Two recent decisions on selective distribution and infringement of luxury trademarks from the Court of Milan

The Court of Milan issued two recent decisions in similar cases of selective distribution of cosmetic products bearing luxury trademarks, finding in both cases trademark infringement for the sale of products by unauthorized distributors.

1. The l’Oreal case

Facts

In the first decision (Italian text here), the case concerned an urgent action brought by l’Oreal Italia and Helena Rubinstein Italia (jointly referred as “l’Oreal”), two Italian subsidiaries of l’Oreal Group, against IDS International Drugstore Italia (“IDS Italia”) for trademark infringement.

L’Oreal is the licensee of a series of luxury trademarks (e.g., Armani, Cacharel, Ralph Lauren, Diesel, Yves Saint Laurent, etc.), and set up a selective distribution system for the sale of cosmetic products. In particular, l’Oreal selective distribution was based on the following quality elements:

  1. brick-and-mortar retail: (i) location, display and fitting of the points of sale; (ii) the (necessary) presence of products bearing competitors’ brands; (iii) the way in which products are presented at the point of sale (dedicated space, cleaning, etc.); (iv) the professional qualification and standing of the staff involved in the sales, and consulting and demonstration services.
  2. online: (i) the localization and presentation of the website (graphic quality, visual appearance of the home page); (ii) the space dedicated to selective luxury perfumery/cosmetics within the website and its aesthetic quality; (iii) the online customer advice service, in as many languages as are offered by the website; (iv) professional qualification of the consultants, equal to that required for physical points of sale; (v) the conditions and terms of payment, the conditions of storage of goods, transport and shipping.
  3. L’Oreal group developed a system of product traceability to map the circulation of each product in the market, that is based on an “anti-diversion code” (“AD code”).

IDS Italia, part of Auchan Group, is a major retailer and manages a group of drugstores under the brand “Lillapois”.

L’Oreal objected to IDS Italia the sale of products bearing its licensed trademarks through its drugstores and on its own e-commerce website: products were displayed in a messy manner, with strong discounts, and placing stickers on the AD codes. Moreover, some of the products were imported from non-EEA countries.

IDS objected that: (i) they had a selective distribution agreement with L’Oreal Luxe (a luxury division of the group), that covered some of the contested trademarks; (ii) market surveys proved that Lillapois points of sale are considered premium stores by consumers; (iii) the intention of the complainants is in fact to restrict competition; (iv) all products were initially marketed in the EEA territory, as confirmed by IDS’s providers; (v) the selective distribution system could not benefit from the provisions of Reg. 330/2010 since parallel selective distribution systems were in place; (vi) they only placed anti-theft stickers.

The Court’s findings

The Court found that:

  • IDS did not prove that the products were marketed in the EEA with the trademark owner’s consent (and in particular that its suppliers purchased the products from the trademark owner or another authorised distributor in the EEA). The relevant burden of proof is on IDS. Indeed, l’Oreal applied a selective distribution and not an exclusive distribution system (only the latter would require the trademark owner to prove the absent consent to the marketing of the products in the EEA, based on Davidoff, CJEU C-414/99 – C-416/99);
  • L’Oreal set up a legitimate selective distribution according to Reg. UE 330/2010, as its relevant terms of sale define the quality and localisation of the point of sales, the characteristics of the display of the stores and the minimum professional requirements of authorized resellers. Thus, proving the objective and non-discriminatory nature of said criteria (based on Coty, CJEU C-230/2016);
  • The existence of a selective distribution may account to a legitimate reason for excluding the trademark exhaustion, if:

(a) the product is a luxury or premium item.

(b) prejudice to the premium image of the trademark occurs, due to the marketing of the products by entities not included in the selective distribution network (Copad, CJEU C-59/08), in particular based on the type of products, the volume of sales to resellers outside the selective distribution, the forms of distribution normally applied.

