26 January, 2015

Framed Questions - ECJ Takes on Content Framing

As social media has changed how we interact with one another, it also has profoundly changed the culture and environment where copyright (and other intellectual property rights) reside. Videos, pictures and other content can very easily go 'viral', especially through sharing via Facebook, Twitter and other websites, even sans the original source of the content. This aggressive sharing and consumption of content can clearly yield huge benefits, both monetary and other positive outcomes; however it presents a much darker side to the sharing of this content, more specifically the copying and distribution of infringing content. Whether it be re-hosting a video originally on YouTube, or copying and watermarking other people's popular images, the Internet is full of opportunistic people rearing and ready to cash in on the next 'viral' hit. Not all sharing is bad, and often websites can host content and rightfully attribute the content to its source, or just link directly to it - which presents a question: can you share copyrighted content, especially through what is called 'framing' (placing someone else's content within the confides of your own website, but not directly hosting the content), or are you infringing on the rights through linking to this content and placing in within your own website?

The case, which endeavored to answer this question, was BestWater International GmbH v Michael Mebes (judgment only available in German or French). BestWater International are a company in the business in making and selling water filtration systems, and in an effort to boost their sales, made a 2-minute promotional video and uploaded it to YouTube, undoubtedly attempting to reach the droves of water filtration enthusiasts using the site. Michael Mebes and his co-defendant Stefan Potsch are independent agents for BestWater's competitor, who embedded a video link to BestWater's promotional video on YouTube (which they themselves uploaded onto the service). BestWater subsequently sued the pair for copyright infringement, and the case finally culminated in the European Court of Justice late last year. In the absence of a judgment in English (which this writer was waiting for) the information conveyed in this post has been parsed from several sources; however hopefully represents an accurate reading of the case.

The question posed to the Court was simple: "Does the embedding, within one’s own website, of another person’s work made available to the public on a third-party website... constitute communication to the public within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29/EC, even where that other person’s work is not thereby communicated to a new public and the communication of the work does not use a specific technical means which differs from that of the original communication?" In a lot of ways the case is similar to one discussed on this very blog on an earlier note; Svensson v Retriever. Even so, Svensson merely discussed the distribution of content, which is freely available on another website, when BestWater's focus is on framing that content within your own site, arguably presenting it, in a roundabout way, as your own. 


One should always be careful when framing things
Thinking back to Svensson, the decision in the case established, quite firmly, that if a work is communicated to the public, and is freely available, distributing that content without actually making new copies of it, does not constitute a communication to a new public and infringe copyright. Unceremoniously the Court saw that "[t]he embedding in a website of a protected work which is publicly accessible on another website by means of a link using the framing technology … does not by itself constitute communication to the public within the meaning of [Directive 2011/29/EC] to the extent that the relevant work is neither communicated to a new public nor by using a specific technical means different from that used for the original communication"

What is key in the BestWater decision, much like in Svensson, is the authorization of the party who communicates the original work to the public. If the content is beyond the reach of most Internet users, framing the content clearly infringes copyright; however, should the party provide the content for all Internet users (i.e. freely available through services like YouTube), it will not infringe copyright. Should a third-party, without the consent of the copyright holder, upload a video to YouTube, and then promptly frame it on their website, they will be infringing copyright within the meaning of BestWater and Directive 2001/29/EC.

The two decision reflect a clear need for change in attitudes of copyright holders when posting content online. Framing applies just as well to images and sound files as it does to video, potentially causing issues to those who are not careful in their communication of their copyrighted content. This writer, for one, believes this approach is correct, even with the hazards it potentially presents. Should you choose to share content with very little regard to its restrictions, you choose to share your content with more people that you might have intended to, and for users to be punished for your mistake seems highly inequitable. Nevertheless, individuals and companies should be more careful in their content sharing, especially when considering the openness of the Internet, and the potential benefits more open sharing can give you.

Source: IPKat

20 January, 2015

Tripping the Trapp - Trademarks in the Third Dimention

Trademarks can be an interesting novelty, especially when it comes to what is actually sought to be protected through trademarks. This ranges from trademarking the color of your football field to the phrase "Let's Get Ready to Rumble!", and only illustrates just how complex and varied trademarks can be, while offering a near perpetual right to protect what you have registered. With this kind of longevity, having a strong trademark, especially in an area where it could benefit you beyond just one product or product line, is incredibly valuable and desired by many (a lengthy legal battle over the color purple is a great example of just how much it can mean to a company). Most of the time though, trademarks are registered as one-dimensional items, which poses the question: could you register a three-dimensional trademark? The European Court of Justice aimed to answer this very question in the latter part of 2014, in a case anticipated by many.

