12 October, 2016

Confusion Is Right - Likelihood of Confusion in a Part of the EU Doesn't (Necessarily) Lead to Pan-EU Injunction

Due to the vastness of the internal market in the EU, the enforcement of rights can be difficult, especially when those rights have been infringed in one Member State, but not necessarily in the rest (or to the same degree as in the original country of issue). The EU trademark gives for EU-wide protection, but in the event that national courts disagree on the interpretation of a degree of similarity between a registered EUTM and a competing mark, is EU-wide protection afforded or would the competing mark escape the clutches of the EUTM system? This question was recently answered by the CJEU in a decision handed down in late September.

The case of combit Software GmbH v Commit Business Solutions Ltd dealt with combit Software, a German software development and marketing company that holds the rights to the EU trademark for the word "combit" for similar goods and services. Commit Business Solutions is an Israeli company that sells software under the brand "Commit", on the web and in a number of countries, including in Germany, selling a German-language version of their Commit software in the country. Due to the similarity of the brands used, combit brought proceedings in Germany aiming to prevent the use of the mark for the marketing of Commit's software (with the matter ultimately being referred to the EU courts). As a peculiar part of the proceedings in Germany the court determined that, indeed, there was a likelihood of confusion in the EU for the German-speaking consumer; however, it also saw that there would be no likelihood of confusion for the English-speaking consumer. The court then referred the matter to the CJEU for ultimate determination, in particular for the lack of confusion for a significant portion of the Union.

What the referring court asked from the CJEU was summarized by the Court as whether "...Article 1(2), Article 9(1)(b) and Article 102(1) of Regulation No 207/2009 must be interpreted as meaning that, where an EU trade mark court finds that the use of a sign creates a likelihood of confusion with an EU trade mark in one part of the European Union whilst not creating such a likelihood in another part thereof, that court must conclude that there is an infringement of the exclusive right conferred by that trade mark and issue an order prohibiting the use concerned for the entire area of the European Union". This, in essence, is inquiring whether a partial likelihood of confusion in the EU would translate to a pan-EU injunction for the same, irrespective of the actual confusion determined for the other parts of the EU by the national courts.

With the EU being so different, pan-EU
injunctions are night impossible
The CJEU swiftly addressed the point, stating that when an EU trademark court finds "...that the use of a sign creates, in one part of the European Union, a likelihood of confusion with an EU trade mark, whilst, in another part of the Union, that same use does not give rise to such a likelihood of confusion, that court cannot conclude that there is no infringement of the exclusive right conferred by that trade mark". If there exists a likelihood of confusion in one part of the EU, the CJEU saw that it equates to an infringement of the conferred in the EU overall. This follows precedent in instances where a likelihood of confusion exists during opposition proceedings, but only with respect of one part of the EU.

While the above seems straightforward, the CJEU further complicated things. Following the decision in DHL Express France, if a court does not find a likelihood of confusion in a part of the EU (as in the case at hand) for any reason, such as a linguistic one, the mark isn't adversely affected and the scope of the injunction has to be restricted. However, the trade in which the potentially infringing sign is used has to be bona fide for the restriction to apply. The area restricted has to be clearly defined, not merely through linguistic borders, which does set a high threshold for a wider restricted area.

In summary, the CJEU set out that "...[the Articles of the Regulation] must be interpreted as meaning that, where an EU trade mark court finds that the use of a sign creates a likelihood of confusion with an EU trade mark in one part of the European Union whilst not creating such a likelihood in another part thereof, that court must conclude that there is an infringement of the exclusive right conferred by that trade mark and issue an order prohibiting the use in question for the entire area of the European Union with the exception of the part in respect of which there has been found to be no likelihood of confusion".

The finding of the CJEU is peculiar, since its rationale clearly leads in the direction of a pan-EU injunction, but can be restricted to only the areas affected in the EU if no likelihood of confusion arises. One has to wonder whether this would segment the single market, and potentially cause for the EU trademark to cease to function as intended; as an all-encompassing registration to protect an interest in the entire single market. Nevertheless, one can appreciate the rationale put forth by the Court. This writer will wonder whether the case will have bigger impact on the EU trademark, but doubts many courts will be brave enough to set very wide restrictions on any areas not covered by an EU trademark.

Source: IPKat

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