25 July, 2017

Seeing Red - Registration of Red Shoe Sole Potentially Invalid, Says AG Szpunar

The color of a product or a logo can often be just as memorable as its shape, design or quality. When you think of a Coca Cola bottle, do you think of the color red? If you see a chocolate bar draped in purple, do you think of Cadbury? Colors are a great differentiator, and the more striking the color the more you tend to probably remember it. That's why many companies register a particular color as a trademark in relation to their goods or services, protecting that very association from competitors. In a similar vein, could you register a trademark that incorporates a color with your product, for example in conjunction with a shoe? A recent case involving this has been going through the European courts, and the Advocate General has finally given their two cents on the matter ahead of the CJEU's decision.

The case of Christian Louboutin SAS v Van Haren Schoenen BV concerns the registration of a mark in Benelux by Louboutin, comprising of a high-heel shoe with a red sole. Only the sole was registered. Van Haren made and sold similar red-soled shoes, and upon identifying this, Louboutin took the company to court for trademark infringement. Van Haren challenged the infringement opposing the mark's registration, claiming invalidity. Having made its way through the Dutch courts, the case ultimately ended up with the CJEU, and prior to their judgment Advocate General Szpunar aimed to give the court guidance on the issue.

The question referred to the Court was "[i]s the notion of ‘shape’ within the meaning of Article 3(1)(e)(iii) of Directive 2008/95... limited to the three-dimensional properties of the goods, such as their contours, measurements and volume (expressed three-dimensionally), or does it include other (non three-dimensional) properties of the goods, such as their colour?" In essence, the question asks whether a 'shape', as defined in the Directive, can include colors as well as the actual three-dimensional shape of an object.

The Advocate General first considered the classification of the mark and its impact on the registration. He determined that the classification of the contested mark is a factual assessment to be made by the referring court. That consideration does not prevent the CJEU from making remarks which may guide that court in making its assessment. He also saw that the classification of the goods does not necessarily have any legal consequences regarding the goods. Even if the mark is a 'position mark', which some parties argued it was, it doesn’t prevent that mark from consisting of the shape of the goods (i.e. the color). He then concluded that "…it is for the referring court to determine whether the mark at issue in the present case is a per se colour mark or a mark consisting of the shape of the goods, but also seeking protection for a colour".

To determine whether the mark is a color mark per say, or consists of the shape of the goods, as defined in the Directive, the Advocate General set out the test as "…the referring court should carry out an overall assessment, taking into account the graphic representation and any descriptions filed at the time of application for registration, as well as other material relevant to identifying the essential characteristics of the contested mark, where applicable". One would also have to account for whether the mark was registered as for the color only, or if the shape was incorporated in the registration as a part of the color.

The CJEU could impede Cindy's new color schemes 
The Advocate General rejected that the color, albeit restricted from applying to a particular shape, would not in itself limit the mark to simply a color mark. Instead "…what must be determined is whether the sign derives its distinctive character from the colour in respect of which protection is sought per se, or from the exact positioning of that colour in relation to other elements of the shape of the goods". Therefore the Advocate General accepts that it is possible for the mark to apply to the position of the color as well.

When considering the actual mark that was registered, the Advocate General saw that, even though the contours of the shoe were not a part of the registered mark, its placement on the shoe was very relevant. The mark sought to protect simply a red sole on any high-heeled shoe, irrespective of its shape. He finally thought that "…[t]he contours of the sole appear in any event to be a negligible element of the mark, which derives its distinctive character from the unusual positioning of the coloured element and, potentially, the colour contrast between different parts of the shoe".

Although the Advocate General considered that the mark, at least on the outset, would be one that consists of a shape in conjunction with the color, he still aimed to analyse both possible outcomes in more depth.

Firstly, whether the mark consists of a color per say. As established in previous cases, colors per say don't have distinctive character; however, they may become distinctive through use. The registration, even so, shouldn't prevent other proprietors from using the color for goods of a similar type. The Advocate General ultimately concluded that "…if the contested mark were to be classified as a ‘mark consisting of a colour per se’, it would be appropriate to hold that it did not fall within the scope of Article 3(1)(e)".

