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

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