20 September, 2022

Cadbury's Color Conundrum - UK High Court Considers Registration for the Color Purple for Cadbury's After Settlement with Nestle

Sometimes a specific color is really important. Nothing highlights this more than the seemingly never-ending story of Cadbury's fight to register the color purple (or more specifically, Pantone 2685C) in relation to its iconic chocolate products. The fight over the color started nearly 20 years ago in 2004, so those born in the same year can now legally buy alcohol in the UK - which really puts the time spent in perspective. Nevertheless, color marks have always been difficult to register, however, in a highly anticipated victory Cadbury have done just that, potentially putting this matter to bed once and for all.

The case of Societe des Produits Nestle SA v Cadbury UK Ltd concerned an appeal against a decision by the UKIPO Hearing Officer, in which they rejected the registration of three trademarks (specifically applications 30193623025822 and 3019361). Nestle opposed all three applications on the grounds that: (i) the marks did not fulfil the requirements of a "sign" under section 1(1) of the Trade Marks Act 1994, challenged under section 3(1)(a) of the Act; and (ii) whether the marks had distinctiveness under section 3(1)(b) of the Act. The oppositions against marks '361 and '822 were successful. Cadbury then appealed the decision against those two marks to the High Court, which handed down its decision this Summer.

Justice Meade initially focused on the core cases that were argued to be central to the matter. 

The first case was CJEU decision in Libertel Groep BV v. Benelux-Merkenbureau, which set out that "a colour per se, not spatially delimited, may... have a distinctive character within [the Trade Mark Directive then in force] provided that... it may be represented graphically in a way that is clear, precise, self-contained, easily accessible, intelligible, durable and objective". The key here is that a color mark has to be represented graphically clearly for it to be distinctive, and not merely set out as e.g. 'purple' without any distinction as to the hue or use of the color in packaging or otherwise. The case also noted that "...the latter condition could not be satisfied merely by reproducing on paper the colour in question; there had to be a designation using an internationally recognised code" (such as Pantone). 

The second case was the Court of Appeal decision in the Cadbury saga itself in 2013, where the Court of Appeal saw that the mark that was being applied for registration did not meet the requirements for registration, because it was not a "sign".

Justice Meade then discussed the legislative position in the matter, namely Article 2 of the Trade Mark Directive. Article 2 requires that, for a mark to be registered as a trademark, it has to: (i) be a sign; (ii) be capable of graphical representation; (iii) be capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings. 

"I wish I had any idea who owned this color..."

The main issue at hand in the Court of Appeal decision was whether the mark was indeed a 'sign', largely focused on its description as "applied to the whole visible surface, or being the predominant colour applied to the whole visible surface, of the packaging of the goods". The latter part of the description left a lot of leeway in the application of the color, so long as it was the "predominant colour" being applied to the packaging. The Court of Appeal rejected the mark as not being a 'sign' as it couldn't be clearly graphically represented and therefore lacks "clarity, precision, self-containment, durability and objectivity".

Justice Meade then moved on to the Hearing Officer's decision. 

The Hearing Officer noted, in relation to mark '361, that although it only referred to the application to packaging of the goods without any limitation to the surface area covered, it still didn't mean the mark would be a single color with no variation and would cover the representation of the trade mark that the Court of Appeal rejected. 

Justice Meade agreed with this position and set out that the formulation of the ‘361 mark is indeed worse than what was rejected by the Court of Appeal, nothing that "[r]emoving the wording held by the Court of Appeal to let in multiple forms and to be objectionably ambiguous is cosmetic at best and does not help".

In relation to mark '822, the Hearing Officer aligned its position to that of the above '361 mark, since it does not explain the use of the color and where it will be in the packaging or advertising materials. Justice Meade, however, disagreed with the Hearing Officer. 

He determined that the mark was for the color, which can include its application on the packaging or otherwise. He also distinguished the wording "predominant" from simply the color, which does not cause the same issues. There is no need to specify a simple color mark in relation to, for example, an area of packaging, since requiring that would limit color marks significantly. 

The appeal therefore succeeded in relation to the '822 mark, but not the '361 mark. 

Justice Meade did give some parting words on the issues around the '361 mark, highlighting that it "…leaves it significantly, undesirably and unnecessarily unclear whether combination marks including purple and other colours would be within the scope of the right applied for (and in particular whether they would be identical to ‘361)". How he distinguished the '822 mark from this is through its simplicity; only covering the color purple. 

Although the case is not a huge upheaval of the world of color marks, it does give some clarity as to appropriate wording for similar marks in the future and notes the pitfalls that can befall any application drafter. The key is sufficient specificity so as to not make the mark very difficult or impossible to understand but considering the '822 mark there is clearly room for some degree of generality. If anything Cadbury will be happy that the saga might just be over now, but who knows what the future will bring. 

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