Secondly, whether the mark consisting of the shape of the goods and of a certain colour. The Advocate General set out that, to answer whether a mark consists of both the shape and the color applied to it, one has to heed the logic and scheme of Article 3(1)(e), i.e. to prevent the registration of marks that would impede fair competition. The Advocate general considered that any shape that incorporates color in the mark would have to be analysed under Article 3(1)(e) as a part of the overall assessment of the sign. This would apply even under the new Directive.

He concluded that "… Article 3(1)(e) of [the] Directive… does potentially apply to signs consisting of the shape of the goods which seek protection for a certain colour". The mark in question would also be, in his view, potentially caught by the Article and therefore invalid. He also observed that, while the color potentially does add value to the mark (and potentially falls under Article 3(1)(e)(iii)), the value added only relates to the intrinsic value of the shape (for example, is it commonly used and therefore valuable) and not the reputation of the proprietor or the mark.

The Advocate General clearly sets the stage for the CJEU to find that color marks applied to a particular shape would be invalid, as the protection of a color to an indeterminate amount of soles could prevent fair competition. Less conventional trademarks could be hindered by a negative decision by the CJEU, and it remains to be seen how they navigate this paradigm in the light of the expansion of registrations through the new Directive 2015/2436. Should the shape be taken into account the mark could survive, but it looks like Louboutin might have to simply rely on their goodwill in passing off in the future.

18 July, 2017

Less Offensive - US Supreme Court Takes on Disparaging Trademarks

Issues surrounding race are incredibly difficult and complex things, and clearly have no single answer to address them fully. Many efforts have been made to address various nuances of race and racial negativity, one of which is the prevention of the registration of trademarks in the US that could disparage individuals of a given race. Even so, trademarks exist that could be deemed to be offensive and disparaging (more on which here and here), and this has created a great deal of discourse on their continued existence, and similarly on the registration of other potentially disparaging marks. Should these types of marks be allowed, or should society move on and reject all trademarks that might be considered disparaging? The US Supreme Court endeavoured to answer this question once and for all this summer.

The case of Joseph Matal v Simon Shiao Tam dealt with a rock band, The Slants, who sought to register their name as a trademark in the US. The term "slants" is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent, and the band sought to, through the use of the negative term as their moniker of choice, to reclaim it and take away its negative meaning. After filing their application for the trademark, the USPTO denied the application on disparagement grounds under 15 USC section 1052(a). The band, under the name of its lead singer Mr Tam, challenged the ruling and took the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.

The crux of the case remained that would the clause preventing the registration of disparaging be unconstitutional, particularly in terms of the First Amendment right to free speech.

At first, after setting out the legislative history of trademarks, Justice Alito (delivering the majority's opinion) considered that, while there is a valid registration system for trademarks, one does not have to register a mark to enjoy its use. In the same vein, the marks can be protected on a federal level under the Lanham Act, particularly through common law rights in those marks. Even so, certain rights are conferred to the holders of the marks through registration, and it does therefore add value and further protections over those marks, making registration very important.

Justice Alito then moved onto the test of whether a trademark is disparaging. This is whether "…the likely meaning of the matter in question, taking into account not only dictionary definitions, but also the relationship of the matter to the other elements in the mark, the nature of the goods or services, and the manner in which the mark is used in the marketplace in connection with the goods or services… [and] whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group". Even if the applicant is of the 'disparaged' group of people does not negate any possible findings under the test. At first instance, both the USPTO and the Appeal Board determined that the mark sought was indeed disparaging.

Before discussing whether the clause is unconstitutional or not, the Court had to first look at whether the mark was, as determined at first instance, disparaging. Tam argued that, while the disparagement provision speaks of 'persons', it cannot apply to non-juristic entities such as ethnic groups, but only to natural and juristic persons (i.e. individuals and not undefined, albeit legally defined groups). The Court swiftly rejected this argument, as Tam's narrow construction does not match with that of the provision of USPTO's definitions, which set out much broader terms, speaking of not just 'persons', but also 'institutions' and 'beliefs'. Therefore, as the Court concluded, disparagement can apply to non-juristic entities just as well as juristic entities.

