Norwegian High Chair Loses Trademark Battle

     (CN) – A European company cannot trademark the shape of a decades-old ergonomic high chair, the EU’s highest court ruled.
     Norway-based Peter Opsvik designed the “Tripp Trapp” high chair, which the Stokke group has made and sold since 1972.
     After Stokke A/S, the company’s Norway-based arm, sought to trademark the chair’s three-dimensional shape in 1998, the Stokke group and Opsvik claimed in court that German high-chair maker Hauck GmbH & Co. KG infringed on the Tripp Trapp’s copyright and trademark with the “Alpha” and “Beta” high chairs.
     All of Tripp Trapp parts, including gliders or sliding plates, are attached to the chair’s sloping, L-shaped uprights, giving it a highly original design.
     Though a Netherlands court upheld in 2000 Stokke and Opsvik’s copyright claim, it declared the trademark invalid.
     The nation’s high court then referred the case to the European Court of Justice, one of whose advisers, Maciej Szpunar, recommended ruling against the Stokke group this past spring.
     Szpunar said that letting firms trademark an item’s shape negates the point of trademark protection, as it prevents competitors from building on the design.
     He added that a shape resulting from “the nature of the goods themselves” – or which gives them “substantial value,” such as the shape of a banana or rugby ball -cannot be trademarked.
     The Court of Justice heeded Szpunar’s opinion Thursday, finding that “the concept of a ‘shape which results from the nature of the goods themselves’ means that shapes with essential characteristics which are inherent to the generic function or functions of such goods must, in principle, also be denied registration.”
     Later the decision continues that “reserving such characteristics to a single economic operator would make it difficult for competing undertakings to give their goods a shape which would be suited to the use for which those goods are intended.
     Moreover, those are essential characteristics which consumers will be looking for in the products of competitors, given that they are intended to perform an identical or similar function.”
     Tripp Trapp’s shape lends it not only “significant aesthetic value,” but also “safety, comfort, and reliability,” according to the ruling.
     “Indeed, the concept of a ‘shape which gives substantial value to the goods’ cannot be limited purely to the shape of products having only artistic or ornamental value, as there is otherwise a risk that products which have essential functional characteristics as well as a significant aesthetic element will not be covered,” the judgment states. “In that case, the right conferred by the trademark on its proprietor would grant that proprietor a monopoly on the essential characteristics of such products.”
     Other assessment criteria to determine ground for refusal may include “the nature of the category of goods concerned, the artistic value of the shape in question, its dissimilarity from other shapes in common use on the market concerned, a substantial price difference in relation to similar products, and the development of a promotion strategy which focuses on accentuating the aesthetic characteristics of the product in question,” according to the ruling.
     The court concluded that if “any one” criterion is satisfied, “a sign consisting exclusively of the shape of the product or of a graphic representation of that shape cannot be registered as a trademark.”

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