The case in question was Hauck GmbH & Co. KG v Stokke A/S, in which the dispute centered around children's chairs. Peter Opsvik, a co-defendant in the case, had designed a children's chair called "Tripp Trapp", being sold under the Stokke brand since the early 1970s. The chair itself consisted of two L-shaped upright pieces, which contained slots, into which platforms and other pieces could be slotted into, forming the chair. The company sought to protect the highly-regarded chairs, and their look, by lodging a trademark application in 2003 (for example application 003514171). Hauck have also been involved with the production and sale of children's articles, including two chairs, Alpha and Beta. Hauck were subsequently taken to court for trademark infringement, due to the sale and manufacture of its Alpha chair in the German courts (with Stokke winning in the German courts), and also in the Netherlands, culminating in the ECJ some years later.

What the Court of Justice faced was a decision under Directive 89/104/EEC, which governs the registration of certain marks within the EU, as to whether the registered mark would be considered invalid under the Directive.

The first question posed to the Court sought to clarify "[d]oes the ground for refusal or invalidity in [the Directive], namely that [three-dimensional] trade marks may not consist exclusively of a shape which results from the nature of the goods themselves, refer to a shape which is indispensable to the function of the goods, or can it also refer to the presence of one or more substantial functional characteristics of goods which consumers may possibly looks for in the goods of competitors?" The question poses, in more simplistic terms, the conundrum of whether the grounds for refusal would encompass either a three-dimensional shape. which is indispensable to the function of the item and exclusively being only that shape, or would it include the functional shape of the item containing one or more parts that are integral to the function of that item, which consumers find desirable in that type of item.

The Court quickly clarified that, for a shape to be ineligible to be registered, due to the shape resulting from the nature of the goods themselves (Article 3), the shape has to be one which would unduly prevent competitors from using a similar shape, effectively giving a monopoly for similar items; or to put in better terms: "...[the Article's aim is to] prevent trade mark protection from granting its proprietor a monopoly on technical solutions or functional characteristics of a product which a user is likely to seek in the products of competitors".  This also applies to efforts in extending protection through trademarks to subject matters, which should be protected through other means (e.g. patents), or have been exhausted prior to the mark's registration. In the end, the Court poignantly answered the first question: "...[the] directive must be interpreted as meaning that the ground for refusal of registration set out in that provision may apply to a sign which consists exclusively of the shape of a product with one or more essential characteristics which are inherent to the generic function or functions of that product and which consumers may be looking for in the products of competitors"; meaning a trademark cannot claim a monopoly on e.g. adjustable children's chairs, through registering that functional shape as a trademark.

Kids should not be placed on all traps.
The second question referred to the Court necessitated the assessment of whether a registered sign, consisting of several elements adding value to the product itself, much like the changeable pieces of the Tripp Trapp chair. Value does not, by itself, only mean aesthetic qualities, and the distinction between aesthetic and functional can often be blurry as well. The Court saw that the Directive must be interpreted "...as meaning that the ground for refusal of registration set out in that provision may apply to a sign which consists exclusively of the shape of a product with several characteristics each of which may give that product substantial value. The target public’s perception of the shape of that product is only one of the assessment criteria which may be used to determine whether that ground for refusal is applicable". The public's perception of the mark is not the sole deciding factor, as was seen by the Court, but is one of a number of factors, such as ones described by the Attorney General: "...such as the nature of the category of goods concerned, the artistic value of the shape in question, its dissimilarity from other shapes in common use on the market concerned, a substantial price difference in relation to similar products, and the development of a promotion strategy which focuses on accentuating the aesthetic characteristics of the product in question". Whether a mark would be rejected as only adding substantial value to the item is a case-by-case assessment, with no clear deciding criteria as the only guidelines in this question.

