Board Rules Wind Turbine Design Cannot Be a Trademark

In an interesting case at the intersection of patent and trademark law, as well as that of functionality and branding, Change Wind Corporation (Change) has lost its bid to register its turbine design as a federal trademark.

Change filed U.S. Trademark Application No. 86046590 (‘590 Application) in August of 2013 seeking registration of the following design mark for wind turbines and wind-powered electricity generators:

The application described the design as consisting of “four vertically extending turbine blades . . . obliquely curved in a twisting manner” and extending above and blow the “truncated cone” of a tapered “cylindrical base.”

The Trademark Examining Attorney refused registration under Section 2(e)(5) of the Trademark Act, which prohibits registration of a mark that is functional.

Change appealed the refusal of the applied-for design and, in a recent decision, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (Board) of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office affirmed.

Prevailing case law holds that a product design or feature is functional if it is “essential to the use or purpose of the article” or if it “affects the cost or quality of the article.”

There are four categories of evidence the courts use to determine whether a design is functional.  Those include evidence of a utility patent disclosing utilitarian advantages of the design, advertising materials touting the design’s utilitarian advantages, the availability to competitors of functionally equivalent designs, and facts indicating the design results in simpler or cheaper manufacturing.

The most damaging evidence for Change was its U.S. Patent No. 9,103,321 (‘321 Patent), which not only showed the applied-for design in the patent drawings, but also recited features of the design in its claims.  Here’s FIG. 1A (almost identical to the design in the trademark application):

Here’s an excerpt from claim 1 of the ‘321 Patent:

A wind turbine comprising:

a frame structure;

a housing enclosing said frame structure;

a rotary, wing assembly supported by said frame structure, said rotary wing assembly including rotating eccentric cams and including asymmetric, helical swept wings that rotate to capture wind throughout a circumference of the rotary wing assembly from both windward and leeward sides so that a torque input spreads evenly to mitigate damaging harmonic pulsations that would otherwise arise without the torque input spreading evenly;

It clearly recites the curved blades / helical swept wings and their function.  Thus, the Board found that the ‘321 Patent showed that the applied-for design features are functional:

The patent thus plainly discloses the functional role of the three components disclosed and claimed in Applicant’s drawing of the mark: the conical tower, the helical wings, and the boundary fences affixed to the helical wings. These features are necessary elements of the invention and are essential to the functioning of Applicant’s wind turbine.

The Board went on to find the evidence of record on advertising to be inconclusive, and also found that the design alternatives were “merely variations of a single basic” turbine design.

The Board found that the evidence, viewed as a whole, establishes that the design was functional because it was essential to the use or purpose of the product.

One lesson is to choose either the patent or trademark route for a technological design and go with it; often it’s not feasible to do both.

Eric Lane Avatar

Eric Lane

Eric Lane, the founder and principal of Green Patent Law, is an intellectual property lawyer and registered U.S. patent attorney in New York and is a member of the bar in New York and California. Eric has more than two decades of experience working with wind, solar PV, CSP, biofuels, and geothermal, energy storage technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, medical devices, data communications, mechanical, chemical, internet and software.