20 November, 2014

One Taste to Rule Them All - Can You Trademark a Flavor?

Tastes and preferences are as varied and as complex as there are people, yet some distinct combinations truly are above everything else (should you take this writer's word as gospel - which you shouldn't): basil and tomato; chocolate and chili; milk and tea - the list goes on and on. With that in mind, a distinct and successful flavor combination can be the ticket to prosperity for a lot of restaurants or food-related businesses, and locking that combination down quite valuable as well. Although recipes were discussed on this blog in more depth not too long ago, a recent case has emerged dealing with the question that's on everyone's lips: can you trademark a flavor?

The case involving the flavor-fight was New York Pizzeria Inc. v Syal, in which the subject matter near-and-dear to many New Yorkers' hearts (i.e. arteries), pizza, was disputed. New York Pizzeria, a franchising company for pizzerias, brought this lawsuit against their former employee, Adrian Hembree (although against his alleged co-conspirator, Ravinder Syal), who had acted as the company's Vice-President and as a franchisee in its restaurant business. Mr. Hembree's term of employment was ended, and he subsequently went on to found a competing chain of restaurants; Gina's Italian Kitchen. Mr. Hembree had brought a lawsuit against NYPI for an alleged breach of his termination agreement, after which NYPI took on Mr. Hembree for alleged acquisition and transference of internal documents and recipes to Gina's in order to create a knock-off restaurant. Further, NYPI asserted that Mr. Hembree had gained access to NYPI's internal network through another franchisee's account, passing the details onto Mr. Syal, who then downloaded internal documents from said network. The case discussed the matter quite broadly, as many different counts were alleged by NYPI, of which only a few relate to the question posed above.

The beef of the intellectual property argument by NYPI is brought under 15 USC section 1125, as NYPI claim that the defendant infringed its trademark in the flavor of its food, and the trade dress of its goods as to the food's plating. Should a flavor be considered a possible trademark, under section 1125 Mr. Syal could face a civil action for the infringement of that trademark or its possible dilution.

Great flavors can lead to unpleasant results, no matter how delicious
As was seen in Qualitex v Jacobson Products, discussed by Justice Costa in the case at hand, a trademark can potentially be "...almost anything at all that is capable of carrying meaning" - even a flavor, at least prima facie, as long as it indicates a source for the goods: "[T]he essence of a protected mark is its capacity to distinguish a product and identify its source". If a flavor can be so distinct and so unique that it indicates an origin which is undoubtedly a single restaurant or creator, you could argue it is within the remit of trademark protection in the US. Realistically this would be very unlikely, but entertains an interesting thought. Arguably flavors would never reach the requisite secondary meaning, i.e. an impression in the minds of the public as to the origin of a specific good, due to the very vague and hard to pin-point nature of flavors as a whole. Several pizza sauces, for example, even if very different in their composition, will all still taste very similar, albeit with small (or large) differences to them, thus not carrying much of an indication as to the sauce's origin restaurant.

The final nail in the coffin of flavor trademarks is the inability to trademark something which is purely functional. Functionality was seen in Qualitex, to encompass "...[which] is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article,' that is, if exclusive use of the feature would put competitors at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage". Limiting the usability of flavor combinations, especially iconic ones such as pizza sauce, would clearly hinder competition, or even extinguish it entirely within the field of pizza making. As said, this was put to rest in Re N.V. Organon, where the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board saw that "[flavoring] performs a utilitarian function that cannot be monopolized without hindering competition". In the end Justice Costa dismissed the argument of flavor trademarks.

Justice Costa didn't discuss the plating issue in much depth, as arguing a specific plating as trade dress is very unorthodox, but entertained the thought nonetheless. NYPI claimed that its plating of its baked ziti, eggplant Parmesan and chicken Parmesan carried a distinctive look, warranting protection. NYPI failed to express what they were protecting in the plating of the dishes, and how they were infringed, failing their argument quite early on: "[i]n the trade dress context, a plaintiff must articulate the elements that comprise its protected trade dress in order for the court to evaluate the plausibility of its claim". In the end, as said above, the claim failed due to a lack of demonstration on NYPI's part, but Justice Costa thought the argument could have warranted more discussion: "...NYPI knows how it plates its food, and it could have easily identified what is distinctive about the plating that might warrant trade dress protection".

Similar views have been expressed here in the UK, with an application for a "Taste of Artificial Strawberries" failing to pass the threshold of trademarkability due to its lack of distinctiveness. This echoes US precedent, and arguably would be the right decision in light of the law and public interest in the non-restriction of flavors in the marketplace. In this writer's opinion the future of flavor trademarks seems very grim, but as a connoisseur of all things culinary, I am quite glad that the world of food isn't shackled by commercial interests; at least not unduly.

Source: JDSupra

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