The EU General Court dismissed an action to invalidate a Registered Community Design held by Nike for electronic wristbands.

In 2012, Nike registered successfully a Community Design for an electronic wristband. One year later, Mr. Murphy filed for a declaration of invalidity of Nike’s design on the basis of a prior registered design for “Flexible LCD watch bands”.

murplhy design.jpgwristband.jpg

Mr. Murphy argued that Nike design infringed Article 6(1)(b) of the Community Designs Regulation, submitting that it lacked individual character as the overall impression on the informed user did not differ from that produced by Murphy’s prior design.

Neither the Invalidity Division of the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) nor the EUIPO Board of Appeal agreed with Mr. Murphy.

The case came before the EU General Court upon Mr. Murphy’s appeal of the Board of Appeal decision.

The General Court rejected Murphy’s application for a declaration of invalidity of the Nike design on the following grounds (here).

Firstly, it considered that, in order for a wristband to be able to fulfil its function properly, its designers would be limited by several constraints, as the need to be relatively small, thin, light, ergonomic in order to fit the wrist and to contain measuring instruments. These technical constraints led to conclude that the degree of freedom of the designer was high rather than very high, as argued by Mr. Murphy.

The degree of freedom must be taken into consideration in assessing individual character pursuant to Article 6(2) of the Designs Regulation, because the more the freedom of the designer in developing a design is restricted, the more likely it is that minor differences between the designs being compared will be sufficient to produce a different overall impression on an informed user. (see judgment of 10 September 2015, Handbags, T‑525/13, EU:T:2015:617, paragraph 29 and the case-law cited).

In any case, even taking account of a high degree of freedom afforded to the designer of electronic wristbands, the Court reiterated the position from earlier case law that the overall impression produced by the Nike design on the informed user was clearly different to that produced by Murphy’s design.

Indeed there were a number of differences between the two designs, namely that (i) the Nike design was larger and thicker than Murphy’s design, (ii) Nike’s design featured a large oval button on the surface of the wristband which was not present in Murphy’s design, (iii) the internal components of the Nike design were visible, giving it a more technical aspect than Murphy’s design, which appeared as opaque and elegant, and (iv) the Nike design had less ornamentation than Murphy’s design, on which the image of a diver and a line running along the wristband were clearly visible.

On the contrary, the clasps’ similarity in both designs alone was not sufficient to make them similar as a whole. Indeed, the overall impression must be determined in light of the manner in which the product is used and when using an electronic wristband, the informed user attaches more importance to the part displaying the data than to the clasp.

The General Court disregarded Murphy’s argument, based on UK case law, that his prior design enjoyed a higher degree of protection because it was a significant advance over the prior art in existence at the time of its registration in 2005. The Court has pointed out that it was not bound to consider decisions of national courts, even where the latter are based on provisions analogous to those of that regulation (see judgment of 29 October 2015, Éditions Quo Vadis v OHIM — Gómez Hernández (‘QUO VADIS’), T‑517/13, not published, EU:T:2015:816, paragraph 46 and the case-law cited). In addition, the new and unusual character of Murphy’s design did not prevent the informed user from perceiving the differences in subsequent designs (see, to that effect, judgment of 21 May 2015, Senz Technologies v OHIM — Impliva (Umbrellas), T‑22/13 and T‑23/13, EU:T:2015:310, paragraph 95).

Appeal has already been brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) (C-538/17 P). It does not seem unreasonable to predict the confirmation of the here mentioned decision. Indeed, the General Court seems to have applied the long standing principles formulated by the ECJ in relation to the assessment of the individual character and its judgment appears to be a matter of fact, that hardly may be challenged by the higher court.

Jacopo Ciani

General Court (Fifth Chamber), 4 July 2017, Thomas Murphy v European Union Intellectual Property Office, Case T-90/16

The Coca-Cola contour bottle without fluting cannot be a valid three-dimensional trademark according to the EU General Court

On 29 December 2011 The Coca-Cola Company filed an application at OHIM for registration of a Community trademark of the following three-dimensional sign consisting of the shape of a bottle (on the left), a variation of the popular Coca-Cola contour bottle with fluting (on the right):
bottle 1.pngbottle 2.jpg

On January 2013 the examiner dismissed the application having found that the mark applied for was devoid of distinctive character (under Article 7 (a)(b) of regulation No 207/2009) and had not acquired said character through use (under Article 7(3)). The applicant filed a notice of appeal with OHIM against the examiner’s decision, which was however dismissed by the OHIM Board of Appeal.

