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Company sued for copying ‘look’ of competitor’s website

If you’ve put a lot of time and money into designing a distinctive website or online store, and a competitor comes along and copies your site’s look, can you sue?

Yes, according to a federal court in California. The “look and feel” of a website is protected by the trademark laws.

Surprisingly, this is one of the first court rulings ever on this question.

Of course, a website is different from a trademark. But a website can still be protected by the law, because it can amount to a company’s “trade dress.”

“Trade dress” refers to the distinctive way that a product is packaged or presented. Examples include the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle or the color of Tiffany’s blue boxes. You obviously can’t trademark the general idea of putting soda in a bottle or jewelry in a box, but if the color and shape are distinctive enough and are separate from the functionality of the product, then they’re protected, and a competitor can’t simply copy them.

The California case involved two websites that sold maternity products. A company called Ingrid & Isabel claimed that a competitor called Baby Be Mine had illegally copied its website design. Specifically, Ingrid & Isabel claimed that Baby Be Mine had copied (1) the idea of putting its logo in pink-orange pastel feminine lettering, (2) the use of models with long wavy hair, shown from head to mid-thigh, wearing white tank tops and jeans, and (3) the general colors, patterns, fonts and wallpaper of Ingrid & Isabel’s site.

In the past, courts have ruled that the design of a physical store can amount to trade dress – such as the color scheme of 7-11 markets, or the distinctive décor of a Mexican restaurant chain. But this is one of the very first times that a court has protected the design of online stores as well.

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