Raise your hand if you can describe, from memory, the design on your toilet paper. Anyone?
Among those in the $4 billion industry, toilet-paper design is a big deal. Enough of an issue that a court battle between two toilet-paper titans ended up involving top-notch intellectual property lawyers, the deposition of more than a dozen witnesses and some 675,000 pages of documents.
The story starts in the early 1990s, when Georgia-Pacific Co. rebranded its toilet paper as Quilted Northern, with an embossed design that made it look, well, quilt-like. (YouTube has a Quilted Northern TV adfrom 2003.) The company received several trademarks, copyrights and patents for its flush of brilliance.
In 2008, the company discovered that one of its main competitors, Kimberly-Clark Corp., had redesigned its Cottonelle Ultra and Scott Kimberly-Clark Professional with a quilted design.
"Georgia-Pacific unrolled this suit against Kimberly-Clark, alleging unfair competition and trademark infringement," wrote Judge Terence Evans of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, who was not above a few puns in his 17-page decision.
While the arguments involved such qualities as puffiness, bulk, absorption and “nesting,” the tissue issue came down to functionality. The court ruledthat Georgia-Pacific’s Quilted Diamond Design is functional and therefore cannot be trademarked.
Maybe the lawyers who lost the case can dab their tears away – with a quilted toilet paper of their choice.
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