10 November, 2016

Ringing Hollow - Ringtone Trademark Rejected by EU General Court

Since the introduction of the new Trade Mark Regulation No 2015/2424, this writer for one has been awaiting the inevitable landslide of unusual trademark registrations, particularly for sounds and even smells. While this rush has yet to materialize, some attempts have been made, and quite recently one of those applications ended up in the EU General Court. This writer laments his lateness in relation to this case; however, it is interesting enough to have to be discussed even a month or two after the fact.

The case of Globo Comunicação e Participações S/A v EUIPO concerned the registration of a mobile phone ringtone by Globo for goods and services in classes 9, 16, 38 and 41, covering a wide array of tangible and intangible goods (the musical notation for the sound can be viewed here). The mark was rejected by both the Examiner and the Board of Appeal for a lack of distinctive character under Article Article 7(1)(b) of the old Trade Mark Regulation No 207/2009. The matter was subsequently appealed to the General Court, who handed down their judgment in mid-September.

The first matter dealt with by the General Court was a simple procedural point, where Globo argued that no reasons were given by the Board of Appeal as to why the mark was rejected under Article 7(1)(b). While the Court acknowledged that the Board of Appeal does have a requirement to state their reasons for rejecting a mark, this was not omitted in the case at hand, as the reasons issued (namely on the banality of the sign with regard to the relevant goods or services) and their correlation with the classes was clearly given, even if regarding all of the classes of goods as a whole. A single conclusion did not result in reasons only being given to one class, but all classes summarily.

The Court then moved onto the meat of the matter, namely whether the mark infringed Article 7(1)(b) through a lack of distinctive character. Globo argued that, contrary to previous findings, the brevity or the simplicity of the sound in question should not impact the assessment of its distinctive character. 

Some combinations of notes are a little less simple
As with 'traditional' marks, the assessment of distinctive character is based on the goods or services in respect of which registration of the mark is sought and to the relevant public’s perception of that mark. While this is much more straightforward in word or image marks, as observed by the Court: "...although the public is used to perceiving word or figurative marks as signs which identify the commercial origin of goods and services, the same is not necessarily true when the sign consists solely of a sound element". Arguably it is much more difficult to build an association with a sound, but a good example of a an arguable successful campaign to do so is the whistle adopted by McDonald's in their TV advertising.

The unfamiliarity of peoples' perceptions on sound marks is also added to by the classes of goods or services the mark is registered for. The use of sound marks in TV, for example, would lead to a much higher likelihood of consumer identification and association, while physical media does not lend itself to this perception. The Court explained that "...as regards certain goods and services linked, in particular, first, to tools for communicating or entertaining by means of television broadcasting or radio broadcasting and to telephony and, secondly, to IT media, computer software or to the media sector in general, sound elements, such as jingles or melodies, are used in order to enable the product or service at issue to be identified aurally as coming from a particular undertaking". Consumers would therefore have to perceive the sound as indicating a particular brand of goods or services via these mediums.

The Court found that, a sound that only consists of merely a banal combination of notes would not be perceived as referring to any particular brand, as it would cause a 'mirror effect', meaning it only refers back to itself. Following this, the General Court considered whether the sound in the mark in question would be distinctive, and found that it isn't, as the simple two note combination would only "...be perceived by the relevant public only as a mere function of the goods and services covered and not as an indication of their commercial origin". This was further exasperated by the excessive simplicity (only sounding like an alarm or a telephone ringing) and only therefore refers to itself, rather than the goods or services in was applied for. The Court concluded that the Board of Appeal did not err in their findings and dismissed the appeal.

The case shows the difficulty in the registration of simple sound marks, especially ones that are not 'jingle-like', i.e. serve as a longer, more distinctive part of a product or show for example. It will be interesting to see how the change in the requiremet of graphical representation changes things; however, as the sound was played in court, it seems unlikely that the addition of a playable example would sway the pendulum the other way.

Source: Ars Technica

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