Plaintiff E-Z Dock's expired utility patent [pdf here] sunk its claims of trade dress infringement and unfair competition based on alleged trademark rights in a dog bone-shaped floating dock connector. Finding the product configuration to be de jure functional, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted Defendant Snap Dock's motion for judgment on the pleadings under FRCP 12(c). E-Z Dock, Inc. v. Snap Dock, LLC, Civil Action No. 2:21-cv-450-SPC-NPM (M.D. Florida, September 9, 2022).


On a motion for judgment on the pleadings, courts generally accept as true all material facts alleged by the nonmoving party. However, in some circumstances, exhibits "can overcome the presumption that the nonmoving party's allegations are true." Snap Deck attached to its answer/counterclaim a copy of E-Z Dock's expired utility patent no. 5,281,055, entitled "Floating Dock,' which discloses E-Z Dock's modular floating dock system, "including the coupler at issue."


The Board observed that "a utility patent is critical to the non-functionality element of a trade dress claim based on the patented product." See TrafFix ("A utility patent is strong evidence that the features claimed therein are functional" (emphasis added)). [Note: the '055 patent did not claim the dog-bone shape, it merely disclosed it - ed.]

The invention disclosed in the '055 Patent is a floating dock "comprised of uniform floating docking sections coupled together with rubber male-type anchors which fit into female-type receiving sockets on the docking sections." ***The idea of floating docking modules was not novel, as evidenced by the prior art mentioned in the '055 Patent. ***. The central advance of the '055 Patent was the coupling system—that is, the anchors (or couplers) and corresponding sockets that turned floating docking modules into a novel product.

The patent "explain[ed] the functionality of the shape": to ensure that the anchors will remain secure and the docking sections will not separate. EZ-Dock pointed to the statement in the patent that the socket shape "can vary appropriately," but the court was not moved: "the dog bone shape of the couplers is the reason EZ-Dock's inventions works." The court noted that TrafFix teaches that the existence of an alternative design does not render a functional design non-functional. [Note, however, that in TrafFix, the design at issue was claimed in the expired patent - ed.]

The court concluded that E-Z Dock could not satisfy the non-functionality element of its trade dress claim. "EZ-Dock cannot enjoy the protection of a full patent term, then use the Lanham Act to extend its monopoly on the patented design." [Actually, the patent didn't "cover" a dog-bone shaped connector - ed.].

And so, the Board entered judgment in favor of Snap Dock.

Read comments and post your comment here.

TTABlogger comment: There's a big difference between what is disclosed in a patent and what is claimed. There is also a big differences between what is de facto functional (i.e., it has a function), and what is de jure functional for trademark purposes. The court ignored those differences. By the way, can you think of alternative shapes that would work just as well? Maybe a "T" shape?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.