Value stores like Meijer and T.J. Maxx, which have built a reputation for providing discounted items, allegedly don’t always use the best business practices for attaining those items. Many of them are sourced from outside the U.S., where labor is cheap, and allegedly sometimes they resort to knockoffs, which are usually cheaper versions of a patented and/or well-known design.
When Design Ideas, a design firm based in Springfield, IL, refused to lower its price on its Sparrow Clips, the retailers threatened to purchase the clips from another vendor. Design Ideas pointed out that it owned the Sparrow Clips’s exclusive copyright, which it had purchased from Pititas Waiwiriya, the Thai designer who allegedly invented the clothespins that come in multiple colors and are topped with the outline of a small bird.
After Design Ideas refused to lower their price, Meijer allegedly started buying “Canary Clips,” a knockoff produced by a company called Whitmor. Whitmor is another vendor that provides products to large retailers across the country, including T.J. Maxx and Meijer.
After someone who worked for Design Ideas allegedly saw the knockoffs being sold at a T.J. Maxx and a Meijer in Springfield, Design Ideas responded by filing a copyright lawsuit against its former customers.
In the claim they filed, Design Ideas included an email that allegedly showed Whitmor asking a Chinese manufacturer how much it would cost them to produce a knockoff of the Sparrow Clips. In that same email, Whitmor also allegedly asked the knockoff manufacturer to research the original mold and discover whether or not it was protected by a patent. Whitmor denies having ever sent such an email.
But regardless of whether a patent on the design existed, an important question at the heart of the copyright lawsuit is whether the design can legally be patented and enforced. The clothespin part of the Sparrow Clips qualifies as a “useful article” which means it serves a “utilitarian function.” Most items that fit under this category, such as tables and chairs, are not eligible for copyright patents.
On the other hand, the decorative bird design that tops the Sparrow Clips does qualify them for a patent, according to U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough, who ruled in favor of Design Ideas. Although Myerscough acknowledged the clothespin part of the Sparrow Clips were undoubtedly functional, she also pointed out that the bird outline at the top made it artistically unique from other clothespins, thereby protecting the legitimacy of the copyright.
Myerscough also said the Canary Clips were similar enough to the patented Sparrow Clips to justify Design Ideas filing their copyright lawsuit against the infringers.
Van Meter, the owner of Design Ideas, said he was happy with how the lawsuit turned out, although he was upset that it ever needed to be filed in the first place. Prior to their pricing dispute, both Meijer and T.J. Maxx had been good long-time customers of Design Ideas and it’s always sad to see a good relationship end. Van Meter also said it seemed like an unusual position to be taken by Meijer, which is family owned.
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