Finally, the Court faced its third question, essentially asking whether a mark can be rejected based on a combination of the first and third indent in the Article (questions one and two, respectively, deal with the first and then the third indent). The Court put things bluntly, as, even from a prima facie assessment, the three indents are wholly separate from each other, and thus operate differently in each given argument. If a product fails over one indent, it will fail overall; an assessment based on the two other indents is wholly irrelevant past that point, and failing in more than one indent will not make the invalidity any more serious - the mark will fail either way. In the end the question of whether Stokke's mark will fail is up to the Dutch courts, as the answer has since been sent back for a final decision.

The Directive has been applied to domestic UK legislation, within the Trade Marks Act 1994, and thus is fully relevant within a UK scheme of things. In the United States the protection of three-dimensional marks falls under trade dress (defined in 15 USC 1127), and is more mailable than legislation applying purely to registered trademarks.

Overall the world of 3D marks is interesting, but a question filled with a lot of uncertainties. As the regime is not in place to protect patentable subject matter, or even registerable designs, the provisions serve as a protective means for items falling outside of those regimes. Whether a registrant would be successful depends largely on the mark for which protection is sought for, and is an assessment done on a case-by-case basis, with no clear bright line rules to follow.

Source: JDSupra

12 January, 2015

Names and IP Law - Do You Have a Right to Use Your Name?

Your name is a part of who you are, your own identity, and for a lot of people, a very important indicator of their history and origin. As such, a name carries immense weight and importance to some, even if it is 'generic' such as Smith or Johnson. Often it is simply easy, and identifiable, to start trading under your own name when you start a business, e.g. Ihalainen LLP (I'm a dreamer, what can I say), but should your name conflict with a well-known brand, such as McDonald's, the use of your own name can be tricky. This begs the question: can you use your own name when doing business, or should you refrain from it outright, especially if a more well-known brand uses that very same name in its business?

In the UK a person can use their own name in conjunction with their business under the Trade Marks Act 1994, through the implementation of EU Directive 2008/95/EC, so far as the use "...is in accordance with honest practices in industrial or commercial matters". On the face of it this entails the use of your name, such as Ihalainen LLP, even if there is an existing Ihalainen Ltd with registered trademarks over the name. The name, however, does have to be distinctive in its use as a trademark, irrespective of its unique characteristics (i.e. Ihalainen clearly is more unique in an Anglo setting vis-a-vis a Finnish setting). Surprisingly, at least from a prima facie assessment, the provision applies equally to corporate names, not just natural persons' names.

People, and businesses, can be hurt by mistaken names
One still has to remember that the defense only applies to a bona fide use of one's name in their business, and adopting a name that clearly infringes a well-established and famous mark will not be overlooked only because the person has the very same name. As was stated by Lord Justice Gibson in Asprey & Garrard Ltd v WRA (Guns) Ltd: "...the defence has never been held to apply to names of new companies as otherwise a route to piracy would be obvious". Clearly one can appreciate that the position of the Court of Appeal in the case is correct; however should an individual trade under their own name, at the same time or prior, as one that is well-known, the defense clearly applies, as they have not sought to use the name to illegitimately gain from its notoriety. Even if the use of the name is honest from a subjective point of view, the use might still not fall under the defense, as was elaborated by Lord Justice Gibson further in the case: "I would add that however honest his subjective intentions may be, any use of his own name which amounts to passing off cannot be in accordance with honest practice in industrial or commercial matters".

A similar provision exists in the United States under 15 USC section 1115, through which a defense is given if the "...use of the name, term, or device charged to be an infringement is a use, otherwise than as a mark, of the party’s individual name in his own business, or of the individual name of anyone in privity with such party, or of a term or device which is descriptive of and used fairly and in good faith only to describe the goods or services of such party, or their geographic origin". This affords someone protection over the use of their own name in business, although with a similar caveat as to its proper and bona fide use. This view is generally accepted within the common law, with similar provisions existing under the Australian Trade Marks Act 1995 and the Canadian Trade-Marks Act.

The defense described above does not detract from the contestable requirements of registering a trademark, and as said above, a name still has to fulfill all requirements for a valid trademark. Should the name used not be distinctive enough it clearly will not merit protection, and potentially will not be registrable from the outset.

