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Replacement Parts Manufacturer Gets Burned: Music City Metals Co., Inc. v. Jingchang Cai



Music City Metals (MCM) built a thriving business designing and selling replacement parts for name-brand BBQ grills. Too good, it turns out, as a number of foreign competitors also jumped into the game, copying MCM’s own replacement parts and selling those replacements for the replacements. While MCM thought it was fine to market itself as providing replacement parts for other companies’ grills, and to use those other companies’ trademarks to explain which grills its products fit, MCM was not so happy to see these competitors using MCM’s marks and other information to market their parts as replacements for MCM’s (replacement) parts. So MCM sued about 60 competitors for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, unfair competition, and certain state law claims, and was able to achieve some initial success by obtaining a temporary restraining order against most of them. But it was MCM that felt the heat once a judge was able to consider the matter on something less than an emergency basis.

In a well-reasoned decision out of the Middle District of Tennessee, a federal court judge reminded MCM that copyright does not protect facts, so that the defendants advertising that “a particular part, if placed in a certain grill, will perform a certain function is simply a physical fact that no party has a right to prevent another from repeating under copyright law.” Similarly, when a company “markets itself as providing replacement parts for other companies’ grills, [and] uses those companies’ product names to explain which grills its products fit, there is no trademark infringement, as long as the names are presented in a way that would not confuse the consumer regarding the provenance of the replacement parts.” So just as MCM is “within its rights to note that one of [MCM’s] parts can replace a particular part in a grill manufactured by Nexgrill or Charmglow, another manufacturer is free to note that its part can replace a particular part that was bought through MCM.”

While the court found that a few of the defendants may have improperly used MCM’s marks (and thus allowed a limited injunction against those uses), it largely vacated the temporary restraining orders and entered only limited injunctions against some of the defendants to prohibit them from improper use of MCM’s trademarks.

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