Bell Helicopter was recently awarded $22.5 million in a trade dress infringement suit against the government of Iran.  Judge Urbina, writing for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, handed down the award two years after entering a default judgment against the government of Iran.  Iran failed to respond to Bell’s complaint or enter an appearance in court, resulting in the default judgment.

Bell’s trade dress suit related to helicopter designs which were also protected, in part, by three design patents: D388,048, D375,077 and D363,054.  Iran was accused of manufacturing at least thirteen counterfeit helicopter designs beginning in 2001 and promoting the counterfeit helicopters at an air show held annually in Iran.  Although two of the design patents in question have expired, Bell succeeded in its claim for trade dress infringement by demonstrating to the satisfaction of the court that its helicopter designs are inherently distinctive and have acquired secondary meaning since being first introduced in 1966.  The court also agreed with Bell that Iran’s designs are “confusingly similar” to that of Bell and that Bell’s designs are non-functional and ornamental.  See Opinion, at page 6. 

In several recent opinions involving design patents, judges have articulated why and how a claimed design is similar to an accused design, including reasons for why particular features were considered functional or non-functional.  In these cases, courts being have found many features of a design to be functional.  See, for example, Richardson v. Stanley Works, 597 F.3d 1288 (Fed. Cir. 2010).  Although the functionality analysis performed by judges can be different for trade dress claims as compared to design patent claims, in this case, perhaps because of Iran’s failure to answer or present any counter-evidence, the court did not perform any functionality analysis or find any features of Bell’s helicopter design to be functional.  The opinion also contains no side-by-side or element-by-element comparisons of the competing designs to support the finding that the designs are confusingly similar. 

The District Court’s opinion can be found at:

Fig. 1 of U.S. Design Patent No. D375,077