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Bodum USA, Inc. v. LA Cafetière

September 2, 2010

BODUM USA, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LA CAFETIÈRE, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 07 C 6302-Matthew F. Kennelly, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Easterbrook, Chief Judge.

ARGUED SEPTEMBER 11, 2009

Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and POSNER and WOOD, Circuit Judges.

From the mid-1950s through 1991, Société des Anciens Etablissements Martin S.A. ("Martin") distributed a successful French-press coffee maker known as the Chambord. A French-press coffee maker (called a cafetière à piston in France) is a carafe in which hot water is mixed with coffee grounds. When the brewing is complete, a mesh screen attached to a rod drives the grounds to the bottom of the carafe. Clear coffee then can be poured from the top. In 1991 Bodum Holding purchased all of Martin's stock. Today subsidiaries of Bodum Holding sell throughout the world coffee makers that use the Chambord design and name.

Martin's principal investor and manager was Louis-James de Viel Castel, who had other businesses. One of these, the British firm Household Articles Ltd., sold a French-press coffee maker that it called La Cafetière, which closely resembles the Chambord design. Viel Castel wanted to continue Household's business after Bodum bought Martin. So Viel Castel and Jørgen Jepsen Bodum, the main investor in Bodum Holding, negotiated. An early draft agreement provided that Household could sell the Chambord design in the United Kingdom, but nowhere else. After several rounds of revisions, however, the agreement provided that Household would never sell a French-press coffee maker in France, that it would not use the trade names Chambord or Melior, and that for four years it would not distribute through the importers, distributors, or agents that Martin employed during 1990--91. The agreement was signed, and Bodum Holding acquired Martin.

La Cafetière, Inc., was incorporated in Illinois in 2006 to serve as the distributor of Household's products in the United States. One of these is the La Cafetière model, which carries the name "Classic" in this country. To avoid confusion between the corporation (which since 2008 has been one of Household's subsidiaries) and the product, we refer to the distributor as "Household."

Household has itself been renamed The Greenfield Group, but we stick with the original name for simplicity. Bodum Holding's US distributor (Bodum USA, Inc.) filed this suit under federal and state law, contending that the sale of any coffee maker similar to the Chambord design violates Bodum's common-law trade dress. Trade dress, a distinctive appearance that enables consumers to identify a product's maker, is a form of trademark. See Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763 (1992). The Chambord design is not registered as Bodum's trademark, but common-law marks may be enforced under both 15 U.S.C. §1125(a), a part of the Lanham Act, and 815 ILCS 510/2(a). Household contends that the 1991 agreement permits it to sell the La Cafetière design anywhere in the world, except France, provided that it does not use the words Chambord or Melior-and Household has never used either of those marks. The district court agreed with this contention and granted summary judgment in Household's favor. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25555 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 24, 2009).

The Chambord design and the La Cafetière design are indeed similar, and although they are not identical a casual coffee drinker (or purchaser) would have trouble telling them apart. Here are pictures:

Chambord design, full Chambord design, empty La Cafetière design, full La Cafetière design, empty

The right-hand version of the La Cafetière design looks closer to the Chambord design because of the domed lid and the ball on the piston. Household calls one design the Classic and the other the Optima; the parties do not make anything of the difference.

Bodum assumes that the proprietor of any distinctive design has an intellectual-property right in this design, which it alone can sell. That assumption is unwarranted. The Chambord design is distinctive-so much so that Martin received a design patent for it-but the patent expired many years ago. After a patent expires, other firms are free to copy the design to the last detail in order to increase competition and drive down the price that consumers pay. See, e.g., Bonito Boats, Inc. v. Thunder Craft Boats, Inc., 489 U.S. 141 (1989); Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Stiffel Co., 376 U.S. 225 (1964). See also Jay Franco & Sons, Inc. v. Franek, No. 09-2155 (7th Cir. Aug. 11, 2010); Specialized Seating, Inc. v. Greenwich Industries, L.P., No. 07-1435 (7th Cir. Aug. 11, 2010). A distinctive design may be protected as a trademark only if it has acquired secondary meaning-that is, if consumers associate the design with a particular manufacturer-and the design's identifying aspects are not functional. See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Brothers, Inc., 529 U.S. 205 (2000). Bodum has not produced evidence that the Chambord design has secondary meaning, so that purchasers of a La Cafetière coffee maker think that they are getting one of Bodum's products. But because Household has not asked us to affirm the district court on this ground, we move on to the contract.

