14 April, 2020

Mind Your Language! - CJEU Decides on the Registration of Offensive Trademarks

Rude language can be a sore point of contention for many people. The offensive nature of trademarks has been litigated quite a bit in high-profile cases recently, including the case regarding the band "The Slants" (discussed more here) in the US. The European courts have faced the question of offensive trademarks sometime ago, and Advocate General Bobeck looked at this in some detail in the Summer of 2019. Following the AG's decision, the CJEU has finally considered the question of offensive trademarks and handed down their judgment earlier this year.

The case of Constantin Film Produktion GmbH v EUIPO concerned an application to register the name "Fack Ju Göhte" (EUTM 13971163), which is the name of a German comedy film produced by Constantin. The film saw tremendous success in the year it was published, and Constantin released a subsequent two sequels under the same name. The EUIPO refused the application under Article 7(1)(f) of the CTM Regulation, which prevents the registration of trademarks "...which are contrary to public policy or to accepted principles of morality". Constantin then appealed the decision, which ultimately ended up with the CJEU.

The Court began by limiting the scope of the issue, following the guidance of the Advocate General, to only consider whether the mark was contrary to accepted principles of morality, as the matter didn't relate to any issues of public policy.

To consider the above, the Court noted that, to determine the scope of Article 7(1)(f) "...it is not sufficient for the sign concerned to be regarded as being in bad taste. It must, at the time of the examination, be perceived by the relevant public as contrary to the fundamental moral values and standards of society as they exist at that time". This clearly shows that the morality the courts will be concerned with is transient, and the standard can fluctuate as morality does within wider society; however, the examiner will have to consider it within a snapshot in time when applied for.

Mittens just couldn't handle Rover learning any more bad words
Furthermore, the Court saw that this would be determined according to "...the perception of a reasonable person with average thresholds of sensitivity and tolerance, taking into account the context in which the mark may be encountered and, where appropriate, the particular circumstances of the part of the Union concerned". This includes "...elements such as legislation and administrative practices, public opinion and, where appropriate, the way in which the relevant public has reacted in the past to that sign or similar signs, as well as any other factor which may make it possible to assess the perception of that public".

Reviewing the judgment of the General Court, the CJEU determined that they had misapplied the law concerning Article 7. In their assessment, the General Court should have included, among the things they considered, the great success of the comedy, the fact that its title does not appear to have caused controversy, as well as the fact that access to it by young people had been authorised and that the Goethe Institute (which promotes the German language abroad) uses the movie for educational purposes. The General Court should not have merely considered the inherent vulgar nature of the English phrase it was compared to, namely "Fuck You", to decide that the mark would be contrary to public morality.

The Court also noted that one would have to take into account the freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union when considering any infringement of Article 7(1)(f). The General Court considered that this would not be the case, which the CJEU clearly did not agree with.

Following the dismissal of the General Court's decision the CJEU then moved onto consider the trademark in question under Article 7(1)(f).

The CJEU thought that, following a discussion of the Board of Appeal's decision, the title of a film need not be descriptive of its content in order to constitute a relevant contextual factor in assessing whether the relevant audience perceives that title and an eponymous word sign as contrary to accepted principles of morality. Additionally, although the success of a film does not automatically prove the social acceptance of its title and of a word sign of the same name, it is at least an indication of such acceptance which must be assessed in the light of all the relevant factors in the case in order to establish the perception of that sign in the event of use of that sign as a trademark.

As said above, the movie spawned a further two sequels with the same name, all of which have had great success, and is used in educational purposes, it goes to show that it isn't against the public morality in Germany. The Court did note that, however, the perception of the phrase "Fuck You" will be different between German-speaking countries and English-speaking ones, especially when dealing with a phrase written phonetically and inclusive of other words, such as the name Goethe.

The CJEU determined that the EUIPO has failed to demonstrate to the requisite legal standard that Article 7(1)(f) precludes registration of the mark applied for under the above grounds.

The case is a very important one and highlights the potential evidence looked for when determining whether a mark is contrary to public morality or not. The case also demonstrates that freedom of expression is very relevant in this exercise, which this writer agrees with since the remit of trademarks should by no means be exempt from freedom of expression even though one could describe it as "commercial expression" rather than traditional expression as you would commonly think of it.

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