WASHINGTON -- Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers!
The Supreme Court handed a victory Wednesday to cost-conscious consumers, ruling that most ''knock-off'' products cannot be knocked off the market by the original designers.
Shoes, jewelry, golf clubs or other merchandise that simply copy the distinctive look of a famous brand do not violate the nation's trademark protection laws, the justices said.
To win protection, designers must show that customers may be fooled into thinking that they are buying the brand-name item, the court said.
The 9-0 ruling overturned a $1.6 million verdict against Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., for having sold a line of children's clothes that copied the look of an innovative designer.
Samara Brothers had designed and marketed distinctive seersucker outfits that featured bright appliqued flowers, fruits and hearts. Chain stores, including JCPenney, contracted to sell the clothes.
In 1995, Wal-Mart buyers sent photographs of the clothes to another garment maker, who copied the designs and produced a line of knock-offs for the nation's largest retailer. The next year, Wal-Mart undercut their retail competitors -- including JCPenney -- and earned more than $1 million in profit doing so.
Samara sued, seeking a court order barring further sales of the knock-offs, as well as damages for lost profits.
In a federal court in New York, the designer won on all counts. A jury handed down the damages verdict in 1997 and the U.S. court of appeals upheld the judgment on grounds that the ''inherently distinctive'' look of Samara's clothes deserved trademark protection.
On Wednesday, Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed, saying that the trademark laws are intended to protect consumers and competition, not just brand-name manufacturers.
''Consumers should not be deprived of the benefits of competition,'' Scalia said, by allowing a flood of lawsuits against the sellers of knock-off products.
Wal-Mart's lawyers called the outcome a victory for consumers. ''This sends a message that the focus of the law should be on consumer welfare, not the welfare of trademark owners,'' said William D. Coston, a Washington attorney who defended the retail giant.
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