While trademark law may offer some options for protecting tire tread designs, design patents are also offer an avenue for protection.
A case grabbing some headlines in this area relates to the trade dress tread design as defined in U.S. Trademark Registration No. 4,220,169, which Blackstone/OTR Wheel Engineering, Inc. of Rome, Georgia used successfully, at least in part, against West Worldwide Services, Inc. and its owner Sam West. However, as many will recognized, trade dress protection can be difficult to obtain and may not be available for the years required to establish recognition by consumers.
Design patents, on the other hand, can be used to quickly provide protection for tire tread designs. See, for example, US D595641, assigned to Michelin. Tire manufactures have long used design patents to protect their tread designs, often in combination with utility filings.
One potential strategy is to utilize design patent filings initially to maintain separation from competitors in terms of the design while establishing consumer recognition and collecting evidence to establish the secondary meaning required for trade dress protection. Then, once trade dress protection is established, it continues as long as the owner continues to use the mark/design.