09 February, 2014

Retrospective - Intention to Use Trademarks

Often in business it pays off to preempt what might be the next big thing, especially when it comes to names. The right timing can yield quite the monetary results, even if such predatory practices could be argued to linger outside of what is acceptable. To limit the potential hoarding of signs which could be used as trademarks, most common law legislatures have enacted provisions preventing such practices, such as in the United Kingdom and Australia for example. Under such provisions a mark has to be used, or intended to be used, as a trademark for it to be eligible for protection as such. Without proper use, or the compulsion to do so, companies would hoard any and all marks they could, with no intent to use them, only to sue for infringement if others would use that mark even when they are not doing so themselves. Even with the existence of such provisions, the question still remains as to what counts as an intention to use in the absence of actual usage; a question which was subsequently answered in the 1980s.

The case in question is Imperial Group v Philip Morris & Co, decided in the very beginning of the 80s. This concerned the prior Trade Marks Act 1938; however the provision in question is still in the currently in force Trade Marks Act 1994, and would apply equally in relation to the more modern legislation. The case concerned the word "NERIT", which was successfully registered by Philip Morris. Their registration of the word was a result of an unsuccessful attempt to register the word "MERIT" in relation to tobacco products; a mark which was rejected due to it being a laudatory and thus, descriptive word. In their mind the registration of the word "NERIT" would be close enough to be used to enforce against any uses of the word "MERIT" should their competition adopt or use the word in relation to competing products. To further legitimize the mark, Philip Morris sold roughly 1 million cigarettes under the name "NERIT", although had no real interest in using the mark as a legitimate trademark aside from its potential use against anyone using the word "MERIT". Subsequently Imperial Group challenged the mark, having used the word "MERIT" in relation to their cigarettes, and the case finally ended up in the UK Court of Appeals.

Mark loved to dress up as a ghost
In its deliberation the Court of Appeals saw that Philip Morris' mark was merely a ghost mark, with no real intention to be used as a legitimate trademark, and was registered under bad faith, contrary to the Trade Marks Act 1938. For a trademark to be considered legitimate under the legislation it must be used "...in the normal course of trade", and not merely under the guise of use through the manufacture of a small batch in order to legitimize the mark or its use. What the plaintiff had was merely a ghost mark. To further illustrate the intent by the plaintiff in the matter, the Court saw that "[t]hey wanted to treat the word "MERIT" as if they had a copyright interest in it"; which they clearly did not have. The Court of Appeal in the end determined that the word "NERIT" was not registered bona fide, and clearly not used for a legitimate commercial purpose and therefore would not be allowed as a registered trademark.

As one can see the use of trademarks is complex, and predatory registrations are no longer allowed. Registration of ghost marks was common practice before the Imperial Group decision, and clearly the case illustrates a well-needed adjustment from those practices. Should frivolous marks, or unused marks, be allowed to be registered by anyone, their function as a badge of origin could potentially cease to exist, and would only serve as a means to prevent others from trading through legitimate marks. The Imperial Group case has been decided in a multitude of countries, such as Australia, with similar results, clearly showcasing the common law's position in relation to modern trademark law with regards to ghost marks.

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