March 7, 2019—A little over one year ago, I blogged about Tesla’s Roadster being launched into outer space, asking who owns the right to the “Spaceman” rider’s mark? Today, I post a different thought-provoking question about electric car company Rivian: Does Rivian’s use of a Ford F-150 body when testing its electric truck technology in public risk trade dress infringement?
If you haven’t seen the recent headlines, startup electric truck company Rivian has been testing its 100% electric truck technology under the hood of a Ford F-150 body:
In these photos of a Rivian masquerading as a Ford at an electric charging station, you can make out the modified chassis underneath. You might also notice there are no tailpipes, and the wheels seem just a little too small. Surprisingly, the Ford logo is still present on the truck body in both the front and back, along with the F-150 mark on the side. I sure hope Rivian has a licensing agreement…
Compare the above look to the distinct headlight and sleek design advertised by Rivian:
For the past few months, consumers have been reporting sightings of strange F-150s with missing features, speculating that the trucks might be prototypes for an electric Ford. Here’s another example of one seen in the wild, although it’s unclear whether this is a genuine Ford electric prototype:
However, recently Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe confirmed that the company has been secretly testing its “skateboard” chassis architecture underneath Ford F-150 bodies on public streets. And he also suggested the company may be testing under other masks: “They’re all over the place, but nobody knows. We’re very quiet about that.”
When I learned about Rivian’s clever camouflaging, it immediately brought to mind trade dress protections. The Lanham Act protects a product’s design, shape, and configuration when such features serve as distinctive identifiers of the product’s source. Note, however, that functional aspects of trade dress are not protected–only ornamental features are. Just like trademark infringement claims, to prevent others from using a specific trade dress, the plaintiff must show that the use is likely to cause confusion. The Lanham Act also protects against trade dress dilution, which includes weakening of the distinctiveness or fame of trade dress or use of trade dress in connection with inferior products. In either case, the plaintiff can seek both damages and an injunction barring further infringement and dilution.
Arguably, Rivian’s masquerading as a Ford F-150 risks liability for trade dress infringement, as well as dilution. As to infringement, there are already reports of confusion on the streets. Though, the harm from infringement is probably minimal because Rivian is not selling any counterfeit electric F-150s.
Rivian’s use of the Ford F-150 body may also dilute the distinctiveness of the F-150’s overall design and Ford’s marks. Indeed, with knowledge of Rivian hiding under the hoods of F-150s, consumers and commentators may be starting to wonder if the F-150s on the road were actually made by Ford. And depending on your view of electric vehicles, use of the Ford and F-150 marks, in addition to the model’s trade dress, could be seen as use in connection with inferior, unrefined products. On the other hand, if you’re like me and are excited about electric vehicles, the use could elevate Ford and the F-150’s overall image to high-tech chic.
But Ford would likely face an up-hill battle arguing the F-150’s trade dress is famous enough to be entitled to protection from dilution. In fact, it appears Rivian chose the F-150 body precisely because it is ubiquitous and generic enough that hiding under it would likely not draw attention. Moreover, Rivian could argue its use of the F-150 trade dress is fair, and therefore statutorily protected, because Rivian is not using the trade dress to designate itself as a source. Rivian’s use also doesn’t seem to fit the mold for what is typically considered “commercial” (or transactional) use. On the other hand, Rivian could probably take simple steps to modify the body of its testing vehicles to reduce the trade dress risks created by its masquerade.