The Court of Turin issued an interesting decision about the possibility to protect the shape of the bottle of the renowned Ruinart champagne (see the Italian text of the interim decision in the 2014 here, confirmed by the appeal in 2015, here). The action was brought by the French company MHCS, producer of Ruinart, against a south-Italian wine maker, Farnese Vini S.r.l. MHCS claimed that two bottles of Farnese spumante, Cuvée Cococciola and Gran Cuvée Rosè:
recall all distinctive elements of Ruinart bottle (capsule, neckband, label, and particularly the shape), thus (i) infringing 3 community (3D and figurative) trademarks owned by MHCS:
and (ii) constituting an act of unfair competition (an confusing lookalike).
The Court first considered the single elements covered by MHCS trademarks (limited to: label, capsule, neckband, coat of arms on the main label and on the neckband, color, and Ruinart name). In relation to the capsule and the neckband, the Court found that, also in light of their necessary nature, the different features adopted by Farnese (colors, words, boards, etc.) sufficiently differentiate the two elements. In relation to the labels, the unique similarity is the oval/elliptic shape (although not perfectly overlapping). The Court considered the label’s form strictly connected to the shape of the bottle (for practical need of adhesion of the label to the bottle and for aesthetic reasons) which is oval as well, and therefore not protectable per se.
As to the shape of Ruinart bottle (not protected by MHCS community trademarks), the Court held it cannot be protected as a de facto trademark. Indeed, the Court considered the shape of the Ruinart bottle quite common and lacking of distinctive character (which occurs only when the shape is original and unusual within the market). Farnese demonstrated that its bottle is in fact a commonly available model named “Abram”, similar to the typical champagne bottle (in Italian, the so called Champagnotta prestige cuvée).
Finally, the Court excluded that Farnese bottles could be considered as a confusing look alike of the Ruinart’s ones. According to the Court of Turin’s case law, slavish imitation requires 3 conditions. Indeed, the shape of the product (or at least the combination of its single elements) must (i) be original (i.e. elaborated with respect of common shapes); (ii) not be technically necessitated; and (iii) show distinctive character (i.e. the ability to characterize the goods as originating from that particular company). Conversely, each element of Ruinart bottles claimed by MHCS (including the shape) is necessitated or common, nor their combination is distinctive.
On the contrary, the Court held that the real distinctive features of Ruinart bottles are (i) Ruinart name, (ii) the coat of arms, (iii) the label colors, and (iv) the chromatic combination between label and writings: all elements not reproduced by Farnese bottles. Moreover, the average consumer of Ruinart wines should be a careful one, thus further reducing any risk of confusion.
This decision follows the leading Italian case law on unfair competition, which is mainly focused on a “risk of confusion” analysis. However, it is worth noting that in recent years a different case law has followed a look-alike analysis beyond confusion (see Court of Milan 20 March 2014 and Court of Bari 20 October 2011). In this regard, the use of very similar elements of a packaging/aspect of a product, even without an actual risk of confusion, may be considered as an attempt to recall the most renowned product and the successful image/aura of the competitor’s brand, thus taking advantage of its commercial strategy. This analysis is based on a concept similar to the “link” required by the CJEU between the mark with a reputation and the similar sign (Adidas, C-408/01). However, even if said Milan and Bari Courts’ approach had been followed, the decisum would not have probably changed, since the similar elements and their combination were in fact considered as common and not distinctive.
Court of Turin, 24 October 2014 and 17 April 2015, MHSC v. Farnese Vini S.r.l. et al.