Bloomberg sues Chinese knockoff of its terminal

These days, most people think of Bloomberg as a business publisher — they have a bunch of online news outlets, and they own BusinessWeek.  But the bread and butter of Bloomberg’s business remains the Bloomberg terminal — the famous dual-screen machine that sits on the desk of zillions of finance industry people worldwide and serves as the nerve center for the financial data and other information they need to make money for their clients, or destroy the world, or, sometimes, do both simultaneously. Today we learn that Bloomberg has brought suit in a Shanghai court against a Chinese company that it believes has knocked off its terminal.

In the pic at left, the Bloomberg terminal is at the bottom, and the Chinese alleged knockoff at the top.  But what is the IP right that covers this sort of technology? As the article notes, there’s no information yet suggesting that Bloomberg owns a patent in the design of its machine. And there’s no copyright in the design — the machine is the sort of useful thing that copyright, which applies only to things that are not in themselves practically useful, does not cover. The IP right at issue here is trade dress, which is a component of the trademark law that establishes rights in product or package designs that identify to consumers the source of a particular product.  So, for example, Coca-Cola has a trademark in its name, but it also has trade dress rights in the shape of its bottle.  Why? Because the sinuous shape of a traditional Coke bottle is a strong signal to consumers, who are widely familiar with the shape, that they are looking at a bottle of Coke.

Is the design of a Bloomberg terminal likely to qualify as trade dress?  Maybe. But that raises another question. Trade dress, like copyright, does not cover functional aspects of a product’s design.  So is the two-screen design of the Bloomberg terminal, with its arrangement of dedicated buttons, functional?  Perhaps.  In any event, this might be a case to watch.