidence of the functionality of a circular towel. In addition, the Court noted that the Franek's own advertisements focused on the functionality of the shape -- allowing sunbathers to change position without moving the towel. The Court also rejected Franek’s argument that the design was a fashion statement. In most instances, fashion is function. What Franek wants is the exclusive use of a basic round design for a beach towel. Although a distinctive, irregular design may qualify for trademark protection, the simple circle does not.