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Intellectual Property Insights from Fishman Stewart
Mini Article – Volume 23, Issue 19

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Dressed to Travel

By Alexander JSW Johnson

Trademarks travel. In many ways, that’s one of the primary purposes of a trademark—to distribute the reputation of the brand’s owner widely and efficiently. It is for this reason that trademark registrations issued by the U.S. Trademark Office are entitled to nationwide rights.

Sometimes trademark attorneys also travel, and yours truly is about to take a flight for a family vacation this weekend—which naturally got me thinking about trademarks-in-flight: airplane trademarks.

Names like UNITED and DELTA are quite famous, but there are trademarks for planes and designs of planes themselves. These types of trademarks are often referred to as “Trade Dress.” 

Trade dress does not refer to a full-body, legless garment for wearing on Wall Street (though that might be a good brand idea for a quippy clothier in Manhattan). Trade dress means the way one’s trade has dressed itself—symbols and indicia associated with the presentation of goods or services.

For example, Boeing has registered a trademark for the physical shape of the plane’s fuselage (body of the plane), as shown by the solid line portion of the image below.

The dotted lines are there merely to indicate the rest of the airplane and are not part of the trade dress claimed. Boeing is claiming its trademark—trade dress—rights are in the raised portion of the fuselage, only. Boeing’s registered rights are for use with airplanes as goods.

The next aircraft design protected by trade dress gets a special shout-out from this Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native: the American Eagle Regional Jet. These smaller regional planes provided connections for me and my fellow Cedar Rapidians to major airports like Chicago O’Hare (and beyond, usually—if Chicago was the final stop, we drove). 

The trade dress claimed by American Airlines in its American Eagle Regional Jet above specifies red, white, and blue colors for the stripes, words, and images on the plane’s exterior (the fully detailed mark description is shown under the “mark information” section at the link in the image’s caption). The services provided in connection with this trade dress? Transportation services!

Speaking of Chicago, Southwest Airlines operates 260 daily flights from Midway. As the most recognizable trade dress in this article, the Southwest plane below stands out.

The trade dress claimed by Southwest is the combination of the shape and placement of the blue, yellow, red, and silver portions shown above. The services identified in the registration are, once again, transportation services.

Why do some brands claim shapes or contours of a plane, others the colors and patterns? Why do some claim airplanes as goods and others transportation as a service? 

Well, Boeing registers its airplane shape for goods because it won’t put its artwork on the plane’s exterior; that’s for its customers, i.e., the airlines, to do. 

Similarly, American Airlines and Southwest do not claim rights in the planes’ shapes because they purchase the planes from Boeing and other plane manufacturers. The airlines then place their marks on those aircraft, and they sell air travel to their customers, i.e., the passengers like you and me.

Next time you check in for your flight, check out your plane’s contours and attire. It’d be a win for me if you looked at the plane and thought, “hey, nice dress—trade dress, that is.”

Alexander JSW Johnson is an attorney at Fishman Stewart with more than 10 years of extensive experience in trademark and intellectual property matters. He works in the firm’s Trademark Practice Group. He holds a B.A. in Art (studio emphasis) and Journalism.

Published October 20, 2023

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