Some years ago, I was involved in a lawsuit (as a witness, not plaintiff!) about something called “trade dress”. I had to be educated, as it was clearly something unlike a “trademark”, which I knew to be a logo, sign, symbol, company name or other specific identifier. According to the good folks at Wikipedia, “trade dress is a legal term of art that generally refers to characteristics of the visual appearance of a product or its packaging (or even the design of a building) that signify the source of the product to consumers. Trade dress is a form of intellectual property.” Still unclear, I was made wiser by the specifics of the case. One loudspeaker manufacturer was suing a bunch of competitors who produced speakers featuring a similar- looking, yet distinctive, detail. Therefore, unlike copying Nike’s swoosh or Montblanc’s six-pointed star, which are proper trademarks, it was more akin to copying Louboutin’s red soles or Toblerone’s triangular sections.
What this does for designers – including those who fashion watches – is create grey areas where one may even go so far as shamelessly copying a market leader’s complete look, but it is up to the originator to take legal action. Fortunately, the watch industry doesn’t seem to be too bothered. Either that, or the legal action takes place behind closed doors and we simply don’t hear about it. Take, for example, Rolex’s Oyster bracelet, three links across, older than Madonna and so distinctive that it’s either in the public domain, or Rolex is so justly confident of its identity that it can ignore copyists, of which there are plenty. It’s simply a perfect form for a bracelet – comfortable, durable, adjustable and utterly handsome.