Barker Boatworks prevails in three-year “trade dress” lawsuit

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Barker Boatworks has prevailed in a three-year lawsuit filed against it in 2015 for “trade dress infringement.” Yellowfin Boats filed the initial complaint against Barker in April 2015, saying that Barker infringed on its hull shape and sheer line. The complaint said that Yellowfin’s sheer is a “distinctive appearance that creates an overall commercial impression that boaters have come to know and appreciate.”

The look of a product when it is immediately recognizable as a specific brand is described as its “trade dress.” A product’s trade dress is protected at the federal level by the Lanham Act, which is the primary trademark statute in the United States.

Yellowfin said in the lawsuit that Barker Boatworks, founded in 2014, had violated its trade dress rights with a new 25-foot model that Barker had commissioned naval architect Michael Peters to design. Yellowfin said was it too similar in design to its Yellowfin 25, providing the court with images of both boats and diagrams of its sheer line. Yellowfin also accused Kevin Barker, a former vice president, of stealing trade secrets while working for Yellowfin before launching Barker Boatworks. Attorneys for Barker denied the allegations.

The case was originally heard in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Barker Boatworks moved to dismiss Yellowfin’s complaint but that motion was rejected by the federal judge. Barker Boatworks then moved for summary judgment of all of Yellowfin’s claims. The District Court granted the motion, providing three reasons why Yellowfin’s claim for Lanham Act trade dress protection failed. The court wrote that Yellowfin did not adequately describe any distinctive feature of its sheer line, that the sheer line was functional and therefore not protectable as trade dress, and “no reasonable jury” could conclude that a potential buyer would confuse a Barker for a Yellowfin.

Yellowfin appealed the case, which was then heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11 circuit. The three judge-panel upheld the lower court’s decision, arguing that the lower court “did not err in holding that Yellowfin could not, as a matter of law, prove a likelihood of confusion between Barker Boatworks’ trade dress and its own.”

The appellate court also found that Kevin Barker, who had the names of Yellowfin clients and suppliers on his personal laptop cell phone when he left the company, had not stolen the company’s trade secrets. Barker had refused to sign a confidentiality agreement with Yellowfin and that was cited as being part of the reason for the decision.

Yellowfin president Wylie Nagler declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing litigation.

Barker told TradeOnlyToday that he is relieved that the case is over. “You can’t put a price tag on that,” he said.

Barker has filed a lawsuit against Yellowfin in a Florida state court, suing for what Barker says are $100,000 in back commissions as well as defamation and interference with his business. That case is ongoing. 

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