Sunday, June 21, 2009

A fire station of unknown origin

Pacheco Ross Architects, P.C. v. Mitchell Associates Architects, 2009 WL 1606066 (N.D.N.Y.)

The parties, who had worked together in a previous incarnation and apparently ended up in a nasty split, fought over advertising claims related to sixteen architectural designs shown at industry trade shows, in general marketing/PR materials, and on the internet. They compete in a specialized industry, the design of fire houses; each project is worth six or seven figures. Advertising that a company has received an architectural award and that it has performed previous architectural work are useful ways to attract new clients. A large percentage of new business comes from the handful of trade shows each year that are attended by fire chiefs, commissioners, and other fire personnel. These customers are likely to be confused if two different firms claim to have received the same award or performed the same work.

The court reviewed §43(a)(1)(A) and (a)(1)(B). (I bet you’re thinking, correctly, that Dastar precludes an (a)(1)(A) claim, but stick around—(a)(1)(A) will retain relevance.) The opinion identified three ways of proving deceptiveness under (a)(1)(B): survey evidence, evidence of actual confusion, and “argument based on an inference arising from a judicial comparison of the claims and the context of their use in the marketplace.” A welcome result, but not one that’s very common, to say the least!

Here, there was neither survey evidence nor actual confusion evidence, but the court nonetheless went on to consider “whether the ordinary, prudent customer in the marketplace would likely be confused,” using the Polaroid factors. The court said these factors were “well-known and need not be recited in their entirety here,” and “can be enlarged or diminished depending on the facts of the particular case” because the court’s evaluation is not mechanical, but should focus on the ultimate question of confusion. (Notice how not reciting the factors helps obscure that the factors are designed to assess trademark infringement, not false advertising in general!) I like how the court thinks; I am increasingly of the opinion that the multifactor confusion test, though it has its weaknesses, is superior to the rigid and ultimately insupportable falsity/misleadingness distinction.

Applying this method, the court found that the Polaroid factors favored a finding of likely confusion for 14 designs, which the court proceeded to order credited in particular ways. The confusion with which the court was concerned covered primary responsibility for designing the architectural works and/or receiving architectural awards. The modified Polaroid factors played out as follows: The parties’ products are similar in quality and consumers are relatively sophisticated. However, the other factors outweighed these considerations: the strength “of the moving party’s claim to be responsible, or largely responsible, for the architectural design and/or award in question”; the close similarity between the parties’ representations that they were responsible for the designs/awards; the identity of services and advertising channels; the parties’ intent to continue making the same claims; the testimony of both principals that confusion was likely; and the parties’ lack of good faith. (While the strength of the claims makes some sense, comparing mark strength to the degree to which the claim at issue is clearly false, the similarity of the parties’ representations will rarely be relevant in a false advertising case. Applied to false advertising, the exact Polaroid factors will often be poor fits—as the court partly acknowledged by modifying them.)

The court required attributions to be conspicuously placed near the relevant claims, in a typeface at least as large as the claims, with no additional language or competing attribution (including claims by one party to have been part of the “design team,” claims to have been “in charge of design,” or references to “the firm he founded”). The attributions had to disclose the architect of record, though in some cases that had to be accompanied by “now known as.”

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