Can I have a Big Mac – or should I now say “layered double cheeseburger”? Amid non-use and well-known facts.

This past January, the revocation of McDonald’s “BIG MAC” word EU trade mark for non-use  was widely reported, both among IP aficionados (here, here, here and here) and in the media (here, here and here). The EUIPO decision (Cancellation No 14 788 C) can be read here.

A few days later, McDonald’s arch-rival Burger King temporarily renamed the sandwiches on the menu of its Swedish operation “Not Big Mac’s” (see the article on The Guardian, here). The opportunity for a poignant joke was evidently too “juicy” to be missed (it would appear that the video of Burger King’s Swedish stunt is not available on YouTube any longer, but you can still see it here).

big mac

Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s has recently filed an appeal against the EUIPO Cancellation Division’s decision (see here).

Waiting to see what the Boards of Appeal will eventually decide, the “BIG MAC” decision offers an interesting chance to discuss the role of evidence and of “well-known facts” in the assessment of (non-)use and reputation of trade marks in the EU.

The EUIPO decision

McDonald’s filed the “BIG MAC” word EU trade mark (No. 62638) for goods and services in classes 29, 30 and 42, which included “meat sandwiches“.

Supermac’s, an Irish burger chain, brought an application under Article 58(1)(a) of the EUTMR, requesting the revocation of “BIG MAC” in its entirety, arguing that the mark was not put to genuine use during a continuous period of five years in the EU. The application for revocation followed McDonald’s own opposition against an EU trade mark application for “SUPERMAC’S”.

In reply, McDonald’s provided the following evidence of genuine use:

  • 3 affidavits signed by McDonald’s representatives claiming significant sales of “Big Mac” sandwiches in EU Member States;
  • brochures and printouts of advertising posters, packaging and menus showing “Big Mac” sandwiches;
  • printouts from McDonald’s official websites for many (18) EU Member States, depicting, among others, “Big Mac” sandwiches; and
  • a printout from the English version of Wikipedia, providing information, nutritional values and history on the “Big Mac” sandwich.

Supermac’s argued that the evidence of use submitted by McDonald’s did not prove that the “BIG MAC” mark was put to genuine use “for anything other than sandwiches“, thus allowing that use for sandwiches would be proved.

However, the Cancellation Division found that the evidence submitted was insufficient to establish genuine use of the trade mark for all products and services. In particular, the Cancellation Division noted that:

  • ex parte affidavits, although explicitly allowed as means of evidence before the EUIPO, are “generally given less weight than independent evidence“;
  • practically all evidence submitted originated from the EUTM proprietor itself;
  • the mere presence of a trade mark on a website is, of itself, insufficient to prove genuine use “unless it shows also the place, time and extent of use or unless this information is otherwise provided“;
  • in this regard, the EUTM proprietor could have provided records of internet traffic, hits, or online orders; however, the printouts submitted carried “no information of a single order being placed“;
  • Wikipedia entries cannot be considered a reliable source of information, as they can be amended by users and may be relevant only if supported by other pieces of evidence; and
  • a declaration by the applicant itself concluding that the evidence submitted was sufficient to prove use of the trade mark in relation to some of the goods (i.e. sandwiches) could not have any effect on the Office’s findings.

On these grounds, the Cancellation Division revoked the “BIG MAC” trade mark in its entirety.

A bitter pill (or “bite” as Italians would say) for the trade mark proprietor?

Following the publication of the decision, many comments highlighted how, although ostensibly strict, the Cancellation Division provided helpful guidance to trade mark proprietors on the kind of evidence that would be needed to show genuine use (here, here, here and here).

In the context of opposition or cancellation proceedings, it is quite common to rely, among others, on affidavits and printouts from company websites and online sources (such as Wikipedia) as evidence of use and reputation. However, the “Big Mac” decision suggests that this may be not enough.

