May #hashtags safely rely on trademark protection?

In recent years, trademark offices worldwide have been assisting to a new trend: brand owners are increasingly trying to protect hashtags as trademarks. However, some substantive differences existing between these two figures suggest that trademark protection is most of the time improper – and even unnecessary. This, for a number of reasons.

  1. A hashtag can be defined as the symbol # followed by a word, a phrase or a symbol. Hashtags are used on social media in connection to a certain content to synthetically describe or comment it. They were firstly introduced on Twitter, then the main other social networks followed. It must be emphasized, even for legal purposes, that they are freely usable by anyone.

twitter

Technically, the social network indexes and groups all the contents using the same hashtag. Hashtags function as hyperlinks: by clicking on a single hashtag, the user is redirected to a page where all the contents using the same hashtag have been grouped and organized together by the social network.

From a consumers’ view, hashtags are helpful in following topics and finding contents. From a brand’s view, they are useful to control and attract online consumer traffic and enhance the brand appeal. In particular, hashtags are used in advertising campaigns to redirect users to the company website and social networks, where the consumer experience can be enhanced and the brand loyalty reinforced. From a social network’s view, they are a new way of organizing information and topics.

  1. Let’s come to trademarks. As known, besides their essential legal function of indicating the origin of the product or service covered by the trademark, they can perform, if famous (“with reputation”) other factual functions, such as that of ‘guaranteeing’ the quality of a product or service, or that of supporting advertising of, and investment on, the ‘brand’. However, it must be noted that quite often hashtags are not perceived as trademarks, as they do not perform any of the above functions.

Focusing on the distinctive function, if a sign does not have distinctive character the trademark owner shall retain its exclusive right only by proving that the sign has acquired – typically by strong advertising – a ‘secondary meaning’ – i.e.- the capacity to identify, in the eyes of consumers, the product or service as originating from a firm.

Now, as concerns hashtags, it seems all too evident that, except when the word component is wholly or in part of coincident with a trademark already known on the market (e.g. #cokecanpicks or #CokeZeroSugar, as in the below example), it is indeed hard to say that a hashtag is inherently distinctive: in such cases, it would be normally necessary to prove secondary meaning to secure a valid registration.

coke

In this respect, hashtags shall be considered as a mix of domain names and slogans. As for the top level domain names such as “.com” or “.it”, the symbol “#” is considered as not capable of conferring to the sing any distinctive value. Therefore, if the word or the phrase composing a hashtag are not per se distinctive, the presence of the symbol # cannot save the trademark from being prevented registration for lacking of distinctive character. On the other hand, hashtags are often composed by small phrases and shall, therefore, be compared to slogans. As for slogans, the proof of the existence of a distinctive character is more difficult than for ordinary trademarks, as slogans are usually not perceived as source indicators. Against this background, it seems more efficient to try to secure registration to a phrase or word, and not to the same in the form of a hashtag.

Further, their functional character may prevent hashtags registration as trademarks. The functionality doctrine, based on the ‘imperative of availability’ (“the need to keep free”, “Freihaltebeduerfnis”) prevents to use trademark law for inhibiting legitimate competition by allowing a single company to claim a monopoly either on a descriptive term or a useful product feature. And a product feature is considered functional if it is essential to the use or purpose of a good. Now, as hinted, hashtags function as hyperlinks and tags, to group contents. This function is essential for their success.

In the light of the considerations just submitted registering a hashtag as trademark could be quite difficult. That said, provided that a company succeeds in obtaining trademark registration, its enforcement towards third parties could be difficult for a number of reasons:

a) in most cases, hashtags are not perceived as trademarks. As said, they are typically a form of metadata or tag, through which a word or a phrase becomes a searchable expression on a social network. On the one hand, therefore, it is inevitably that the hashtag registered as trademark is used by all social network users willing to do so. Such users would likely not perceive the hashtag as a trademark, a source indicator, but more likely as a descriptive text or as a tool having a specific function.