Source: JDSupra

02 January, 2015

Can You Patent Embryonic Stem Cells? - The ECJ Ends the Fight, For Now

As was discussed quite extensively on this very blog some months ago, the genesis of human life and its formidable times are a topic riddled with controversy and a myriad of viewpoints, yet the topic has not come to contention much in the judiciary. Since the opinion of Attorney General Villalon, discussed by this very writer in the link above, the actual decision of the European Court of Justice has been anticipated by many, especially in light of the potential future of stem cell research in the EU. The ECJ's decision is hugely important in a world-wide context, potentially seeing a precedent which will either hinder or enable other similar jurisdictions to allow or disallow similar patents, even in light of the Myriad Genetics saga in the US.

The case in question, International Stem Cell Corporation v Comptroller General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks, for the uninitiated, deals with two patent applications, filed by the International Stem Cell Corporation, relating to stem cells; more specifically "...methods of producing pluripotent human stem cell lines from parthenogenetically-activated oocytes and stem cell lines produced according to the claimed methods, and... the isolation of pluripotent stem cells from parthenogenetically-activated oocytes, and product-by-process claims to synthetic cornea or corneal tissue produced by these methods". To put things into more simplistic terms, the applications (GB0621068.6 and GB0621069.4) relate to the usability of stem cells or their production from oocytes (female egg cells). A more detailed expression of the facts and the prior judgments can be found in this writer's article discussing the Attorney General's opinion.

A parent's dream, endless potential (Source: Bizarro Comics)

The Court was therefore faced with the same question posed to the Attorney General: "...whether Article 6(2)(c) of Directive 98/44 must be interpreted as meaning that an unfertilised human ovum whose division and development to a certain stage have been stimulated by parthenogenesis constitutes a ‘human embryo’ within the meaning of that provision" and be unpatentable under the Directive. The interpretation of the Article in question hinges heavily, as discussed by the Attorney General, on the ECJ's earlier decision in Oliver Brüstle v Greenpeace, where the Court saw that "...any human ovum must, as soon as fertilised, be regarded as a ‘human embryo’ within the meaning and for the purposes of the application of Article... since that fertilisation is such as to commence the process of development of a human being". This is a key distinction, as the cells in ISCC's applications would not be capable of development into a human being. Even with this in mind the Court saw that "...a non-fertilised human ovum must be classified as a ‘human embryo’" as the cells, when harvested, are still capable of being fertilized and possess the potential to develop into a human foeatus, thus falling within the meaning of a 'human embryo'.

The Attorney General saw things differently in his interpretation of the law, and the Court in the case in hand agreed with him: "...a non-fertilised human ovum must necessarily have the inherent capacity of developing into a human being" to fall under the definition of a 'human embryo', contrary to Brüstle. ISCC's patents cover the use of cells in a state where they cannot possibly be fertilized and multiply, thus not, under the Court's current considerations, be classified as a 'human ebryo', and be exempt from patenting. The Court then summarized its position very well: "...where a non-fertilised human ovum does not fulfil that condition, the mere fact that that organism commences a process of development is not sufficient for it to be regarded as a ‘human embryo’... [and] [b]y contrast, where such an ovum does have the inherent capacity of developing into a human being, it should... be treated in the same way as a fertilised human ovum, at all stages of its development".

In the end the ECJ rejected the notion that ISCC's patents would encompass a 'human embryo', and accepted the patenting of stem cells, so long as they are truly incapable of development, either inherently or through genetic manipulation (which ISCC indicated it would be doing to the cells in their applications). What this decision demonstrates is a much more open approach to patenting stem cells, and in this writer's opinion, represtents a healthy and morally correct approach to stem cells and patents, especially in light of potential future developments in the field and a correct application of the law. 

Whether the courts will face any new cases dealing with different, potentially more nuanced and 'grey' approaches to stem cells or genetics in general in the future remains to be seen, but the potential dvelopment in the area is exciting, both from a human perspective and a legal one as well. 

Source: IPKat

19 December, 2014

Non Parlo Inglese - Australian High Court Takes on Foreign Words as Trademarks

As the world's become evermore global, the mixing of different cultures, conventions and languages is completely inevitable. With this intermingling comes variety and novelty in expression, yet another perspective in this is added confusion and the potential for a well-known foreign brand to be completely overlooked or missed in these new markets with their introduction through immigrants or other people who wish to have access to these goods or services, especially if the mark in question is in a language not commonly used in that new country. This in mind, as trademarks have to distinguish specific goods or services, can a foreign mark achieve this and be considered a trademark, or will the language barrier potentially deter their use in a country? Luckily this matter was recently brought to the Australian High Court, which ultimately decided the fate of foreign marks in Australia, and whether they can inherently distinguish the goods or services provided.

