12 June, 2018

Well Red - Louboutin's Red Shoe Sole TM is Registrable, Says CJEU

The build-up with the Louboutin red sole case has been quite extensive and unique in that Advocate General Szpunar had to give not one, but two opinions on the case ahead of the CJEU's decision (discussed more here and here). There was some degree of uproar with the latest opinion, and hence many trademark practitioners have been salivating at the prospect of the CJEU decision, which could have quite a bit of an impact on the current trademarks regime in Europe. With that in mind, the decision has finally been released by the CJEU earlier this week.

Even though the facts of Christian Louboutin v Van Haren Schoenen BV have been discussed extensively on this blog, they are worth revisiting. The matter concerned a trademark registration (TM 0874489) in Benelux for a red colored sole on a women's high-heeled shoe by Christian Louboutin. The mark consisted of the color on the sole of the shoe, but did not take into account the contours of the shoe, which only served an illustrative purpose on the positioning of the mark. Van Haren sold a similar red soled shoe in the Netherlands, for which they were sued by Louboutin for trademark infringement. The mark was contested by Van Haren, and ultimately ended up with the CJEU.

The referring court asked, in essence, "…whether Article 3(1)(e)(iii) of Directive 2008/95 must be interpreted as meaning that a sign consisting of a colour applied to the sole of a high-heeled shoe… consists exclusively of a ‘shape’, within the meaning of that provision".

Stephanie had to forget her 'totally unique' shoe design
after the decision
The Court initially affirmed that EU legislation generally accepts that the 'shape' of a trademark within the meaning of Article 3(e), means a set of lines or contours that outline the product concerned, potentially excluding any colors that don't have an outline defining said 'shape'. Any marks that merely consist of that shape would be deemed invalid.

Nonetheless, the Court did determine that "…while it is true that the shape of the product or of a part of the product plays a role in creating an outline for the colour, it cannot, however, be held that a sign consists of that shape in the case where the registration of the mark did not seek to protect that shape but sought solely to protect the application of a colour to a specific part of that product". This would exclude any signs that merely apply a color to an apparent shape from the remit of Article 3(e), such as the shoe in the Louboutin trademark.

If the shape of the shoe is excluded from the mark, the Court considered that the mark therefore could not exclusively consist of a shape, as the main element of that sign is a specific colour designated by an internationally recognised identification code (in this instance Pantone 18‑1663TP).

In short, the Court concluded that "…Article 3(1)(e)(iii)… must be interpreted as meaning that a sign consisting of a colour applied to the sole of a high-heeled shoe… does not consist exclusively of a ‘shape’, within the meaning of that provision".

The case is quite important, as the registration of a trademark for a color, excluding any shape that is used to illustrate the placement of the color, would be allowed under the ruling. The decision completely ignored the AG's considerations of reputation and the addition of value through the introduction of the mark, which were the main points that many found contentious. Whether this omission will be challenged in future case law remains to be seen.

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