Article | Intellectual Property Law
Consumer Expropriation of Aesthetically Functional Trade Dress: Results from a Randomized Experiment
by Ian Ayres* and Xiyin Tang†
Vol. 93, No.6 (February 2021)
93 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1189 (2020)
Keywords: Trade dress, Aesthetic functionality
Trade dress, as a subset of trademark law, can offer potentially perpetual protection to a product’s design or packaging features if they aid consumers in identifying a product’s source. Yet these protected design features might be valued by consumers not only because of their source identifying function, but also because consumers find the design or package features beautiful, independent of the goodwill generated by the producer. Thus, under the doctrine of aesthetic functionality, manufacturers who produce red-soled shoes or whiskey with a melted wax seal might gain what courts have called a “non-reputation-related” competitive advantage, ultimately warranting the expropriation of the protected product feature into the public domain.
This Article argues that courts, in assessing questions of aesthetic functionality, should give particular weight to surveys asking consumers whether they would be better off if competitors were allowed to use a protected trade dress feature in their own products. Just as, under the doctrine of genericide, consumers are able to expropriate word marks if consumers find it more beneficial to associate the language feature of the trademark with competitors’ products, consumers should also be able to expropriate trade dress rights of a particular manufacturer if they find it more beneficial to have these design and packaging features available to the manufacturer’s competitors. Creating a genericide analog for cancelation of trade dress can further trademark’s central goal of protecting consumer welfare.
This Article reports “proof of concept” results of our proposed consumer surveys with regard to seven different forms of existing trade dress—including not only Louboutin’s red-soled shoes and Maker’s Mark’s red-drip wax seal, but also Gucci’s famous “diamond motif” and Emeco’s Navy chair. We implement our surveys as a between-subject randomized experiment that allows us to causally estimate the intensity of consumer preferences as well as the impact of “guiding” subjects on the likely consequences of forgoing trade dress protection. Our results, while at best suggestive, found that judicial assessments of functionality were often not predictive of consumer protection preferences. For example, a statistically significant majority indicated they would be better off if other manufacturers were allowed to produce Emeco’s Navy chair design, notwithstanding a contrary judicial holding. We also found that large consumer majorities chose to protect two iconic Veblen goods: the Louboutin shoe and the Gucci Diamond Motif, even when informed that such protection would likely lead to higher prices—indicating a desire to preserve trade dress’ power to sustain social distinction.
*. William K. Townsend Professor, Yale Law School. Ian.email@example.com
†. Assistant Professor of Law, University of California, Los Angeles. Pranav Bhandarkar and Zachary Shelley provided excellent research assistance.