The case in question was Cantarella Bros Pty Ltd v Modena Trading Pty Ltd, which dealt with the ever-loved subject matter of coffee. The claim dealt with two registered trademarks held by Cantarella Bros, an Italian coffee company: Australian Trademark 829098 "ORO" ('gold' in Italian) and 878231 "CINQUE STELLE" ('five stars' in Italian). Modena, an importer of Italian coffee, used similar marks indicating their coffee products, including both of the marks in question, using them in conjunction with their coffee brands as marks of quality.  Modena argued, after being sued for trademark infringement by Cantarella Bros, that the marks are merely signs of quality and cannot inherently distinguish Cantarella's products from others, and therefore be valid trademarks.

The question hinged largely on the Australian Trade Marks Act 1995, more specifically section 41, under which a trademark has to be "...inherently adapted to distinguish the designated goods ...from the goods ...of other persons". If the mark does not do so, due to it being merely descriptive for example, it will be deemed an invalid mark. The High Court saw that the question which needs to be answered, basing their decision quite heavily on UK precedent, is "...an enquiry into the word's ordinary signification and whether or not it has acquired a secondary meaning". To put things in simpler terms, it is an assessment of what the word means ordinarily, and whether that particular meaning has acquired a secondary meaning, indicating a specific origin or quality of product in relation to a brand of goods or services, even if its ordinary meaning can be said to be descriptive or generic.

After a discussion of relevant precedent, the court formulated its final question regarding foreign marks:

Other languages can be very confusing
"The principles settled by this Court (and the United Kingdom authorities found in this Court to be persuasive) require that a foreign word be examined from the point of view of the possible impairment of the rights of honest traders and from the point of view of the public. It is the "ordinary signification" of the word, in Australia, to persons who will purchase, consume or trade in the goods which permits a conclusion to be drawn as to whether the word contains a "direct reference" to the relevant goods (prima facie not registrable) or makes a "covert and skilful allusion" to the relevant goods (prima facie registrable). When the "other traders" test from Du Cros is applied to a word (other than a geographical name or a surname), the test refers to the legitimate desire of other traders to use a word which is directly descriptive in respect of the same or similar goods. The test does not encompass the desire of other traders to use words which in relation to the goods are allusive or metaphorical. In relation to a word mark, English or foreign, "inherent adaption to distinguish" requires examination of the word itself, in the context of its proposed application to particular goods in Australia".

Effectively what the court is saying, is that the mark has to be examined so it does not impair its use unduly from other traders in a similar field (for example, trademarking the word 'fresh' in relation to bubblegum), and the end assessment is whether the public who will buy and consume that product or service will see a connection between that good or service and the provider. The reference to the goods or services has to be covert and skilful, and not a purely direct usage of that word.

Justices French, Hayne, Crennan and Kiefel, in the majority's decision, saw that, on the face of the evidence given that the marks have are not merely descriptive, and Cantarelle got to keep their trademarks. The general public were not seen as understanding the words sufficiently commonly as to convey a signature of quality, rather than an indication of origin, as there are few people in Australia who speak Italian.

To this writer the decision of the Court is an odd one, especially since the marks are, by their definition in Italian, purely descriptive, with the added issue that the marks have been commonly used even before the marks' registration. Nevertheless, the evidence produced was not enough to establish a case for Modena and the common understanding of these words, and it is hard to argue against that.

Source: Lexology

12 December, 2014

Retrospective - Computer Software and Copyright

In a world where everything is becoming more and more digital and reliant on computers to handle most tedious or complex tasks, software is king; it is what executes these tasks and makes things easier to do on the aforementioned devices. With the software business booming, more and more value can be placed on having the right software for the right task in the highly competitive space, and with that the desire to protect your product. Even in the wake of the Alice decision some time ago (discussed on this very blog here and here) the protectability of software still remains, albeit quite hindered. In light of the more difficult protectability of software through patents, copyright shines brighter and as a possible alternative, yet poses a question which might be less glaringly obvious to most: is software protected under copyright?