Justice Alito then moved onto the main focus of the case, i.e. the constitutionality of the disparagement clause itself.

Washington's newest football team's logo (trademarked of course)
The first arguments circled around whether trademarks are government speech, not private speech or a form of government subsidy. As a primer, all government speech is exempt from First Amendment scrutiny, and can therefore say whatever it pleases (at least in theory). Even though trademarks are registered by the USPTO, the office does not itself regulate what the message of each mark is, unless it is considered disparaging under the provision. The viewpoint of any particular mark is irrelevant, and registration does not mean approval of the mark by the government. Justice Alito rejected the cases referred to in the matter, and concluded that the registration of a mark is not government speech, but private speech. In her view: "…if the registration of trademarks constituted government speech, other systems of government registration could easily be characterized in the same way". She also aligned the matter with copyright registration as "…if trademark registration amounts to government speech, then copyright registration which has identical accoutrements would “likewise amount to government speech".

The US government also argued that precedent set shows that government programs that subsidized speech expression specific viewpoints are constitutional. Justice Alito quickly rejected this argument, since "…[t]he federal registration of a trademark is nothing like the programs at issue in these cases". While registration does, arguably at least, confer certain non-monetary benefits to registrants, it does not provide a direct monetary subsidy, which the cases discussed did.

Finally, the government argued that the disparagement clause should be sustained applying only in cases that involved 'government-programs'. Justice Alito, again, rejected this argument, setting out that "…the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers". The Court deemed that you cannot discriminate against a particular viewpoint, and the disparagement clause does do so, even if the subject matter is potentially offensive to a given group of people. The Court therefore concluded that "…the disparagement clause cannot be saved by analyzing it as a type of government program in which some content- and speaker-based restrictions are permitted".

The Court then finally moved onto the question of constitutionality. whether trademarks are commercial speech, and therefore can be restricted under limited scrutiny under Central Hudson. The case allows for a restriction of free speech that has to "…serve a substantial interest and it must be narrowly drawn". Justice Alito concluded that the clause fails the Central Hudson scrutiny on the outset. It was also argued that it serves two interests, including protecting underrepresented groups from abuse in commercial advertising. The Court dismissed this interest, as the First Amendment protects even hateful speech. The second one is protecting the orderly flow of commerce, where the trademarks, through their offense, prevent or reduce commerce through their use. Justice Alito dismissed this argument as well, as the disparagement provision is not 'narrowly drawn' to prevent the registration of only trademarks that support invidious discrimination, while applying to a very broad type of people, including the dead. In her final view "…If affixing the commercial label permits the suppression of any speech that may lead to political or social “volatility,” free speech would be endangered". The Supreme Court therefore deemed that the disparagement clause violates the First Amendment.

The case is a hugely influential one, which opens the door for a myriad of trademarks, particularly those that are offensive or have the potential to cause offense. Free speech is a double-edged sword, and an American near free-for-all free speech is a source of pride, but can cause issues for those who face abuse or humiliation at the hands of those using that right. The case will also have a knock-on effect in the Redskins litigation, undoubtedly clearing the path for the mark to remain registered. In the end, the Supreme Court seems to be completely right here, but this writer, being a proponent of a more limited free speech (although only for very narrow and specific exceptions), can't help but feel that this will pave the way for more offensive marks in the long term.

11 July, 2017

Results Breakdown - Canadian Supreme Court Rules on Infringing Websites and Google Search Results

When reading this case this writer pondered what he would do in a world without Google (or search engines in general). Finding information on a web that's very close to an unrestricted space is both very useful, and can produce results you never expected, both in the good and the bad. Through the sheer power of the search engine, finding details online is quite easy, and can present an ingenius searcher with plenty of legitimate and illegitimate materials. This still poses the question: should search engines have to, or be forced to, restrict their results, to prevent the infringement of someone's rights? While this question often falls due to issues of jurisdiction, the Canadian Supreme Court endeavoured to answer it in a Canadian context only last week (with the BC Supreme Court decision having been discussed here).