Against the decision of the Board of Appeal The Coca-Cola Company brought action before the EU General Court, which on 24 February 2016 (in case T-411/14, full text here) entirely dismissed the appeal and, as a consequence, confirmed the previous ruling of OHIM Board Appeal.

With two pleas Coca-Cola claimed: (a) that the mark it applied for has a distinctive character, being a natural evolution of the shape of the bottle “contour” with fluting which is popular and distinctive worldwide; and (b) that in any event mark it applied for has acquired distinctive character throughout the use in the market in combination with the contour bottle with fluting.

 Taking into account the first plea, the General Court recalled that the distinctive character must be assessed by reference to (i) the goods or services in respect of which registration has been applied for, and (ii) the perception of them by the relevant public.

More specifically, it emphasized, when those criteria are applied account must be taken of the perception of the average consumer  in relation to a three-dimensional mark consisting of the appearance of the goods themselves: in this respect average consumers are not in the habit of making assumptions about the origin of goods on the basis of their shape or the shape of their packaging in the absence of any word or graphic element, and it could therefore prove more difficult to establish distinctive character in relation to such a three-dimensional mark than in relation to a word or figurative mark.

Then, the Court examined the mark applied for, founding that either the lower, the middle and the top section of the bottle (i) do not enable the average consumer to infer the commercial origin of the goods concerned and (ii) do not display any particular features which stand out from what is available on the market.

Therefore, considering the mark applied for as a whole, the Court held that it is devoid of distinctive character for being a mere variant of the shape and packaging of the goods concerned, which will not enable the average consumer to distinguish the goods of Coca-Cola from those of other undertakings.

In considering the second plea, the Court underlined that for the mark to have acquired distinctiveness through use, Coca-Cola has the burden to demonstrate that at least a significant proportion of the relevant public throughout the European Union, by virtue of that mark, identifies the goods or services concerned as originating from Coca-Cola.

In evaluating that, the Court examined all the items of evidence already provided by Coca-Cola to the OHIM Board of Appeal, founding that none of them, considered both in isolation and as a whole, was sufficient to establish that the mark applied for has acquired distinctive through use.

In particular, the surveys submitted by the applicant covered only a part of the European Union (only 10 of 27 Member States) and the other secondary evidences such as investments, sales figures, advertising and articles did not, due to their imprecisions and inconsistencies, compensate for that deficiency: For example, the sales figures proved that Coca-Cola has sold large beverages throughout the EU, but the data provided referred to the ‘contour bottle’ without specifying whether that means the mark applied for or the contour bottle with fluting, consequently it does not enable a conclusion to be drawn regarding the relevant public’s perception of the three-dimensional sign applied for.

Furthermore, the Court pointed out that in general a three dimensional mark may acquire distinctive character through use, even if it is used in conjunction with a word mark or a figurative mark, when the relevant class of persons actually perceive the goods or services, designated exclusively by the mark applied for, as originating from a given undertaking (as stated in case C-353/03, Nestlè SA v. Mars UK Ltd). However, in the case in point the Court noted that the mark which Coca-Cola applied for was not clearly distinguishable from the mark it was alleged to be a part of, due to the fact that it was not obvious from the evidence provided by the applicant and particularly from the advertising material, whether the bottle that is shown in them is a representation of the contour bottle with fluting, or a representation of the mark applied for.

In view of the above, the General Court found that the mark Coca-Cola applied for has not even acquired distinctive character.

We can only agree with the whole outcome: to grant a trade mark in these circumstances would have given a perpetual monopoly to Coca-Cola in the shape of a bottle that is very commonplace on the market. The General Court set forth its arguments in a commendable way without being affected by the global popularity of Coca-Cola and its famous iconic bottle contour with fluting.

It remains to be seen whether, within two months of notification of the decision, Coca-Cola appeal the decision of the General Court to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

It may be not a coincidence and neither a déjà vu, but in the 1986 the House of Lord (Coca-Cola Co.’s Application [1986] 2 All ER 274) denied the Coca-Cola Company trademark protection for shape and design of the Coke bottle, assuming that it was “another attempt to expand on the boundaries of intellectual property and to convert a protective law into a source of monopoly”.

Matteo Aiosa

General Court of EU (Eight Chamber), The Coca-Cola Company v. Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market, 24 February 2016, case T-411/14

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.