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Just what is trade dress?

Trademark law includes something called “trade dress.” This can be a little difficult to define in specific terms. Federal trademark law isn’t much help in that area. It has described it as “almost anything at all that is capable of carrying meaning.” 

It essentially refers to the unique design or appearance of a product and/or its packaging, labeling or display that set it apart from others and is recognized and associated with that product. That could be a color, shape, font, texture and even themes that run through their branding and displays.

Examples of trade dress

It’s easier to give examples. The shape of a Coca-Cola bottle is a well-known one. So is the Tiffany blue that the jeweler’s distinctive boxes and packing are known for – although “Pantone Tiffany Blue 1837” wasn’t actually registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) until the late 1990s

The mattress company Purple has that distinctive color on its products. Even Adidas’s stripes and the red Levi tag are considered trade dress. Like other aspects of trademarks, trade dress can be protected under intellectual property laws. That’s because use by another company could cause customer confusion and therefore harm the company’s sales and its brand. 

That’s why companies often register their trade dress to help protect it from infringement. This also helps them take legal action against those who might use it – particularly for a similar product.

Trademark vs. trade dress protection

Trademark protection typically covers things like logos, symbols, words and phrases and names. Trade dress protection, as we’ve noted, covers things more essential to the way a product is “dressed” for sale or use. 

Trade dress can be difficult to define, which means that what constitutes an infringement may not always be clear. If your company is facing potential legal action for infringement on another company’s trade dress – or if you’re concerned about possible infringement – it’s wise to seek legal guidance.