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Manufacturing Company v. Trainer/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

101 U.S. 51

Manufacturing Company  v.  Trainer

This is a suit in equity to restrain the defendants, D. Trainer & Sons, from using on ticking manufactured and sold by them the letters 'A. C. A.' in the sequence here named, alleged by the complainant to be its trade-mark, by which it designates ticking of a particular quality of its own manufacture; and to compel the defendants to account for the profits made by them on sales of ticking thus marked.

It appears that the complainant, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, a corporation created under the laws of New Hampshire, commenced the manufacture of ticking at Amoskeag Falls, in that State, some time prior to 1834, and marked its products with a label or ticket consisting of a certain device, within which were printed, in red colors, the name of the company, its place of manufacture, the words 'Power Loom,' and in the centre the single letter 'A' or 'B' or 'C' or 'D,' according to the grade of excellence of the goods, the first quality being indicated by the first letter and the decreasing quality from that grade by subsequent letters in the alphabet. The device, apart from the words mentioned, was a fancy border in red colors, square outside and elliptical within, and the words in the upper and lower lines of the label were printed in a line corresponding with the inside curve of the border.

In the year 1834, or about the time, the company introduced an improvement in its manufacture, by which it produced a grade or quality of ticking superior to any which it had previously manufactured. For goods of this quality it used in its label or ticket, in place of the single letter 'A,' the three letters 'A. C. A.' The original device, with its colored border and printed words, indicating the company by which and the place where the goods were manufactured was retained; the only alteration consisting in the substitution of the three letters 'A. C. A.' in place of the single letter 'A.' Subsequently the company changed its place of manufacture from Amoskeag Falls to Manchester, in the same State, and a corresponding change was then made in the label. The three letters mentioned were placed in the label or ticket on all goods of the very highest quality manufactured by the complainant, the single letter being retained in the labels placed on other goods to indicate a lower grade or quality. The combination of the three letters was probably suggested, as is stated, by the initials of the words in the company's name, Amoskeag Company,-with the letter 'A' previously used, to denote the best quality of goods it manufactured. It is contended by the complainant that the combination was adopted and used to indicate, not merely the quality of the goods, but also their origin as of the manufacture of the Amoskeag Company. It is upon the correctness of this position that it chiefly relies for a reversal of the decree dismissing the bill.

On the part of the defendants the contention is that the letters were designed and are used to indicate the quality of the goods manufactured and not their origin; that it was so adjudged many years ago in a case to which the company was a party in the Superior Court of the city of New York, which adjudication has been generally accepted as correct, and acted upon by manufacturers of similar goods throughout the country; and that the letters, as used by the defendants on a label or ticket having their own device, and in connection with words different from those used by the complainant, do not mislead or tend to mislead any one as to the origin of the goods upon which they are placed.

The general doctrines of the law as to trade-marks, the symbols or signs which may be used to designate products of a particular manufacture, and the protection which the courts will afford to those who originally appropriated them, are not controverted. Every one is at liberty to affix to a product of his own manufacture any symbol or device, not previously appropriated, which will distinguish it from articles of the same general nature manufactured or sold by others, and thus secure to himself the benefits of increased sale by reason of any peculiar excellence he may have given to it. The symbol or device thus becomes a sign to the public of the origin of the goods to which it is attached, and an assurance that they are the genuine article of the original producer. In this way it often proves to be of great value to the manufacturer in preventing the substitution and sale of an inferior and different article for his products. It becomes his trade-mark, and the courts will protect him in its exclusive use, either by the imposition of damages for its wrongful appropriation or by restraining others from applying it to their goods and compelling them to account for profits made on a sale of goods marked with it.

