It began as the case of a clothing manufacturer struggling to protect the designs of its products — or “trade dress” — against knock-offs commissioned by a mass-retail behemoth engaged in fierce competition to give consumers the biggest bang for their bucks.

But when the feud between Wal-Mart and Samara Brothers finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it was clear that the case had touched off a debate on one of the most fundamental and vexing questions in trade dress law: When is a product configuration that has not been copyrighted, trademarked, or patented so “inherently distinctive” that it deserves protection from infringement? (Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Samara Brothers Inc., U.S., No. 99-150, argued 1/19/00).

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