A fairly recent case in the UK Court of Appeals, SAS Institute Inc v World Programming Ltd, attempted to take on this issue and decide once and for all whether copyright does afford protection to software and its underlying code. The SAS Institute is a software development company well-known for its analytical software, often referred to as the SAS System (or just plainly SAS). A core component of the SAS System is SAS Base; a piece of software which allows the user to easily write and run scripts to analyze and use data. The scripts themselves were written in a programming language developed by SAS called SAS Language. Finally, the SAS Base software can be extended upon by three additional components: SAS/ACCESS, SAS/GRAPH and SAS/STAT respectively. In addition to the software SAS have also written manuals for the use of its software. The SAS environment was quite tightly controlled, and customers had no secondary options which to use in the execution of their developed scripts for the platform (the SAS Language only functioned through SAS' System). Their competitor, World Programming, sought to create an alternative piece of software capable of utilizing the SAS Language, so that any programs written in the Language can be used in both their suite and SAS' - the end-result being a program called the World Programming System. The software endeavored to mimic SAS' System as closely as possible; however they had not accessed SAS' source code in their development, merely copying the outputs and inputs of the System. Due to this, SAS sued WPL, asserting that the company had copied its manuals; through the copying of the manuals they had infringed SAS' copyright in their extension components; WPL had infringed its copyright in a version of its System, the Learning Edition, and breached its terms in its misuse; and WPL had infringed SAS' copyright in its manuals after creating its own version called the WPL Manual.

Being 'creative' in programming can be difficult
Confusion in terms of acronyms aside, the court was therefore faced with the ultimate determination of whether copyright exists in SAS' software, and whether WPL had infringed that copyright. Under EU legislation, more specifically Directive 91/250/EEC (now governed by Directive 2009/24/EC with no substantive differences), computer programs are wholly protected by copyright as a form of expression; however the underlying principles of those programs are not. To put this into more simple terms, the code executing a specific function in its particular expression can be protected, but the idea of that execution is not, allowing anyone to create a program doing the same thing, so long as the expression of that execution is not the same as other expressions of it (i.e. different code, same result). Computer programs have since been included in the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, under section 3.

To look at things further, the scope of what is protectable under the above Directives was left quite open, but was subsequently added to in the case of Infopaq International v Danske Dagblades Forening, where the European Court of Justice saw that copyright protects an author's "...intellectual creation" (the wording used in the Berne Convention), potentially encompassing programs quite readily if it can be seen as such a work - supplanting this definition in the Directive's interpretation. What is important in this term's application, in the Court's judgment, lies within whether a computer program can be seen as an 'intellectual creation', and in assessing this the court must decide that if the expression within the computer program is purely a technical one (i.e. derived from necessity for things to work right), the work cannot be seen as an intellectual creation under this definition. To put things in more simplistic terms: "...the author [has to be] able to express his creative abilities in the production of the work by making free and creative choices". If a programmer, in the creation of a specific application, can express his or her creativity and choices in how the program works, it can be protected by copyright. Even if the program has very specific functionality, or combines several different functional approaches to the execution of its desired task, the law does not protect it under copyright. In the court's view the copyrightability of functions or functionality, no matter how well used or combined, would be tantamount to the copyrightability of an idea, and therefore is not within the remit of copyright.

Finally, the court had to assess whether the manuals created by SAS are protected as works, and whether WPL had infringed those manuals' copyright protection.Their content was largely informative, and therefore would encompass most of the 'ideas' expressed in the aforementioned programs, or as expressed by Lord Justice Lewison: "...what counts as an idea, for the purposes of a computer program, also counts as an idea for the purposes of a manual". With this in mind, should the manual express the idea in a way which can be seen as protectable, it can fall within the remit of the law. His Lordship dismissed both claims on the manuals, effectively dismissing their protection due to a lack of any protectable expression, as they merely described the function of the programs without adding anything original on the author's part.

In the end SAS lost their appeal and the Court of Appeal closed the door on the copyright protection for programs, at least for the most part. The case was appealed to the UK Supreme Court, however leave was not given, solidifying the law's position through the Court of Appeal's judgment. The position presented in the case differs drastically to what has been discussed in the United States, where programs can be protected by copyright. Nevertheless the case is without a question an important milestone in relation to copyright and computer software, and this writer for one believes it will stay as such for a while.