The limitations upon the use of devices as trade-marks are well defined. The object of the trade-mark is to indicate, either by its own meaning or by association, the origin or ownership of the article to which it is applied. If it did not, it would serve no useful purpose either to the manufacturer or to the public; it would afford no protection to either against the sale of a spurious in place of the genuine article. This object of the trade-mark and the consequent limitations upon its use are stated with great clearness in the case of Canal Company v. Clark, reported in the 13th Wallace. There the court said, speaking through Mr. Justice Strong, that 'no one can claim protection for the exclusive use of a trade-mark or trade name which would practically give him a monopoly in the sale of any goods other than those produced or made by himself. If he could, the public would be injured, rather than protected, for competition would be destroyed. Nor can a generic name or a name merley descriptive of an article of trade, of its qualities, ingredients, or characteristics, be employed as a trade-mark, and the exclusive use of it be entitled to legal protection.' And a citation is made from the opinion of the Superior Court of the city of New York in the case of the present complainant against Spear, reported in the 2d of Sandford, that 'the owner of an original trade-mark has an undoubted right to be protected in the exclusive use of all the marks, forms, or symbols that were appropriated as designating the true origin or ownership of the article or fabric to which they are affixed; but he has no right to the exclusive use of any words, letters, figures, or symbols which have no relation to the origin or ownership of the goods, but are only meant to indicate their names or quality. He has no right to appropriate a sign or symbol, which from the nature of the fact it is used to signify, others may employ with equal truth, and therefore have an equal right to employ for the same purpose.'

Many adjudications, both in England and in this country, might be cited in illustration of the doctrine here stated. For the purpose of this case, and in support of the position that a right to the exclusive use of words, letters, or symbols, to indicate merely the quality of the goods to which they are affixed cannot be acquired, it will be sufficient to refer, in addition to the decisions mentioned in Wallace and Sandford, to the judgment of the Vice-Chancellor in Raggett v. Findlater, where an injunction to restrain the use by the defendants upon their trade label of the term 'nourishing stout,' which the plaintiff had previously used, was refused on the ground that 'nourishing' was a mere English word denoting quality. Law Rep. 17 Eq. 29. Upon the same principle letters or figures which, by the custom of traders, or the declaration of the manufacturer of the goods to which they are attached, are only used to denote quality, are incapable of exclusive appropriation; but are open to use by any one, like the adjectives of the language.

If, now, we apply the views thus expressed to the case at bar, we shall find the question involved to be of easy solution. It is clear from the history of the adoption of the letters 'A. C. A.' as narrated by the complainant, and the device within which they are used, that they were only designed to represent the highest quality of ticking which is manufactured by the complainant, and not its origin. The device previously and subsequently used stated the name of the manufacturer, and no purpose could have been subserved by any further declaration of that fact. And besides, the letters themselves do not suggest any thing, and require explanation before any meaning can be attached to them. That explanation when made is that they are placed in the device of the company when it is affixed to the finest quality of its goods, while single letters are used in the same device when it is attached to goods of an inferior quality. They are never used be themselves, but merely as part of a device containing, in addition to the border in red, several printed terms. Alone the letters convey no meaning; they are only significant as part of the general device constituting the trade-mark. Used in that device to denote only quality, and so understood, they can be used by others for a similar purpose equally with the words 'superior' or 'superfine,' or other words or letters or figures having a like significant.

We are aware that there is in the record the testimony of several witnesses to the effect that they understood that the letters were intended to indicate the origin as well as the quality of the goods to which they were attached, but it is entirely overborne by the patent fact that the label previously disclosed the name in full of the manufacturer and by the history of the adoption of the letters, as narrated by the complainant. As it was pertinently observed in the case in Sandford, if purchasers of the ticking read the name of the company, the letters can give no additional information, even if it be admitted that they are intended to indicate the name of the company. And if they do not read the name as printed, the letters are unintelligible. If an explanation be asked of their purpose in the label, the only reasonable answer which can be given is the one which corresponds with the fact that they are designed merely to indicate the quality of the goods.

But there is another and equally conclusive answer to the suit. The label used by the defendants is not calculated to mislead purchasers as to the origin of the goods to which it is attached. It does not resemble the device of the complainant. Its border has a different figure; it is square outside and inside. It has within it the words 'Omega' and 'Ring Twist,' as well as the letters 'A. C. A.' Neither the name of the complainant, nor of the place where its goods are manufactured, nor the words 'Power Loom,' are upon it. The two labels are so unlike in every particular, except in having the letters 'A. C. A.' in their centre, that it is impossible that any one can be misled in supposing the goods, to which the label of the defendants is attached, are those manufactured by the complainant. The whole structure of the case thus falls to the ground. There is no such imposition practised upon the public and no such fraud perpetrated upon the manufacturers, in attempting to dispose of the goods of one as those of another, as to call for the interposition of a court of equity.

Decree affirmed.



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