19 December, 2017

Hollowed Out - Can You Register a Geographical Name as a Trademark?

The origin of the materials of goods can be very influential as a part of a consumer's purchase decision, often signalling particularly high quality or desired traits not seen in similar materials from elsewhere. As such the location's name carries weight, and many different products can be made from the materials from the same source, albeit potentially still varying in quality. Being able to use the location's name is therefore quite important to all interested parties, so this begs the question; can you register the name as a trademark? The matter was recently discussed in the IPEC this past summer.

The case of Mermeren Kombinat AD v Fox Marble Holdings Plc concerned marble quarried from the Sivec region in Macedonia, where these types of activities have been going on since Ancient Rome. Mermeren is a marble extraction company operating since the 1950s in Prilep, a region that includes Sivec. They registered the name SIVEC as a trademark in 2014 (EUTM 12057915), ultimately pursuing Fox Marble for trademark infringement for using the name SIVEC. Fox Marble also counterclaimed for invalidity of the trademark.

The matter focussed on whether the trademark was invalid under Article 7(1)(c) of the CTM Regulation, which sets out that marks consisting exclusively of "…or indications which may serve, in trade, to designate the kind, quality, quantity, intended purpose, value, geographical origin or the time of production of the goods or of rendering of the service, or other characteristics of the goods or service" cannot be registered. Even with this focus the above Article is still subject to Article 7(3), where a mark can avoid Article 7(1)(c) if it has inherent distinctive character.

The Court then moved on to assessing whether the mark in question has inherent distinctive character. After an exhaustive review of case law relating to inherent distinctive character, Judge Hacon, presiding over the matter, set out the summarised eleven principles relevant when considering distinctiveness. While not discussed at length in the decision, they are still important to keep in mind when thinking about distinctiveness.

The judge started by looking at who the average consumer is. He did, however, first observe that the CJEU has not considered the meaning of a 'relevant class of persons' or what a 'significant proportion', which are an important part of this principle. Judge Hacon concluded that this would be "…a proportion markedly above de minimis but not necessarily over half" – a line that is difficult to draw when a majority isn't needed, so will heavily rely on the facts in each case.

Not all art materials are created equal
The judge first very quickly dealt with the question of the average consumer in the matter. Agreed by both parties, the average consumer is "…a specialist dealer in marble or a person who advises their customers on the choice of materials to be used in a building, such as an architect or designer of interiors", but this person would have to be from the EU and therefore not Macedonia.

The second matter was whether the mark had inherent distinctive character. Judge Hacon swiftly determined that the mark would not have inherent distinctive character denoting geographical origin due to the obscurity of the location it referred to. The average consumer wouldn't have heard of Sivec, unless you lived near the area, which eliminates the possibility of the name having inherent distinctiveness. Use of the name would have to be disregarded, as that relates to acquired distinctive character.

The Court then moved onto the matter of acquired distinctive character. Fox Marble argued three assumptions to support a non-finding of acquired distinctiveness: the trademark is inherently distinctive and therefore can be argued to not be distinctive through use; the average consumer would only see it as denoting a geographical origin, even without knowing the place exists; and that not enough people would perceive the goods to come from Mermeren.

The judge quickly dealt with the first two assumptions, with the former having been decided when no inherent distinctive character was found. The latter was accepted by the judge, as it is possible for the average consumer to perceive the origin of the goods through this assumption; however, their actual perception would differ from this when considering the mark's use in isolation from this assumption.

Finally, the judge considered the 'messy reality' of the relevant persons' belief as to the meaning of the mark. As discussed above, the judge highlighted that, although the mark has to be perceived by a significant portion of the relevant people, this can be a portion that is markedly above de minimis. Therefore, even if all people are not persuaded, the law can still consider the amount significant.

Judge Hacon then moved onto the extensive evidence on acquired distinctive character. He concluded that "…by August 2013 a significant proportion of relevant persons, certainly markedly above de minimis and probably higher than that, had come to believe that 'Sivec' was a trade mark owned by Mermeren, signifying that marble marked with that name came from a single undertaking" and had therefore acquired distinctiveness. The more influential evidence included invoices, presence at exhibitions and advertising campaigns launched by Mermeren.

The trademark had ultimately remained validly registered and had no grounds for revocation.

The case is not ground-breaking by any means (although clarified important parts of the law in acquired distinctiveness), but shows that, through a concerted effort to educate the population as to the origin of a trademark, even if a place on Earth, can lead to a successful registration and maintenance of a mark. Evidence was clearly key in the case, rather than complex legal arguments.

Source: IPKat

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