It is most likely that McDonald’s will now try to submit additional evidence before the Board of Appeal, along the lines suggested in the cancellation decision. According to Art. 27 of the EUTMDR, this could be allowed since: “the Board of Appeal may accept facts or evidence submitted for the first time before it” provided that “they are, on the face of it, likely to be relevant for the outcome of the case; and […] they are merely supplementing relevant facts and evidence which had already been submitted in due time“.

In any case, leaving aside the inherent limits of the evidence submitted by the trade mark proprietor, the outcome of the “BIG MAC” decision seems somewhat counter-intuitive.

After all, Big Mac is one of (if not “the”) signature sandwiches of the largest restaurant chain in the world, and it has been sold continuously for the past fifty years (WARNING: these are Wikipedia facts!). Big Mac is such a globally wide-spread product that, in the late 80’s, The Economist developed the “Big Mac index” using the different local prices of the sandwich to measure buying power and currency misalignments across the world. The “Big Mac index” has been used and updated for more than 30 years (for more Burgernomics, see here).

big mac index

One may thus wonder: how can such a “famous” trade mark be legitimately revoked because of insufficient evidence of genuine use, at least in relation to some of the goods and services (notably: hamburger sandwiches!)?

Perhaps, the doctrine of “well-known facts” (in Italian, the so-called “fatti notori“) could (or should) have played a bigger role in the reasoning of the Cancellation Division. In fact, the CJEU case law on trade marks suggests that well-known facts can be taken into account when assessing elements such as reputation, likelihood of confusion and distinctiveness.

For instance, in the Picasso/Picaro case, the General Court argued that “the restriction of the factual basis of the examination by the Board of Appeal does not preclude it from taking into consideration, in addition to the facts expressly put forward by the parties to the opposition proceedings, facts which are well known, that is, which are likely to be known by anyone or which may be learnt from generally accessible sources. […] Article 74(1) of Regulation No 40/94 cannot have the purpose of compelling the opposition division or Board of Appeal consciously to adopt a decision on the basis of factual hypotheses which are manifestly incomplete or contrary to reality. Nor is it intended to require the parties to opposition proceedings to put forward before OHIM every well-known fact which might possibly be relevant to the decision to be adopted” (T-185/02, 22 June 2004, Claude Ruiz-Picasso and Others/OHIM; see also T-623/11, 9 April 2014, Pico Food GmbH/Bogumił Sobieraj, § 19).

Along the same lines, the General Court more recently allowed that “where the Board of Appeal finds that the mark applied for is not intrinsically distinctive, it may base its analysis on well-known facts, namely facts resulting from the generally acquired practical experience of marketing products of wide consumption, which facts are likely to be known to any person” (T-618/14, 29 June 2015, Grupo Bimbo, SAB de CV/OHIM, free translation from Spanish).

In Italy, this principle is enshrined in Art. 115(2) of the Code of Civil Procedure, which provides that “the judge may, without the need for proof, base its decision on facts which are part of the common knowledge“.

And, when considering the distinctiveness of Apple’s device trademark in the context of opposition proceedings, the same Italian Patent and Trademark Office (“IPTO”) argued that “although on the basis of the evidence on file it is not possible to assess the percentage of the relevant public which purchases the products and services distinguished by the […] trade mark […] the [reputation of the] trade mark consisting in the representation of an apple bitten on the right side belongs to the category of well-known facts” (IPTO decision 193/2016 of 20 May 2016, in the opposition No. 1083/2013, BITTEN APPLE WITH LEAF/BITTEN PEAR WITH LEAF§§33-34, here; see also IPTO decision 340/2017 of 21 September 2017, in the opposition No. 959/2014, AppleFace§§ 30-31, here).

A similar stance was taken also in relation to the “DECATHLON PLAY MORE PAY LESS” trade mark, whose reputation was held to be “in the public domain, so it does not need a specific burden of proof on behalf of the opponent” (IPTO decision 40/2015 of 10 February 2015, DECATHLON PLAY MORE PAY LESS/DECATHLON ITALY; on the IPTO practice on well-known facts, please refer also to the comments on the SPRINT portal by Prof. Stefano Sandri: here, here and here, all in Italian).

