More on single color trademarks today. Eighteen months ago, Wolf Appliance obtained a federal trademark registration in connection with "a red knob or knobs" of "domestic gas and electric cooking appliances, namely, ranges, dual-fuel ranges, cooktops, and barbeque grills."

Wolf put its registration to the test a couple of weeks ago in a federal trademark infringement action, venued in the Western District of Wisconsin, in which it asked the court for immediate injunctive relief to stop arch-rival Viking Range from offering a Red Knob Kit as an accessory for its competing high-end residential cooking ranges (typically equipped with standard black knobs).

Here is a pdf of the decision, granting Wolf’s request for a preliminary injunction. The Wisconsin State Journal reported on the decision. Last December, shared a rather cynical view of Wolf’s single color claim of exclusivity when the lawsuit was first filed.

So, how did Wolf pull it off? Well, here’s the short answer:

  1. Before bringing the lawsuit, Wolf obtained a federal trademark registration for the knobs, entitling it to a presumption of validity when the time came to enforce exclusive rights;
  2. To demonstrate secondary meaning in its red knobs, Wolf made good use of "look for advertising" on its website: "Choose black knobs, or let everyone know it’s a Wolf with our distinctive red knobs;" in catalogs: "Knob appeal. This is, perhaps, the first thing one notices about a Wolf product. The red knobs serve as a reminder of its distinctive nature"; and in advertising: touting the red knobs as "distinctive" and an "exclusive Wolf feature";
  3. Viking apparently stopped selling a range with red knobs back in 1993, and since 2000, Wolf had made "substantially exclusive" use of red knobs on domestic cooking ranges; and
  4. Greatly assisting its secondary meaning claim to the red knobs, Wolf enjoyed the benefit of significant media attention and stories, specifically mentioning Wolf’s "distinctive," "iconic," "classic," "recognizable," "status symbol," "trademark," and "signature" red knobs.

Trademark types, doesn’t the court’s recognition and reliance on this very helpful media attention evidence make you want to collaborate with your favorite PR type the next time your client is pursuing a single color trademark or some other form of non-traditional trademark rights?

With respect to the question of likelihood of confusion, the Court was moved that there could be initial interest confusion through this hypothetical scenario:

"Suppose a potential range customer is at a dinner party and the hostess tells the potential customer how much the hostess enjoys her range. The range happens to be a Wolf range with red knobs. Several weeks or months later, when the potential customer enters a retail store to browse ranges, he or she sees a stainless steel Viking range displayed with red knobs that looks similar to the red-knob range he or she has seen in the past. There are no other ranges displayed with red knobs. The customer does not remember the brand of the hostess’ range, but the customer knows that Viking is a well-known manufacturer in the high-end range market. The red knobs look familiar, so the customer thinks this is the range to which the hostess spoke so highly. . . . Such a situation could qualify as ‘initial interest’ confusion, because defendant would be reaping the benefit of the goodwill that the plaintiff has developed in its mark."

Are you concerned? Do you find this hypothetical scenario plausible?

What remains to be seen is whether the case continues to conclusion for the entry of a permanent injunction after a full trial. While it is true that the grant or denial of a preliminary injunction often results in an amicable settlement of the lawsuit, this case may not end that way.

Even though Viking lost the first round in this bout, it has brought a counterclaim to cancel the red knob trademark registration issued by the U.S. Trademark Office in 2008. Moreover, if Viking determines that it has a commercial and competitive need to offer the Red Knob Kit, it would be rather easy to resume distribution of the kits at a later time, provided it is able to either invalidate the registration or win on the ultimate issue of whether there is a likelihood of confusion in the marketplace for residential cooking ranges. 

To the extent Viking Range decides to continue its defense and counterclaim to invalidate Wolf’s red knob registration, I predict that discovery will vigorously probe functionality as a possible basis for invalidation. A win on functionality would be complete, it would knock out the registration, and make it unnecessary to even consider the likelihood of confusion question of infringement.

In case you’re wondering about scope, it would appear that both commercial ovens and toy ovens having red knobs are outside the scope of Wolf’s registered trademark.

Stay tuned for more on this interesting case.