Here is the critical language, from Article 4 of the contract:

In consideration of the compensation paid to Stockholder [Viel Castel] for the stocks of [Martin,] Stockholder guarantees, limited to the agreed compensation, see Article 2, that he shall not-for a period of four (4) years-be engaged directly or indirectly in any commercial business related to manufacturing or distributing [Martin's] products.......

Notwithstanding Article 4 [Bodum Holding] agrees that Stockholder through Household... can manufacture and distribute any products similar to [Martin's] products outside of France. It is expressly understood that Household [ ] is not entitled, directly or indirectly, to any such activity in France, and that Household [ ] furthermore is not entitled, directly or indirectly, globally to manufacture and/or distribute coffeepots under the trade marks and/or brand names of "Melior" and "Chambord," held by [Martin]. Stockholder agrees that Household [ ] is not entitled to use for a period of four (4) years the importers, distributors, and agents which [Martin] uses and/or has used the last year. Any violation of these obligations will constitute a breach of Stockholder's obligation according to Article 4.

The parties agree that this is an accurate translation of the French original, and that French substantive law governs its interpretation. The district judge thought that the contract is clear and that Household can sell its La Cafetière outside of France, if it does not use the Chambord or Melior names. Even if the La Cafetière or Classic model is identical to the Chambord model (which it is not, as a glance at the illustrations shows), a thing identical to something else also is "similar" to it.

Bodum contends that, under French law, the parties' intent prevails over the written word. Article 1156 of the French Civil Code provides: "One must in agreements seek what the common intention of the contracting parties was, rather than pay attention to the literal meaning of the terms." (Again this is an agreed translation, as are all other translations in this opinion.) Jørgen Bodum has submitted an affidavit declaring that he understood the contract to limit Household's sales of the La Cafetière model to the United Kingdom and Australia. This means, Bodum Holding insists, that there must be a trial to determine the parties' intent. It supports this position with the declaration of Pierre-Yves Gautier, a Professor of Law at Université Panthéon-Assas Paris II, who Bodum tenders as an expert on French law. Household has replied with declarations from two experts of its own.

Although Fed. R. Civ. P. 44.1 provides that courts may consider expert testimony when deciding questions of foreign law, it does not compel them to do so-for the Rule says that judges "may" rather than "must" receive expert testimony and adds that courts may consider "any relevant material or source". Judges should use the best of the available sources. The Committee Note in 1966, when Rule 44.1 was adopted, explains that a court "may engage in its own research and consider any relevant material thus found. The court may have at its disposal better foreign law materials than counsel have presented, or may wish to re-examine and amplify material that has been presented by counsel in partisan fashion or in insufficient detail."

Sometimes federal courts must interpret foreign statutes or decisions that have not been translated into English or glossed in treatises or other sources. Then experts' declarations and testimony may be essential. But French law, and the law of most other nations that engage in extensive international commerce, is widely available in English. Judges can use not only accepted (sometimes official) translations of statutes and decisions but also ample secondary literature, such as treatises and scholarly commentary. It is no more necessary to resort to expert declarations about the law of France than about the law of Louisiana, which had its origins in the French civil code, or the law of Puerto Rico, whose origins are in the Spanish civil code. No federal judge would admit "expert" declarations about the meaning of Louisiana law in a commercial case.

Trying to establish foreign law through experts' declarations not only is expensive (experts must be located and paid) but also adds an adversary's spin, which the court then must discount. Published sources such as treatises do not have the slant that characterizes the warring declarations presented in this case. Because objective, English-language descriptions of French law are readily available, we prefer them to the parties' declarations. See Sunstar, Inc. v. ...


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