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A Franklin County maker of absorbent pads claimed a rival was violating its trademark.
Saturday, July 20, 2013
A judge has flushed a lawsuit filed by a Franklin County manufacturer of absorbent pads.
McAirlaids Inc., a German company that opened a plant near Rocky Mount in 2008, charged that consumer product giants Kimberly-Clark Corp. improperly put a distinct dot pattern on such items as its GoodNites Bed Mats in violation of McAirlaids’ trademark registration.
Judge Samuel Wilson instead ruled Friday that the dots are functional — tied to the performance of the pad and not merely a decoration to identify the brand. He ruled that McAirlaids cannot use a trademark infringement lawsuit to block a competitor from using them. Wilson dismissed the lawsuit and invalidated McAirlaids’ trademark rights for the dot feature at Kimberly-Clarke’s request.
Representatives of McAirlaids, which operates in a county-owned industrial park and expected to reach 160 workers in 2012, could not be reached for comment.
Absorbent products are a multibillion-dollar business and come in a variety of formats in such categories as personal care, feminine hygiene and medical products. While the base material is usually wood pulp, manufacturers use a variety of techniques to bond the fibers into a pad, diaper, liner or other shape, most involving chemicals.
McAirlaids uses mechanical bonding. Raw pads pass through steel rollers bearing evenly spaced, pointed nibs that pinch together layers of material, creating a dot pattern. The company patented the method, but found patent-infringement proceedings a difficult, costly and slow method to protect its process, Wilson’s opinion said.
In 2010, McAirlaids trademarked the dot-making process with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. While a patent provides monopoly protection to the maker of a useful new product or product function for a limited time period, after which competitors can copy the design, a trademark identifies a distinctive product with its maker for the long haul because a trademark can be renewed indefinitely. But the courts don’t allow companies to use trademark registration to protect product-function features forever, the opinion said.
Citing its trademark, McAirlaids sued Kimberly-Clark, a Dallas, Texas, company with 58,000 global employees that makes a host of consumer, medical and institutional products.
In defending its product in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, McAirlaids explained that it meticulously spaces the pinch points on the rollers so they are close enough to give its products strength but far enough apart for good absorbency. In that case, Wilson ruled, McAirlaids’ dot design affects the quality of its product, making it functional and not fit for trademark protection.
Wilson called the decision “straightforward,” while remarking that the two companies “have filed more than a thousand pages in support of their arguments.”
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