In this last regard, the Court observed that the criteria identified by trademark owner for the selective distribution system are not the only legitimate standards to be considered (see the Chantecler case, Court of Milan, 17 March 2016, full text here, and Peak Holding, CJEU C-16/03). Similarly, cash & carry channels are not themselves contrary to a luxury image. Rather, it is necessary to demonstrate that the particular sale modalities are impairing the trademark’s prestigious image. The Court found that IDS points of sale were too similar to discount stores, with low-quality furniture, poor lightings, close-up shelves with very different products (from detergents to toilet paper). Thus, they were able to impair the prestigious image of the trademarks.

2. The Landoll case

Facts

The second case (full text, here) concerns an urgent action brought by Landoll S.r.l., an Italian hair and body cosmetic manufacturer that owns the trademarks Nashi and Nashi Argan. Landoll set up a selective distribution system for its products, which includes agents, distributors, and resellers selling Landoll products to professional clients.

Landoll objected to MECS s.r.l. the sale of its products on a third-party e-commerce platform and on its own website – ermeshop.com – without being part of Landoll selective distribution network. Previously, in 2017, Landoll already sent a warning letter to Mecs, that at that time undertook to cease the sale of Landoll products.

Mecs denied this last circumstance and objected that it purchased Landoll products in good faith from a distributor.

The Court’s findings

The Court found that:

  • Landoll set up a legitimate selective distribution according to Reg. UE 330/2010, as this system is aimed at ensuring the professional preparation and training of the authorized distributors and the proper use of products for meeting the users’ needs, thus protecting the prestigious image of the Landoll products. The qualitative criteria set out by Landoll to select the authorized distributors are coherent with the purpose of protecting the prestigious image of the products, they are applied in a non-discriminatory way and proportioned to the objective sought.
  • The existence of a selective distribution may account to a legitimate reason for excluding the trademark exhaustion, if: (a) the product is a luxury or premium item; (b) a prejudice to the premium image of the trademark occurs due to the marketing of the products by entities not included in the selective distribution (Copad, CJEU C-59/08). In this case, the trademark owner can prohibit unauthorized resellers from selling products purchased from authorized distributors.
  • As regards the prejudice to the prestigious image of the trademark, the third party e-commerce platform used by Mecs, as well as its own website, were presenting the Landoll products in the same manner as any other generic product sold in the store, even of inferior quality, and no professional advice on how to use the products was offered. The Court held that this was enough to cause a prejudice to the trademarks.
  • The good faith of Mecs was excluded, since it received a warning letter, without ceasing the marketing of the Landoll products.
  • Mecs objected that Landoll products were in fact sold by a number of third parties outside the selective distribution network. In this regard, the Court held that the alleged inactivity of the trademark owner vis a vis the sale of products outside its selective distribution network is to be excluded, as Landoll proved to have already brought other legal actions in the past.

The reasoning of the Court is similar in both cases. It fully supports the establishment of selective distribution networks, following the CJEU position, although states that the existence of a selective distribution is not enough for excluding the trademark exhaustion: actual prejudice to the trademark is to be proven. On the other hand, the Landoll case seems in line with the Coty decision, acknowledging the chance of limiting the online resale, if the website is not meeting quality standards necessary to protect the prestigious image of the trademark. And the Court has given some examples on how this can occur. As the Coty case highlighted, this issue is particularly important for marketplaces. They tend to be less exclusive in terms of brand experience. However, if they allow special windows to be created within the marketplace (or special manner of displaying and offering premium products), it might be more difficult arguing a prejudice against the prestigious image of the trademark.

Francesco Banterle

Court of Milan, decision of 19 November 2018, docket no. 38739/2018, L’Oreal Italia S.p.a. and Helena Rubinstein Italia S.p.a. v. IDS International Drugstore Italia S.p.a.

Court of Milan, decision of 18 December 2018, docket no. 44211/2018, Landoll s.r.l. v. Mecs S.r.l.

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