10 April, 2018

An Opinion on Whisky - AG Øe Sets Boundries for Geographical Indicators and their Infringement

Having looked at the legal intricacies of using protected Geographical Indications in a recent case regarding Champagne, this writer has grown to appreciate the complexities of PDOs and the law surrounding them. What amounts to an infringement of GIs rights is very tricky, and any clarification from higher courts is always appreciated. Scotch whisky is one GI that is vehemently defended, and many third-parties would want to benefit from the image that the GI imparts, but to avoid the 'pesky' issues of actually conforming to the classification. In terms of a name for a whisky produced outside of Scotland, what amounts to an infringement of a GI? Ahead of a CJEU decision, Advocate General Øe gave their opinion of this question.

The case of The Scotch Whisky Association v Michael Klotz dealt with the production and sale of a whisky called "Glen Buchenbach" in Germany by Mr Klotz. The SWA objected to the sale of the whisky using the term 'Glen', which, in their view, referred to a geographical location in Scotland and implies the product is a Scotch whisky.  The use could potentially therefore infringe on the Geographical Indications Regulation, which protects Scotch whisky as a GI.

The German courts referred three questions to the CJEU on the matter, which were considered by the Advocate General.

The first question, in essence, asked "…what is meant by ‘indirect commercial use [of a] registered geographical indication’ for a spirit drink, within the meaning of Article 16(a) of Regulation No 110/2008".

The first part of the first question then focusses on whether "… in order to establish the existence of such use, prohibited by Article 16(a), it is necessary that the disputed indication be used in identical or phonetically and/or visually similar form to the protected geographical indication, or whether it is sufficient that the disputed indication evokes in the relevant public some kind of association with the indication or the geographical area relating thereto". In brief, this is whether the indication has to be phonetically or visually identical to the GI, or if the public associate the term with the GI without similarity (i.e. 'Glen' would be associated with Scotland, and therefore Scotch whisky).

The Advocate General determined that, under Article 16(a), the expression of 'direct or indirect commercial use' requires that "…the use is made of the disputed indication in the form in which it was registered or at least in a form with such close links to it that the sign at issue is manifestly inseparable from it". This means that the use would have to be in an identical or phonetically and/or visually similar form, and not just associated with the GI.

The Court has firmly established that 'direct' use would amount to the use of the GI, or a corresponding term or translation, in conjunction with goods that don't meet the specification. However, the Advocate General had to consider what amounts to 'indirect' use of a GI. In his view, this requires use where "…the indication… feature[s] in supplementary marketing or information sources, such as an advertisement for that product or documents relating to it". Additionally, broadening the provision would make following provisions, such as Article 16(b), redundant, and has to therefore be kept narrower, and won't cover cases of mere association by the public. This interpretation supports the interpretation of the objectives of the Regulation and the Article, which clearly seek to protect GIs from misuse, and to ensure quality of the goods.

The AG probably needed a drink after the case
In terms of the second part of the first question (additional information in relation to an 'association' with a GI in the minds of the public), the Advocate General swiftly concluded that the Court would not have to rule on the point, in the light of the above, but he did make brief observations on the same. In his view there is no ambiguity under the provision on what amounts to infringement, which differs from Article 16(b) that is not at issue in the matter. The Advocate General added that, in considering any "misuse, imitation or evocation" under Article 16(b), a court could take into account the context where the disputed indicator is used, and the same would apply if the Court would consider 'association' as a possibility under Article 16(a).

The second question, split into two parts as well, asks clarification on "…the concept of ‘evocation’ of a registered geographical indication relating to a spirit drink, within the meaning of Article 16(b)".

As with the first question, the first part of the second question asks whether, in determining the existence of 'evocation' "…the disputed designation must be in an identical or phonetically and/or visually similar form to the protected geographical indication, or whether it is sufficient that the designation evokes in the relevant public some kind of association with that indication or the geographical area relating to it".

Having considered relevant case law, the Advocate General concluded that for the purposes of identifying an ‘evocation’ "…the only determining criterion is whether, ‘when the consumer is confronted with the name of the product, the image triggered in his mind is that of the product whose designation is protected’, which the national court must verify by taking into account, as appropriate, the partial incorporation of a protected name in the disputed designation, a phonetic and visual relationship, or a conceptual proximity". He also outright rejected the concept of evocation in relation to a mere association with the GI in the might of the relevant public.

As above, the second part deals with the existence of 'evocation' and whether it has to be determined looking at the use in isolation, or whether the context of the use can be taken into account. Having briefly discussed the matter, the Advocate General concluded that "…for the purposes of establishing the existence of an ‘evocation’… it is not necessary to take account of additional information found alongside the sign at issue in the description, presentation or labelling of the product concerned, in particular with regard to its true origin". That is because this information is largely irrelevant in the assessment, and that 'evocation' can exist even in the absence of confusion in the relevant public.

Finally the Advocate General considered the third question, which asked, in essence, "…whether, for the purposes of determining whether there is ‘any false or misleading indication… liable to convey a false impression as to its origin’, within the meaning of Article 16(c)… it is necessary to take account of the context in which the disputed element is used, in particular where the disputed element is accompanied by an indication of the true origin of the product". The question concerns the use of the name 'Glen', whether its use is false or misleading, and if its use in context can be taken into account (i.e. the use of a German location, Buchenbach, after the name).

Having considered all parties' arguments extensively, the Advocate General determined that "…for the purposes of establishing the existence of a ‘false or misleading indication’ prohibited by [Article 16(c)], it is not necessary to take account of additional information found alongside the sign at issue in the description, presentation or labelling of the product concerned, in particular with regard to its true origin". He also noted that, in the current case, the use of the name 'Glen' does not have a sufficiently clear and direct link with the protected geographical indication, or with its origin country, in order for it to be a 'false or misleading' indication.

The Advocate General's opinion is very important, particularly in the light of GIs and the assessment of their protection and remit thereof. It clearly narrows down the use of any disputed indication in isolation, avoiding any other contextual indicators as to origin or otherwise; however, the CJEU's ultimate decision will set the scene in a more concrete fashion later in the year. This writer expects them to follow the opinion, but that is by no means a certainty.

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