The case of Google Inc. v Equustek Solutions Inc. dealt with the sale of devices that allow complex industrial equipment made by one manufacturer to communicate with complex industrial equipment made by another manufacturer. Equustek have developed, manufactured and sold such devices for some time. Former employees of Equustek, having left the company, started their own competing company, which developed and sold a similar device online, over which an injunction was granted by the Canadian courts. After a long legal battle, the respondents fled Canada and abandoned the proceedings, with Equustek subsequently pursuing Google to remove the website selling the infringing devices from their search results. Having initially received the injunction (limited only to Google.ca), Google pursued the matter further in the courts, ultimately ending up in the highest court in Canada.

What the case was all about was whether Equustek could pursue a worldwide interlocutory injunction through the Canadian courts against Google and its search results.

Initially, the Court set out the three-part test that determines whether a court should exercise its discretion to grant an interlocutory injunction: "...[1] is there a serious issue to be tried; [2] would the person applying for the injunction suffer irreparable harm if the injunction were not granted; and [3] is the balance of convenience in favour of granting the interlocutory injunction or denying it. The fundamental question is whether the granting of an injunction is just and equitable in all of the circumstances of the case".

Google agreed that there was a serious issue to be tried; however, they presented a multitude of arguments for the Court against the injunction. This included that the injunction is not necessary nor would it be effective; a third-party should not be bound by an order on another party (and therefore be subject to the injunction); and that issuing an interlocutory injunction with extraterritorial effect would be improper.

Search results - the great unknown (Source: xkcd)
Justice Abella considered that, due to the global nature of the Internet, any injunction involving multi-national, cross-border entities like Google would have to be applied globally. In short, as the majority of Google's business happens outside of Canada "...Purchasers outside Canada could easily continue purchasing from Datalink’s websites, and Canadian purchasers could easily find Datalink’s websites even if those websites were de-indexed on google.ca. Google would still be facilitating Datalink’s breach of the court’s order which had prohibited it from carrying on business on the Internet".

She also added that an interlocutory injunction, such as in this case, is therefore necessary to prevent the defendants' infringement online. Without Google's indexing of their site their business would not be feasible. Justice Abella also determined that there would be no issue with the freedom of expression, as no other nations' laws would be violated by the injunction.

The judge followed with the notion that this injunction would not affect Google's 'content neutral character', as it does not impose further monitoring obligations on the company, but merely the removal of the specified web addresses from its index. The same would not cause any undue expense on Google, which is something they already do for other illegal, more severe content online, and actively complies with DMCA notices over copyright infringement.

While the respondents' business can only thrive through Google's services, the court acknowledged that they are not responsible for the harm caused; however, Google has the power to end the harm by de-indexing the content. Ultimately, Justice Abella dismissed Google's appeal.

Two judges, Rowe and Côté, dissented from the majority's opinion, arguing that the injunction should not have been granted. In their view, the injunction's effects on Google would be final, with no recourse (unless to adjust its terms through the courts), and that Google is not a party to the dispute and should not be subjected to the injunction in question. Finally, the judges saw that the injunction is mandatory, with very little proven effect on its purpose, and the courts are presented with alternatives such as an asset freeze or injunctive relief against the ISPs preventing access to the website.

Ultimately, the case turns on the fact that it can open the floodgates for a stream of applications seeking similar injunctions, impacting both Google's business and the Canadian judicial system as a whole. The Court did leave the matter quite open, and this writer is confident that more applications will follow the decision, since, as the Court observed, Google already complies with similar obligations on a regular basis. Worldwide injunctions should not be a common weapon used, but an extraordinary one, so this writer does hope that the Canadian courts will restrict its application to only instances where they are truly needed.