Of course, this is not to suggest that the burden of proof of genuine use should be lifted entirely when the trade mark at stake is so-to-say “famous”. However, in the assessment of the evidence on trade mark aspects such as genuine use or reputation, administrative bodies and courts should take into account the facts that “are likely to be known by anyone or which may be learnt from generally accessible sources“. Amongst these – it could be argued – one may count the continuous use of the “BIG MAC” word trade mark in relation to (at least) sandwiches in the EU. And this especially in a case where the applicant of the revocation action itself acknowledged that the trade mark was genuinely used in relation to these goods.

Finally, on the relevance of written statements and affidavits before the EUIPO, we note that Art. 97(1)(f) of the EUTMR, provides that “in any proceedings before the Office, the means of giving or obtaining evidence shall include […] statements in writing sworn or affirmed or having a similar effect under the law of the State in which the statement is drawn up“. This provision implies that the admissibility, the formal requirements and the probative value of written statements and affidavits are tied to the law of the country where they were drawn up. To take into account the different approaches, a study on the regimes on written statements in several EU Member States was commissioned by the EUIPO and can be found here.

Giovanni Trabucco

EUIPO Cancellation Division, Cancellation No. 14 788 C, Supermac’s (Holdings) Ltd vs. McDonald’s International Property Company, Ltd., 11 January 2019

Peppa Pig meets Tobbia – a tale of pigs and tapirs

Peppa Pig is a children’s animated TV series that traces the adventures of Peppa, her family and friends. Peppa is actually an animal – a pig that possesses all the human traits and so do all the animals in the series – they speak, read, go to school, drive and do all we humans do. As of 2012 Entertainment One UK Ltd and Astley Baker Davies Ltd, the entities behind Peppa Pig, hold the following registered EU figurative trade mark for, among others, “clothing, footwear, headgear” in Class 25 of the Nice Agreement:

download (1)

In 2013, Mr Xianhao Pan residing in Rome (Italy) succeeded in registering the following EU figurative mark for “clothing, footwear, headgear” in Class 25 of the Nice Agreement:

download

A few years later, in 2015, Entertainment One UK Ltd and Astley Baker Davies Ltd initiated an invalidity action against Mr Xianhao Pan based on Article 53(1)(a) of Regulation No 207/2009 (now Article 60(1)(a) of Regulation 2017/1001), read in conjunction with Article 8(1)(b) of Regulation No 207/2009 (now Article 8(1)(b) of Regulation 2017/1001).

Peppa Pigs’ creators argued that considering the complete identity of the goods, the two signs are confusingly similar to the extent that the TOBBIA trade mark had to be cancelled.

Judgment of the General Court of the EU (T-777/17)

On 21 March 2019, the General Court of the EU ruled that likelihood of confusion between the two marks exists and therefore the First Board of Appeal was correct in upholding the appeal and invalidating the TOBBIA trade mark (here).

Setting aside some preliminary procedural issues the meat of the General Court judgment was the comparison of the two signs. As usual, this had to be done taking into account the visual, phonetic and conceptual similarities between the two and evaluating the overall impression that the signs produce.

The Applicant before the Court, in this case Mr Xianhao Pan, insisted that there were no similarities between the two signs emphasising the fact that the animal in the TOBBIA mark is indeed a tapir as opposed to a pig – the animal depicted in the PEPPA PIG mark.

The Court admitted that the signs at issue differ in certain figurative elements: the colour range; the fact that the TOBBIA mark animal was in trousers, while the PEPPA PIG mark animal wore a dress; the PEPPA PIG mark had a tail and its arms were positioned in a different way as compared to the TOBBIA mark animal. Yet, the Court insisted that these differences were not capable of outweighing the similarities. Considering that the relevant public is the general one, which does not proceed to analyse all the various details of the marks but perceives them as a whole, the First Board correctly assessed that the marks were visually similar. The Board held that both signs depicted an anthropomorphic animal, namely a pig. The depiction of the head and snout were nearly identical, as well as the shape of the head and further elements on the face of the animals. The differences between the two were appreciated, but nevertheless the visual similarities were more.

