SPECIALIZED SEATING v. GREENWICH INDUSTRIES (August 11, 2010)

Greenwich Industries has been manufacturing standard folding chairs for more than 80 years. In 1999, it applied for a trademark registration of one particular design. The Patent and Trademark Office issued its registration in 2004. Specialized Seating also manufactures folding chairs and has one model that is almost identical to Greenwich's trademarked chair. Specialized brought suit under the Lanham Act for a declaratory judgment that its chair did not violate Greenwich's rights -- Greenwich counterclaimed for injunctive relief. Judge Holderman (N.D. Ill.) ruled in favor of Specialized, concluding both that the chair's design was functional and that Greenwich had defrauded the Patent and Trademark Office. Greenwich appeals.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Posner and Evans affirmed. The Court applied the clear error test to the district court's finding of functionality. Although functionality happened to be the ultimate issue in the case, it is still a fact specific conclusion subject to the clear error standard of review. The Court noted the difference between patent protection and trademark protection. A purely functional design such as Greenwich's chair can be, and in fact here was, protected for a time with a patent. When the patent expires, however, that protection cannot be extended through trademark application. It is true that certain functional products can receive trademark protection, but only when a nonfunctional aspect of its design creates a distinctive appearance. All of the aspects of Greenwich's chair design are functional -- none contribute to a distinctive appearance. Having affirmed the district court's finding of functionality, the Court did not address its finding of fraud.