13 January, 2017

Not Taking a Break - EU General Court Sends Kit Kat TM for Reconsideration at EUIPO

The Kit Kat chocolate bar trademark saga is one that seems to just keep on giving and giving to the IP community, offering new and fangled ways where the iconic (or dare we might now say the opposite) chocolate bar has been fought over in Europe. After a hard-fought several rounds in the CJEU and the UK courts, it all seemed all over; however, the EU General Court offered us a new judgment as an early Christmas present in mid-December.

The case of Mondelez UK Holdings & Services Ltd, formerly Cadbury Holdings Ltd v EUIPO dealt with an EU registered trademark (2632529) for a three-dimensional mark comprising of the Kit Kat chocolate bar without any markings. The mark was subsequently challenged by Nestle's favorite candy competitor, Cadbury (now owned by Mondelez), and the matter has since ultimately ended up in the General Court, largely dealing with lack of use and distinctive character.

The GC only concerned itself with Article 52(2) of the Community Trade mark Regulation, in conjunction with Article 7(3), which set out that a trademark, even if potentially found invalid, might still be registrable should the mark have acquired a distinctive character with respect to the goods and services covered. Mondelez argued that the EUIPO had failed to correctly assess this distinctive character (allowing the mark to be registered), and directed their argumentation in four separate parts.

The Court initially dealt with the second part of their plea argues that the mark had not been used for all of the relevant goods it was registered for. The Board of Appeal had seen that, based on the evidence submitted, the mark had been used for all of the goods listed above. This assessment, according to the GC, would be done "...in relation, on the one hand, to the goods or services in respect of which registration has been sought and, on the other, to the presumed perception of the mark by an average consumer of the category of goods or services in question, who is reasonably well informed and reasonably observant and circumspect". Any proof employed would have to be viewed independently within the context of sub-sections within the broad terms of goods to identify whether the mark has been used for those goods.



Gilbert always forgot what his chocolate bars looked like

Under the evidence supplied, the GC did concede that the Kit Kat mark had been used for the majority of the goods listed; however, saw that it had equally not been used for bakery products, pastries, cakes and waffles, since the advertising materials only showed biscuit-like, chocolate treats with no real bakery goods included at all. This was deemed an error on the part of the Board of Appeal.


The first part of the plea dealt with a lack of use of the mark in the form as registered, and therefore would only stem from the branding or the use of other marks in conjunction with the contested mark. The EU courts have previously held that a 3D mark can acquire distinctive character even if used with other marks, as long as the public distinguishes the product from originating from a particular source as a result. The GC quickly rejected this argument, as surveys indicated a high percentage of individuals identifying the brand from just the shape alone.

They then moved onto the third part of the plea, which argues that there is a lack of use of the mark as an indicator of origin and insufficient evidence to that effect. The latter point would be assessed based on evidence showing that a significant portion of the public identifies the mark as an indicator of origin, which entails in it several factors, including market share and duration of use. The GC rejected this argument as well, having extensively discussed the evidence submitted and its application to the matter at hand, illustrating a clear recognition of the mark as an indicator of origin for those particular goods, and that it was sufficient to overcome this plea.

Finally, the fourth part of the plea asserted a lack of proof of distinctive character acquired through use of the contested trade mark throughout the European Union. Mondelez contested that, as Nestle only provided evidence with respect to 10 Member States out of 15, the Board of Appeal should not have extrapolated from that evidence applicable to the entire EU (with the Board only finding evidence of distinctive character for 5 being sufficient for the whole of the EU). According to established EU case law, a mark needs to have distinctive character in the whole of the EU, and would fail to be registered should it not have it for a part of the EU, even one single Member State. Evidence provided needs to be quantitively sufficient to prove distinctive character in the Member States concerned. The GC corrected the Board of Appeal's approach in assessing this, and set out that "…the relevant question is not whether it was shown that a substantial proportion of the public in the European Union, merging all the Member States and regions, perceived a mark as an indication of the commercial origin of the goods designated by that mark, but whether, throughout the European Union, it was proved that a significant proportion of the relevant public perceived a mark as an indication of the commercial origin of the goods designated by that mark".

The GC allowed this part of the first plea, determining that a lack of evidence for the rest of the Member States would mean that the mark has not been established to have distinctive character in the entire EU, and the registration is therefore invalid and would have to be re-examined.

The case is a very curious one, and highlights a potential big issue for applicants when it comes to evidencing the distinctive character in the entire EU. With surveys and other evidence gathering exercises being costly both monetarily and time wise, and newer launches in other territories being a hindrance for proving distinctive character. In the end, the threshold should be high; however, this writer would be a firm believer in statistics, especially for more notable, established brands, and would want more flexibility at the EUIPO (although, understanding the risks associated with giving away trademarks like candy). It will remain to be seen whether the case is appealed, and this writer would not want to see the fight for chocolate bars to ever end.

Source: Reuters

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