In this 1996 case Topps sued to protect its product, the Ring Pop, from competition. One of the reasons it won was because of the substantial advertising to non-sophisticated purchasers (kids), by means of cartoons. And so of course again, appearing somewhat unnecessarily in a Federal Court opinion, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

ring pops

THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC., Plaintiff, – against – GERRIT J. VERBURG CO. and B.I.P. HOLLAND B.V., Defendants.
96 Civ. 7302 (RWS)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18556; 41 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1412

December 12, 1996, Decided

The Court explains:

During the mid-1970’s, Topps developed the product for which it now seeks protection, the Ring Pop lollipop. It is comprised of a candy portion in the shape of a solitaire jewel, supported by a plastic base portion in the form of a stylized, or “play,” ring. The Ring Pop is held by inserting a finger through the ring, and the candy is then licked.

In 1975, Topps filed patent applications in the U.S. Patent Office on the “inventive” ornamental design for a diamond gemstone ring candy and was awarded two patents, Nos. Des. 242,646 and Des. 242,645 on December 7, 1976. These patents expired on December 7, 1990, but reference to them continues to appear on the Topps’ packaging.

On June 1, 1976 a trademark was registered for Ring Pop by Topps and on July 26, 1994 a trademark was issued consisting of “a candy portion in the configuration of a jewel mounted on a stylized ring.”

The Court continues explaining the high volume of sales and about

Topps’ advertisements on broadcast television during the past ten years of the Ring Pop emphasized the configuration of the product during children’s programming on well-known, popular programs, such as Tom & Jerry Cartoons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Power Rangers, shows specifically aimed at the children for whom the Ring Pop candies were conceived. The buyers of these products are not sophisticated purchasers.

Because the Court will rely on a likelihood of confusion analysis for the trademark infringement claims, the fact that the competing candy products “are expressly intended to be consumed by children” is important. The Court also notes other deceptive aspects of defendant’s packaging and that it “fails to meet the requirements set by regulations” of the US FDA as to nutritional labeling.

Though the competing product has been available in Hong Kong for as long or longer than the Topps Ring Pop product, and despite the expiration of Topps patent, trademark still protects the Ring Pop.

There is no inherent conflict between trademark rights under the Lanham Act and patent rights. Because the Lanham Act and the patent statute are both federal statutes, there is no preemption. A product can be both patentable and protected by trademark rights as long as the particular design protected does not have a utilitarian function.

Therefore, deciding the Ring Pop is not a functional design, the Court ordered a preliminary injunction. And in a subsequent motion decision, (April 28, 1997, 961 F.Supp. 88) the claims against defendant-manufacturer from Hong Kong were dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction, leaving only the claim against the US distributor (which I assume was probably settled out of court..?).

Meanwhile, it seems a new relative of this case is coming back to the Courts. A false marketing claim was filed in May 2011, alleging Topps is violating marketing laws by continuing to list the patent numbers on Ring Pop packaging after the patents expired. See “Ring Pops: A Fun Way to Teach Your Kids about False Patent Marking” posted by Travis Burchart, Jun 2011 The complaint alleges that each Ring Pop sold violates marketing laws and if the Court agrees, Topps will be liable for a LOT of damages.

Finally, recall, this is not the first time we at NinjaLaw have seen the turtles mentioned unnecessarily and also not the first time mentioned with the Power Rangers. Last time we saw the Turtles team up with the Power Rangers in Federal Court, they served to exemplify the business model of cartoon merchandising. Here they help protect their sponsor Topps (baseball cards and candy and what else?), again implicating the susceptibility of kids to product marketing.


tmnt power rangers animation handshake
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Previous NinjaLaw cases about the Ninja Turtles:

First mention of TMNT in Federal Courts
Sun Dun v Coca Cola – August 15, 1991

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again – Retromutagen Ooze
Monarch v. Ritam – June 12, 1992

Ninja Turtles and Hollywood’s Horizontal Conspiracy
El Cajon v. AMC – October 23, 1992

First mention of Ninja Turtles in F.Ct. where it’s actually about them
Mirage Studios v. Weng et.al. – April 29, 1994

Burger King Kids Club with Mutant Ninja Turtles – multi-ethnic path to Glee and Celebrity Apprentice
CK Company v. Burger King – September 29, 1994

Ninja Turtles again, this time with FASA’s BattleTech, ExoSquad, RoboTech and Playmates
Fasa v. Playmates – June 19, 1995
(WITH POWER RANGERS)

Spam vs Spa’am with Splinter from TMNT and Pumbaa from Lion King
Hormel Foods v. Jim Henson Productions – September 22, 1995

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