Obviously, though, trademark owners have an interest to control the use of their hashtag, if registered as trademark, in order to protect it from dilution and/or consumer confusion with a similar trademark. Here lies one of the most strident paradoxes of hashtag registration as trademarks: as trademark registrants, hashtag owners are encouraged to enjoin unauthorized third parties from using their registered sign. At the same time, it is their interest to encourage social network users to make use of the hashtag for commercial benefits — expand brand awareness, ‘lock in’ consumers, and so on. More precisely, brand owners use hashtags in social media contexts for marketing purposes, often in a way that results detrimental to their distinctive character (and, as a consequence, to their possible enforcement). They convert the hashtag into a means through which the public is encouraged to comment, share and ‘talk’ about the brand and its products or service, while gathering information and data about consumers tastes, preferences and so on. Thus, again, notwithstanding a possible registration, even registered hashtags are hardly used as indicators of origin, but merely as collectors of data and comments (of course not possibly subject to any monopoly).

b) Even when hashtags are used and perceived as trademarks, descriptive use, functionality, legitimate use play in most cases play a crucial role in excluding the existence of a trademark infringement.

Here, the constitutionally ranking principle of freedom of expression would play a role in determining where there is a legitimate use of a hashtag. If people are encouraged to use a hashtag to get involved in a topic and participate to a discussion, their use of the hashtag, as such, shall be considered indeed legitimate under the principle of freedom of expression.

c) Therefore, the sole relevant case when the use of hashtags could be protected under trademark law seems that of competitors adopting hashtags confusingly similar to a hashtag that includes (or corresponds to) a registered trademark. This position seems reflected by the main social networks policies, preventing the use of third parties trademarks when such use creates confusions for consumers.

But even in such a case, there is room to affirm that the use of an identical or similar hashtag by a competitor is legitimate. Considering that the hashtag is a means to tag and categorize contents, the well-known case law on keyword advertising could well apply to a third party use of a registered hashtag. In this context, if the use a third party hashtag by a competitor enhances competition and offers consumes an alternative or a wider range of offer, this use could be considered fair according to the keyword advertising case law.

One last remark. Trademark law is just one of several laws that are relevant to the use of hashtags. Among others, privacy law, consumer law, licensing, image rights and advertising are strictly connected to hashtags use and shall be carefully considered by all users adopting hashtags.

Maria Luigia Franceschelli

Shape trademarks: the Court of Florence’s innovative interpretation of “substantial value”

The Court of Florence recently expressed an interesting view on the interpretation of absolute grounds of registration invalidity provided for signs constituted by the shape of a product, and, in particular, substantial value.

The case concerned the shape of the world wide famous Hermes’ “KELLY” and “BIRKIN” bags, the shape of which was registered as 3D trademark in Italy and before the EUIPO.

Capture

Hermes alleged the infringement of its famous trademarks by an Italian company offering for sale bags highly similar to the ones protected with Hermes shape trademarks. The alleged infringer resisted claiming, as usual in these cases,  that the above trademarks were invalid since, besides other things, they consist of a shape giving substantial value to the bag.

The Court of Florence dismissed such claim, excluding the existence of a substantial value with an unusual (and deeply interesting) interpretation of this prevention.

Firstly, the decision (available heredefines substantial value as a real and concrete aesthetic plus-value – relevant per se to the product, being instead irrelevant the existence of any particular decoration or added part – that cannot be separated from the product itself and is capable of prevailing on the product’s shape features that are necessary to its function.

Then, the Court expressly excluded that the mere ornamental attitude of the product’s appearance could be of relevance in the evaluation on the existence of a substantial value. Differently from the main case law on this ground of refusal (see decision of 15 February 2012 of the Court of Venice on Crocs shoes or decision of 16 June 2015 of the Court of Milan on Flou’s Nathalie bed), the decision essentially denies that substantial value consists in the capability of the shape to influence the consumer’s choice of purchase, so to be itself the main reason why the product is in fact chosen and bought. In the Court’s view, this capability of the object’s shape to catch the consumers’ attention is connected only with trademark reputation.

Only when the aesthetic appearance of the product’s ornamental shape is so relevant to give a particular aesthetic value inseparable from the product itself trademark registration is prevented. Having this interpretation of substantial value in mind, the Court affirmed that “KELLY” and “BIRKIN” bags where valid trademarks as their shape trademark may be separated from the product itself and does not merely consist in the standard appearance of bags.

