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Colgate-Palmolive Co. v. J.M.D. All-Star Import and Export

May 7, 2007



Are the Colddate toothpaste boxes which the defendants sold substantially indistinguishable from plaintiff's Colgate toothpaste boxes? That is the issue on the present cross motions for summary judgment granting and dismissing plaintiff's claim for trademark counterfeiting.


The following facts are taken from plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts submitted pursuant to Local Rule 56.1 ("Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt."), or are otherwise undisputed.

Plaintiff manufactures and sells several varieties of Colgate toothpaste, which is the most popular brand of toothpaste in the United States, and owns related trade dress and registered trademarks. Plaintiff's Cavity Protection Great Regular Flavor variety is sold in a rectangular box that prominently displays the word "Colgate" in large white letters against a red background. To the right of the Colgate mark is a large blue oval that incorporates a ribbon swirl design in varying shades of blue. Within the swirl are the words "Cavity Protection" in medium-sized white letters. A small American Dental Association (ADA) symbol appears in the lower left corner. The phrases "Great Regular Flavor," "Fluoride Toothpaste," and "Helps Strengthen Teeth" also appear on the box in small white letters. See Am. Compl., Ex. 5; Pl.'s Jan. 12, 2007 Mem. at 10.

In October 2005, acting on a consumer complaint, plaintiff's investigator purchased toothpaste bearing the mark "Colddate," as well as purported Colgate toothpaste from a store in Brooklyn. Plaintiff later ascertained that defendant J.M.D. All-Star Import and Export, Inc. had imported the Colddate toothpaste from China, and that it was being sold at several other stores in New York.

The Colddate box is similar to the Colgate box, but differs in the following ways. Instead of the word "Colgate," the word "Colddate" appears in a similar font. Instead of the blue ribbon swirl design with the phrase "Cavity Protection," the Colddate box has a blue globe design depicting a world map over latitudinal and longitudinal lines with the phrase "Cavity Fighter." The Colddate box has a diagonal yellow stripe on the upper left corner with the phrase "with CALCIUM" in small red letters. The phrase "FRESH BREATH - STRONG WHITE TEETH" appears beneath the Colddate mark in small white letters where only the product's weight is printed on the Colgate box. There is no ADA symbol on the Colddate box. The other phrases in small white letters are altered from "Helps Strengthen Teeth" to "Strengthens Teeth" and from "Great Regular Flavor" to "Great Original Taste." See Am. Compl., Ex. 5; LaBarre Jan. 12, 2007 Decl. ("LaBarre Decl."), Ex. 10.

Photographs of the front of each box are attached as Appendix A.

Printed on the back of the Colddate box is "Yangzhou Lierkang Daily Used Chemicals Co., Ltd." as well a Chinese mailing address, phone number and email address. See LaBarre Decl., Ex. 10.

Trademark Counterfeit

Section 32 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1114(1)(a), allows the owner of a registered trademark to recover against defendants who "use in commerce any reproduction, counterfeit, copy, or colorable imitation of a registered mark in connection with the sale, offering for sale, distribution, or advertising of any goods or services on or in connection with which such use is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive[.]"

A defendant who uses a counterfeit of a registered mark, as opposed to a mere colorable imitation, is subject to increased civil damages as well as criminal penalties. See 15 U.S.C. § 1117(b) (providing treble damages for intentional use of a counterfeit); 15 U.S.C. § 1117(c) (plaintiff may recover statutory damages of up to $100,000 for use of a counterfeit mark, or up to $1,000,000 if such use was willful); 18 U.S.C. § 2320(a) (providing criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,000,000 for intentionally trafficking goods or services knowingly using a counterfeit mark).

A "counterfeit" is defined as a "spurious mark which is identical with, or substantially indistinguishable from, a registered mark." 15 U.S.C. § 1127. In passing the Trademark Counterfeiting Act of 1984, which authorized ex parte seizure orders, mandated monetary damages and created criminal penalties, Congress contemplated that the "definition of 'substantially indistinguishable' will need to be elaborated on a case-by-case basis by the courts." 130 Cong. Rec. H12076, at H12078 (Daily Ed. Oct. 10, 1983) (Joint statement on 1984 trademark counterfeiting legislation). It commented, however, that:

Obviously, a mark need not be absolutely identical to a genuine mark in order to be considered "counterfeit." Such an interpretation would allow counterfeiters to escape liability by modifying the registered trademarks of their honest competitors in trivial ways. However, the sponsors do not intend to treat as counterfeiting what would formerly have been arguable, but not clear-cut, cases of trademark infringement.

For example, a manufacturer may adopt a mark for its goods that is reminiscent of, although certainly not "substantially indistinguishable from," a trademark used by the "name-brand" manufacturer of the product. Thus, "Prastimol" might be used as the mark for a medication that is the functional equivalent of a product sold under the trademark "Mostimol." Whether or not this sort of imitation violates the Lanham Act ...

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