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Little Tree car freshener trademark owner goes out on a limb

News and Notes Focused on the 3 Public Faces of IP Law

  • Brand Image Protection - Trademark Law
  • Visual Image Protection - Copyright Law
  • Personal Image Protection - Right of Publicity Law

The Image Protection Law blog has been created in order to share stories and information on the legal aspects of: 1) the marketplace reputation of a company or product captured in its trademark, 2) published or publicly-displayed artwork, photography, and any created visual design, and 3) use of a person's photograph or likeness for product promotion or other commercial purposes.

The "IP3" share at least one thing in common: Image is everything. In these posts let's look at what that means in the realm of intellectual property in the news, but let's also be prepared to explore if there's something more beyond "everything." Don't forget, the intellectual in "intellectual property" doesn't mean smart or brainy, although by nature true creators often are. The word is used to refer to any creation, i.e., a "product of the mind." While this blog will be regularly updated, you are encouraged to share your thoughts on these posts.

Virtually everyone who grew up in the U.S. and is alive today knows what a Little Tree car freshener is. An image of the successful product dangling from a car mirror immediately comes to mind at mere mention of the tree-shaped air freshener made to improve indoor air quality in vehicles. 

Currently, the Watertown, N.Y., manufacturer and trademark owner Car-Freshner Corporation has filed two separate lawsuits alleging other companies have violated Little Tree trademarks.

Does a different air freshener violate trademark? 

In the first suit filed in August, Car-Freshner sued Rob Ross Inc. and merchandiser Surreal Entertainment alleging that the tree-shaped air fresheners they sell violate Car-Freshner's trademarks, according to The Post-Standard. The defendants are affiliated with the now-deceased PBS television painting instructor Rob Ross, who conducted on-air painting classes in which he told participants to paint "happy little trees" to disguise "happy little mistakes" in their paintings. 

The Post-Standard reports that the federal suit alleges knowing infringement and that the Rob Ross fresheners are "confusingly similar" to Little Tree fresheners, that customers could think they are buying Little Tree products and that the Rob Ross defendants are wrongly taking advantage of Little Tree's "reputation and goodwill." Plaintiff's request that the court order that production and sale of the Rob Ross air fresheners stop and ask for money damages and legal fees. 

Can a key fob violate an air freshener trademark? 

The second lawsuit, in New York federal court, accuses luxury European fashion designer Balenciaga of copying Little Trees to create $275 key rings. Reportedly, the suit alleges that the designer key rings dilute and infringe on Little Tree's trademark, creating the possibility for misleading customers into believing there is a link between the key rings and the iconic air fresheners. 

In related news, Quartzy reports that Car-Freshner along with Julius Sämann Ltd. already use the Little Tree design as inspiration for other products like keychains and baggage tags. They have also licensed the mark to another designer who makes high-end hang tags. 

In the end, Car-Freshner may not be going out on a limb by filing these new suits. According to the Post Standard, Little Tree's owner won a similar lawsuit in 2015 against another freshener company after a jury found substantial similarity in packaging. The defendant in that case was ordered to pay $52,000 in damages. 

(The article links in the text above will bring the reader to pictures of the disputed products next to the Little Tree fresheners for comparison.)

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