This decision interestingly tries to plot a demarcation line between substantial value and trademark reputation/distinctiveness that are often overlapped in the context of the discussions on substantial value. The distinction proposed by the Court of Florence could indeed be of help in drafting a clear and new definition of substantial value, whose interpretation is still not crystal clear when applied to real cases. As a matter of fact, and as actually noticed by the Vespa case (see here), the current interpretation of this condition often leads the trademark owner to deny the attractiveness and distinctiveness of the shape of a product when substantial value is under discussion on the basis that an actual recognition of the shape of the product on the market may lead to the assertion of the existence of a substantial value.

The interpretation of the Court of Florence would not fall into this trap and appears to be more logical in the overall context of the trademark protection, as it denies any relevance of the trademark distinctive character in the context of absolute grounds of registration invalidity provided for signs constituted by the shape of the product. This interpretation, although interesting, is however new and currently isolated. While certainly providing food for thought, it downplays the meaning, and legal sense , of the requisite of substantial value as a reason to attract consumers. If only reputation is attractive, what is the meaning, and sense, to verify the occurrence of a substantial value? ‘Substantial’ to what effect?!

Maria Luigia Franceschelli

Court of Florence, case No. 5850/2010, 31 January 2017, Hermes International Scpa, Hermes Sellier SA, Hermes Italie SpA vs. Papini Paolo & C. Snc and Corsini Giorgio di Gianna e Paola Corsini Snc.

The scope of protection of a letter “B” as a mark cannot exclude from registration every other mark which contains that letter

By two twins-decision of 16 December 2014 (full text here) the OHIM Fourth Board of Appeal rejected oppositions against applications for registering two figurative marks consisting in a letter “B” inscribed in the shape of a bottle cap or placed in the centre of a wax seal, both for beers and alcoholic beverages. The grounds for the opposition were those laid down in art. 8(1)(b) CTMR: as the opponent was holder of a community figurative trade mark shaped by a letter “B” in the form of a rhombus, he claimed a likelihood of confusion between the signs. The Board argued that the distinctive character of a single letter on a rather simple geometrical shape is below and not enough to justify a likelihood of confusion. In principle, the public will not associate a single letter with an indication of origin. As a consequence, the scope of protection of a single letter as a mark cannot be such that it excludes from registration every other mark that contains that letter. The Board’s reasoning takes into account, at least implicitly, the public interest in keeping alphabetical letters free from private exclusive appropriation and gives a positive outcome in the direction of a public domain’s recognition and protection against misappropriation in trademark law.

Jacopo Ciani

Fourth Board of Appeal, 16 December 2014, R 1007/2014-4, Dibevit Import S.r.l. v. Berentzen-Gruppe Aktiengesellschaft

The Principality of Monaco fails to register its own name as a community trademark

By its judgment of 15 January 2015, T‑197/13 (full text in French here) the General Court of the European Union rejected the opposition against the decision of the OHIM Fourth Board of Appeal of 29 January 2013 (Case R 113/2012 4), refusing the international registration (designating the EC) of the word mark MONACO, for lack of distinctive character. The decision confirms the previous ruling in Windsurfing Chiemsee (C-108/97) and Cloppenburg (T‑379/03): there is a general interest in keeping geographical names free from any exclusive appropriation as trademarks, provided that they have the ability to reveal products or services’ qualities and other characteristics and to influence consumer preferences by associating them with a geographical place which can elicit positive feelings. On this basis, Article 7(1)(b) and (c) Reg. No. 207/2009 on the Community trade mark should preclude the registration of geographical names which designate geographical locations, already famous or known for the category of goods or services in question, and which, therefore, have a meaningful connection with them. In these circumstances, the word ‘Monaco’ was supposed to designate, in the eyes of the public, the geographical origin of the category of services at issue and must remain available to other undertakings’ free and non-exclusive use. Another step forwards the recognition and safeguarding of a public domain’s space in trademark law.

Jacopo Ciani

 General Court (Grand Chamber), 15 January 2015, T‑197/13, Marques de l’État de Monaco (MEM) v. OHIM