(CN) - A restaurant in south Florida is not liable for copying the decor and "ale house" brand of a pre-existing chain, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Founded in 1988, Miller's Ale House now has about 50 locations, most of which operate in Florida. The name of each restaurant is different in that it corresponds to a geographic variant. Its location in Boynton Beach, Fla., for example, is named Boynton Beach Ale House.
LM Restaurants created the Carolina Ale House brand in 1998. It drew challenge from Miller's after opening a new restaurant in Boynton Beach, just a mile from Miller's location on the same avenue.
In its federal complaint, Miller's Ale House Inc. claimed that Boynton Carolina Ale House LLC adopted a too-similar name, decor and floor plan in violation of its alleged trademark and trade dress rights.
The complaint alleged violations of the Trademark Act of 1946 and the Copyright Act.
But the trial court noted that Miller's had made a similar challenge in North Carolina when LM Restaurants was opened its first location, the Raleigh Ale House. Eventually the 4th Circuit found that "ale house" is a generic term for a facility that serves beer and ale, with or without food.
On that basis, a federal judge in Florida awarded summary judgment to Boynton Carolina. This decision also found that the floor plans were not substantially similar and the trade dress not inherently distinctive.
The 11th Circuit affirmed on Dec. 20, noting that each restaurant's interior and exterior appearances differ significantly.
Boynton Carolina is located in a stand-alone building, while Miller's Boynton Ale House is attached to other shops. Miller's also does not have an outside area like that of Boynton Carolina.
Furthermore, it is a prototypical or "common design" for sports bars to fix their names in red letters on the outside and on the menu; to dress their staffs in khakis and dark polo shirts; and to feature a central bar and high-top tables, according to the ruling.
Miller's cannot support trademark claims as to the term "ale house" and "trade dress rights in the interior decoration of its restaurants," the court found.
Although intellectual property law "respects the policy of free copying and the free economic competition such copying encourages," it also must protect consumers from deception or confusion, according to the ruling.
Judge Gerald Tjoflat authored the unanimous opinion joined by Judge Beverly Martin and U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson, sitting by designation from the Western District of Arkansas.
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