Lead Line — March 2002
By Richard Thiel
|The basis is a concept called "Trade dress."|
Last October Ralph Willard, president and CEO of The Hinckley Company, issued a statement saying the company would "address the problem of the growing number of copycat boats." Referring to the Hinckley Picnic Boat and Talaria 40 and 44, Willard contended that the proliferation of lookalike versions "threatens to erode the investment our owners have made in buying a Hinckley, as well as the significant investment the company has made in research and development, new production facilities, and marketing."
If you read this magazine, attend any major boat show, or only just stroll a dock or two, you're familiar with the Hinckley powerboat line. It shares one of the most recognizable, admired, and imitated profiles in pleasureboating. The progenitor, the Picnic Boat, was a breakthrough when introduced in 1994, but like all breakthroughs, it didn't spring from a vacuum. Many elements--the long cockpit and relatively short house, flush deck, low aft freeboard, and high plumb bow--had been seen for years in various craft built by small Downeast yards such as Sim Davis, Royal Lowell, and Vinny Cavanaugh.
But the Picnic Boat was different. To those elements it added new levels of comfort, finish, construction, and technology. It was elegantly appointed and flawlessly finished and had a proprietary waterjet drive system that let it maneuver unlike any pleasureboat at the time, save a few megayachts. Just as remarkable was Hinckley's marketing acumen. It had identified an elite customer base for the line and, capitalizing on the golden Hinckley name, tagged the Picnic Boat with a price that reserved it for the fortunate few.
Success came quickly, and so did boats that shared in varying degrees the Picnic Boat's styling cues. First came a propeller-driven 38-footer, then a 41-foot express. Another classic-style 38-footer debuted at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, and although it doesn't look much like a Hinckley, it does have an integrated control system for its waterjets and bow thruster. And there were others--some virtual knock-offs--until the folks at Hinckley finally felt that the identity of their line was being compromised, if not robbed, and decided they had to take steps to stop it.
The legal basis for Hinckley's claim is an interesting concept called "trade dress," which can be briefly defined as a product's total commercial image. Trade dress is violated when a new product looks so like the original, a consumer can't tell which is which. Say you invent a new, dark, effervescent soft drink that tastes like Coca-Cola and call it Copy-Cola. No problem. Now say you package Copy-Cola in hourglass-shape bottles that look just like Coke's. The courts would say that's a violation of trade dress if they felt Joe Consumer might grab a bottle of your stuff thinking it was a Coke. Trade dress has been upheld in cases involving the layout of a publication, the design of outdoor furniture, and perhaps most germane to this case, the appearance of the Ferrari Testarossa and Daytona.
Hinckley isn't contending that builders are replicating its boats, just copying enough key elements to cloud their identity. The builders in question argue that similarities may indeed exist, but that this is hardly unique in the boating industry and that their boats are demonstrably different. One even sent me a profile of his boat overlaid on a profile of a Hinckley to prove it.
Courts and lawyers will eventually decide whether Hinckley prevails, but if it does, there could be some serious implications in an industry where frankly an awful lot of boats look an awful lot alike and always have. It can take a pretty keen eye to discern one convertible, midcabin cruiser, or center console from another. If Hinckley is successful, it might literally change the face of boating.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.