05 December, 2014

Words in Action - Trademarks as Verbs

This writer, for one, will fully admit to often using very well-known brands as the descriptive term for all such items, for example calling all plasters Band-Aids and all cotton-tipped plastic cleaning things (a technical term, undoubtedly) as Q-Tips, regardless of all of those terms having been, or still being, registered trademarks. While my misstep in potentially diluting these valuable brands in using them in this way can be seen as a small error, or even wholly unnoticeable in the grand scheme of things, it still brings light to an issue all trademark holders face; the potential of losing your mark to genericization. While this topic has been discussed on this very blog before quite extensively, the use of trademarks as verbs specifically has been left a bit in the dark, yet is illustrative of a newer problem technology companies especially will face. Who hasn't said they will 'Google' something, or if they will 'Facebook' their aunt Mary; a grave threat the holders of those particular marks will lose sleep over. One such giant facing a recent challenge to its widely recognized trademark is Google, which posed an interesting question to all trademark holders.

The case in question is Elliot v Google Inc, where the claimant, David Elliot, registered over 760 different domain names combining the word 'Google' and another brand or a famous person, for example googledisney.com, or with generic terms such as googletvnews.com. As you might have guessed, Google has trademarked the term 'Google' in a number of variants; two of which were at issue in the case: US trademark 2884502 and 2806075. These two marks encompass the word 'Google' in several categories, such as web indexes and computer software - promptly leading to Google pursuing the domain names through the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Process (UDRP). In his defense Mr. Elliot asserted that the term 'Google' had become generic and could therefore be used by him (and others) without infringing on Google's marks. The domain names Mr. Elliot had registered were transferred to Google in the UDRP, which prompted Mr. Elliot to pursue the matter further in the US District Court of Arizona.

What Mr. Elliot's argument largely states, and what the court had to assess, was whether the term 'Google' had effectively become ubiquitous with the verb 'googling' - defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "[s]earch[ing] for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google" - rendering it generic rather than distinctive as to Google and/or Google's services. As trademarks need to specifically distinguish the origin of goods or services, becoming a generic verb can be the mark's end.

Stacy was unnerved after 'googling' herself
What the court had to determine was whether the mark's "...primary significance" was that of distinguishing the goods or services from other similar ones. The test was phrased well by Justice Brandeis in Kellogg v National Biscuit: "...the primary significance of the term in the minds of the consuming public is not the product but the producer". This is highly important, as if a product is named as the major brand (i.e. if you refer to all plasters as 'Band-Aids') in general terms, the mark loses its status as the seal of origin for that brand, or as stated by Justice O'Scannlain in Filipino Yellow Pages: "...if the primary significance of the trademark is to describe the type of product rather than the producer, the trademark is a generic term and cannot be a valid trademark".

Using a trademark as a verb does not automatically change the primary significance of that mark, and a mark, such as 'Google', can be used for both the designation of an origin for goods and services and as a term describing the searching of information via the search engine - noted by the court in the case. This synecdochian dual-functionality of a mark is wholly valid; however, should the perception of the public change drastically as to the meaning of the word, i.e. if most people would believe and/or use the term "to google" to mean using any search engine online to seek information, then the mark can be determined to be compromised, even with this accepted dual-functionality. This was phrased well by Justice McNamee (the name seems more than appropriate considering the case's subject matter): "It is thus contrary to both the letter and spirit of trademark law to strip a mark of legal protection solely because the mark—cultivated by diligent marketing, enforcement, and quality control—has become so strong and widespread that the public adopts the mark to describe that act of using the class of products or services to which the mark belongs". Arguably this argument holds well, and this writer for one agrees wholeheartedly with the court's view, as the stripping of a mark's distinctive nature the moment it becomes even partially descriptive of a class of products or services would run contrary to the value given by trademarks to brands and their place in a given class.

In the end the action failed, as Mr. Elliot failed to demonstrate how the mark 'Google' had turned generic, as the public still strongly perceived it as part and parcel to the company, not just internet search engines or internet searching at large. The case does bring light an important issue, and often something that the general public will not think about; how our daily use of terminology, especially trademarks, can alter their value. Some examples include 'Xerox' (become a term for all photocopying) and 'Thermos' (used as a term for all heat-retaining drinks containers), which have become generic due to their use as the identifying term in a given class. Due to this the International Trademark Association has even issued guidelines on the proper use of trademarks, which most of us will find potentially excessive, yet is quite important. As can be seen, trademarks are a dangerous beast, especially when they become famous to the point of ubiquity; however for most this risk is quite worth it.

Source: JDSupra