TMEP 1202.02(a)(iii)(B): "De Jure" and "De Facto" Functionality

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1202.02(a)(iii)(B)    "De Jure" and "De Facto" Functionality

Prior to 2002, the USPTO used the terms " de facto" and " de jure" in assessing whether "subject matter" (usually a product feature or the configuration of the goods) presented for registration was functional. This distinction originated with the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals’ decision in In re Morton-Norwich Prods., Inc., 671 F.2d 1332, 213 USPQ 9 (C.C.P.A. 1982), which was discussed by the Federal Circuit in Valu Eng'g, Inc. v. Rexnord Corp., 278 F.3d 1268, 1274, 61 USPQ2d 1422, 1425 (Fed. Cir. 2002):

Our decisions distinguish de facto functional features, which may be entitled to trademark protection, from de jure functional features, which are not. ‘In essence, de facto functional means that the design of a product has a function, i.e., a bottle of any design holds fluid.’ In re R.M. Smith, Inc., 734 F.2d 1482, 1484, 222 USPQ 1, 3 (Fed. Cir. 1984). De facto functionality does not necessarily defeat registrability. Morton-Norwich, 671 F.2d at 1337, 213 USPQ at 13 (A design that is de facto functional, i.e., ‘functional’ in the lay sense... may be legally recognized as an indication of source.’). De jure functionality means that the product has a particular shape ‘because it works better in this shape.’ Smith, 734 F.2d at 1484, 222 USPQ at 3.

However, in three Supreme Court decisions involving functionality – TrafFix Devices, Inc. v. Mktg. Displays, Inc., 532 U.S. 23, 58 USPQ2d 1001 (2001), Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Bros., 529 U.S. 205, 54 USPQ2d 1065 (2000), and Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Prods. Co., 514 U.S. 159, 34 USPQ2d 1161 (1995) – the Court did not use the "de facto/de jure" distinction. Nor were these terms used when the Trademark Act was amended to expressly prohibit registration of matter that is "functional." Technical Corrections to Trademark Act of 1946, Pub. L. No. 105-330, §201, 112 Stat. 3064, 3069 (1998). Accordingly, in general, examining attorneys no longer make this distinction in Office actions that refuse registration based on functionality.

De facto functionality is not a ground for refusal. In re Ennco Display Sys. Inc., 56 USPQ2d 1279, 1282 (TTAB 2000); In re Parkway Mach. Corp., 52 USPQ2d 1628, 1631 n.4 (TTAB 1999).