The drawing may look like an ordinary camera lens – cylindrical, familiar, and generally seen affixed to a fancy DSLR. But the application identifies “Digital cameras” in Class 9, not camera lenses. And the mark description reads: “The mark consists of the three dimensional configuration of a digital camera.” That’s no mistake — by my estimation, this drawing doesn’t depict an everyday lens, but Sony’s QX100 camera, a so-called “lens-style” camera that integrates a Carl Zeiss lens and digital sensor into one compact package. It has no LCD screen, viewfinder, our readout of its own — the camera is operated exclusively via a smartphone. It’s certainly a novel step in the evolution of digital photography, where smartphones have skyrocketed in popularity and have all but replaced the entry-level point-and-shoot cameras of the 2000s.
As so many other companies do with new products in the technology sector, Sony has sought to protect the uniqueness of its product through intellectual property. But trademark protection can be especially tricky for product configurations — and here, Sony has sought to protect the entirety of its product by filing its application with the above drawing. The lack of any dotted lines indicates a claim for trademark protection for the entire product – the lens opening, the shutter release, the on/off switch, the zoom slider, and the focus ring are all claimed as part of the mark, at least according to the drawing.
The PTO subsequently issued an office action for the mark (and later another office action continuing many of the cited issues). Aside from informalities regarding the identified goods, it has all the bells and whistles you could ask for in a product configuration refusal, and sheds some additional light on pitfalls to avoid in filing configuration trademark applications:
- Drawing. The PTO quickly cited the dearth of dotted lines in the above drawing and requested that Sony provide an amended drawing that “features functional matter dotted out, such as the lens opening, the shutter, the buttons, the charge port.” This in and of itself seems extremely problematic for purposes of this application – nearly every groove, circle, and crevice on the lens has a function. Once it’s all dotted out, that leaves…a cylinder?
- Nondistinctive Product Design. As with every product design trademark, it is required to show some modicum of acquired distinctiveness to obtain registration on the Principal Register. According to the examiner, “consumers are aware that such designs are intended to render the goods more useful or appealing rather than identify their source.” Sony attempted to submit evidence in a response to support acquired distinctiveness under Section 2(f), consisting of advertising materials, sales figures, and a declaration. The PTO quickly deemed this evidence insufficient, stating that “applicant’s evidence shows nothing more than that the mark is the shape of the camera, which may have become a generic shape for cameras.” The examiner also sleuthed out a competing “lens-style” camera sold by Kodak to support its refusal.
- Functionality / Request for Information. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, the examining attorney issued an advisory suggesting that the mark — or what’s left of it once an amended drawing is provided — may consist of unregistrable, functional matter (which we cover in spades on this blog). It’s only an advisory for now, because the office actions also contain a request for information. These requests are hardly benign – they mirror the Morton-Norwich factors for determining functionality. It’s akin to the police asking “Do you know how fast you were going?”
(1) A written statement as to whether the applied-for mark, or any feature(s) thereof, is or has been the subject of a design or utility patent or patent application, including expired patents and abandoned patent applications. Applicant must also provide copies of the patent and/or patent application documentation.
(2) Advertising, promotional, and/or explanatory materials concerning the applied-for configuration mark, particularly materials specifically related to the design feature(s) embodied in the applied-for mark.
(3) A written explanation and any evidence as to whether there are alternative designs available for the feature(s) embodied in the applied-for mark, and whether such alternative designs are equally efficient and/or competitive. Applicant must also provide a written explanation and any documentation concerning similar designs used by competitors.
(4) A written statement as to whether the product design or packaging design at issue results from a comparatively simple or inexpensive method of manufacture in relation to alternative designs for the product/container. Applicant must also provide information regarding the method and/or cost of manufacture relating to applicant’s goods.
(5) Any other evidence that applicant considers relevant to the registrability of the applied-for configuration mark.
(6) A written explanation of what, specifically, applicant has applied to trademark.
Sony’s first office action response addressed only the Section 2(f) issue and amended the identification of goods. And, perhaps charitably, the examining attorney continued the other refusals as non-final, rather than heading straight for a final office action. I’d keep an eye on this one for potentially some novel arguments in Sony’s favor, but it appears to be a tough road ahead.
So what do you think? Does Sony have a pathway to registration, or has the public already been overexposed to generic, functional cylinder-style cameras?
[Apologies for that last pun.]