Buddha in a cafè? No trademark for the Italian Supreme Court

On 25 January 2016 the Italian Supreme Court (decision no. 1277, full text here) ruled on the validity of “Buddha Bar” and “Buddha Cafè” trademarks in a three instances dispute in which the defendant came always out winning.

The French companies George V Entertainment e George V Records, respectively owner of Buddha Bar and Buddha Cafè community trademarks, asked the Court of Milan to declare the infringement of their marks by the Italian entrepreneur owner of the “Buddha – Cafè” in Milan. However, both the Tribunal and the Court of Appeal of Milan rejected the claimants’ demand and, indeed, upheld the counter-claim of the defendant affirming the invalidity of the trademarks for lacking of distinctiveness under Article 7, a) of Community Trademark Regulation.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the French companies argued that their signs would be deemed as particularly evocative and strong trademarks for the reason that they establish an anomalous connection between words which are conceptually disjointed: from the one side Buddha and on the other side Bar and Cafè.

For its part, the Supreme Court pointed out that, in order a sign to be valid pursuant to Article 4 of CTM Regulation, it is not enough that it should have an ‘expressive content’, but it is essential that the meaning of the term must be capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings. This remark concerns the standard law, and therefore it is undisputed.

More perplexingly the Court, as already set forth by both the Tribunal and the Court of Appeal, denied the distinguishing character of the term Buddha assuming that it not only (a) calls to mind a religion but also (b) transmits adhesion or interest to a philosophy and a way of life which characterize a custom pertaining to the most different expressions of the social behavior like literature, music, figurative arts and cuisine, so as to have become a trend.

As a consequence the Court said that the combination between the term “Buddha”’ and the terms “Bar” and “Cafè” is not unusual, because such meeting places are historically linked to specific expressions of the literature and in general of the art of the occidental cultural tradition.

In the light of the above, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal proposed by the companies George V Entertainment and George V Records, hence confirming the invalidity of their two community trademarks.

The final and debatable outcome is that anyone cannot use the Buddha’s name on an exclusive basis to “denote a product or service”.  From a general perspective the upshot is even more puzzling: the most of characters and movements of culture, literature, art, and philosophy used to hang out at cafès, then, following this decision of the Supreme Court, none of the term referred to them should never be registered as a denominative trademark in combination with the words “bar” or “cafè” for cafeteria’s products or services.

It should be also noted that the Court, once established the lack of distinctive character, has deemed absorbed – then has failed to consider – the question whether the trademarks are contrary to public policy. Maybe simply affirming the invalidity of such trademarks due to their vilification of Buddhist thought would have been quite logically and reasonably commendable.

Matteo Aiosa

Italian Supreme Court, 26 January 2016, No. 1277, George V Entertainment s.a. and George V Records e.u.r.l. v. Buddha Cafè S.r.l.

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