The discussion on phonetic comparison followed the classical lines and confirmed some degree of correlation.

As far as the conceptual analysis is concerned, the Court was clear that that the general European public would perceive the two animals as a pig and thus conceptual similarity was also present.

All in all, the identity of the goods coupled with the similarity of the signs led to a ruling in favour of PEPPA PIG and a finding of likelihood of confusion.

An interesting discussion was brought at this stage by the Applicant in relation to the type of the animal in its TOBBIA mark. It was argued that the general public would be capable of recognising the animal in the TOBBIA trade mark as a tapir, which would have allegedly sufficed in drawing the line between the two signs. Well, the Court was certainly not convinced as it stated that the assessment of the similarity between the marks would in no way be affected “whether the public identifies the graphic elements of the two marks as two pigs or two tapirs.”

One may wonder on what ground would one even think about bringing the outlandish argument that the animal represents a tapir, which is an animal particularly well known to the public. Well, seems like the Applicant (or at least, its legal representatives), resident in Rome (Italy) is a fan of the Italian TV program Striscia la notizia”, which in line with its satirical tone, awards public figures with a price in the form of a small statute for errors, omissions to keep promises or basic embarrassing situations. Not surprisingly, this statute takes the form of a tapir and looks like this:

Tapiro d'oro

 

As entertaining as this tale of pigs and tapirs may be, the General Court was neither impressed nor convinced. It correctly pointed out the irrelevance of such argument as the relevant public at stake was the general European public (and not only the Italian one) taking into consideration the fact that the TOBBIA trade mark was a European one.

Comment

The case does not entail any ground-breaking analysis, nor particularly peculiar application of rarely raised grounds such as bad faith or intricate fiduciary relationship conundrums. Instead, it is a classic likelihood of confusion discussion comparing goods (which in the present case were even identical) and signs.

That said and regardless of how much weight one would give to the shared elements between the two signs (the presence of an anthropomorphic animals with identically shaped heads), one must admit that the two signs in fact bear rather minor similarities. The legal team of the PEPPA PIG trade mark would have been wise to raise further grounds of invalidity, namely to invoke Article 53(1)(a) in conjunction with Article 8(5) EUTMR, which provides famous marks such as PEPPA PIG with an extra layer of protection. In these cases lesser degree of signs’ similarity is required as compared to the classical likelihood of confusion situations under Article 8(1)(b) EUTMR. This would have guaranteed the ultimate success for the Peppa Pig creators provided that the relevant section of the public makes a mere connection between the marks, i.e. it establishes a link between them. This is a well-established principle following long-standing judgments of the CJEU in the Adidas (C-408/01), as well as the Intel cases (C-252/07).

Nevertheless, both the First Board of EUIPO and the General Court are to be complimented for having employed a very adequate level of common sense and rightly held that the TOBBIA mark shall be invalid in light of the PEPPA PIG mark. The analysis avoids crude formalistic application of dry legal principles, which may have risked resulting in a loss for PEPPA PIG as it is certainly questionable whether the similarity between the signs meets the standard required by Article 8(1)(b) EUTMR. Besides, the TOBBIA mark indeed resembles a poor copy of PEPPA PIG, which is further supported by the fact that the Applicant seems to be a trade mark squatter of children’s brands. A quick search on the EUIPO database reveals that the Applicant has unsuccessfully tried to register the following marks, which regardless of how far detached from childhood one is do certainly ring a bell:

  • Happy duck(filing number 009282161, opposed by, among others, Disney Enterprises Inc.)
  • Sponteboll(filing number 009482175, opposed by Viacom International Inc.)
  • Doggy dog(filing number 010776177, opposed by, among others, Turner Entertainment Co.)

Alina Trapova

General Court (Eighth Chamber), 21 march 2019, Xianhao Pan v European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), Case T-777/17