In Honour of Black Friday – Big Brand Retailers Fight Quebec Language Law

CBC reports that a group of  well-known retailers, including  WALMART, COSTCO and BESTBUY, are taking the Quebec Government’s French language watchdog to Court over its recent requirement that all retailers have signs that include either a generic French name or add a slogan or explanation to reflect what they are selling.  For example, rather than featuring signage with just the well-known WALMART mark, the Quebec government wants that retailer’s signs to now read “Le Magasin WALMART” or something to that effect.

While Quebec’s French Language Charter requires the name of a business to be in French, until now this requirement hasn’t been applied to registered trademarks by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF).  There has been some debate over the last few years about whether unregistered trademarks should be treated the same as registered trademarks in terms of this exemption.  The OQLF is now requiring all signs to include French language, whether or not registered or unregistered trademarks are involved.

For their part, the retailers (also including GAP, OLD NAVY and GUESS) argue that there has been no formal change to the applicable provision of the language law.  Further, they argue that the OQLF has no right to change the application of the existing law and that by changing its policy, it is in effect changing the law.  The retailers also point out that these are all famous brands and through extensive long term use they have come to identify the businesses behind them, such that no one in Quebec needs the assistance of the language law to know what these businesses sell or represent.

Some other popular brand owners, such as KFC or “Poulet Frit Kentucky” as it’s known in Quebec, have already opted to adopt Quebec specific branding, rather than carry on with an English business name.

A trial of this matter is unlikely to take place before the end of 2013.

Off to the Marché We Go! – Not Descriptive and Not Confusing

The Federal court recently dismissed an appeal to have a trademark expunged on grounds of descriptiveness and confusion. In Movenpick Holding AG v. Exxon Mobil Corporation and Attorney General of Canada (Registrar of Trade-marks), the Court considered whether Esso’s “Marché Express” mark is too descriptive of the services it provides as a gas-station convenience store. Then it went on to consider whether it was possible to confuse “Marché Express” with Movenpick’s “Marché” mark, which it uses for its chain of restaurants.

Movenpick claimed that “Marché Express” is descriptive of the services Esso offers. Section 12(1)(b) of the Trade-marks Act provides that a trade-mark must not be “clearly descriptive” of the character or quality of the wares or services associated with the mark. So, the question before the Court was whether, in the French language, “Marché Express” was descriptive of a convenience store.

Both sides produced expert evidence of the meaning of the phrase “Marché Express”. The Court was unimpressed with this, favouring evidence of the phrase’s colloquial use rather than academic musings as to its meaning. The Court noted that one must look at the perception of the phrase by regular everyday consumers, not its meaning as derived from a scholarly analysis.

The Court ultimately found that while the word “marché” is used to describe convenience stores (it translates strictly to “market”), the construction “Marché Express” is not something that regularly appears in colloquial French. At best, it could be construed to mean the result produced from shopping at a such a store. Thus, “Marché Express” is not “clearly descriptive”, contrary to s. 12(1)(b).

Movenpick also claimed that Esso’s mark, when used to denote a convenience store, was easily confused with its own registered trademark, “Marché”, which is used in association with the operation of Movenpick’s restaurant. Under s. 12(1)(d), a trade-mark is not registrable if it is confusing with another registered trade-mark.

The Court outlined the test for confusion from Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin v. Boutiques Cliquot Ltée, 2006 SCC 23, wherein the Court must look for confusion in the mind of a “casual consumer somewhat in a hurry” who only has an “imperfect recollection” of the other mark. The Court also carefully considered all of the surrounding circumstances dictated by s. 6(5) of the Act. Most interestingly, the Court agreed with the Registrar’s statement that “Marché” was a weak mark. The term “Marché” is commonly used in the food and beverage industry; thus, consumers are used to seeing it in the marketplace (no pun intended!). When a mark has such a broad usage, the trademark holder cannot expect to have a wide range of protection over the mark. Consumers are able to pick up on slight differences between such weak marks, so the sphere of protection is accordingly narrower. The Court held that the inclusion of “Express” was enough for casual consumers to distinguish the two marks in question.

So, in the end, Esso was able to keep the registration of its trade-mark, and decidedly un-confused consumers are still able to both shop at the Marché Express and dine at Marché restaurants.

Stanley Cup Playoffs Spark Trademark Activity

The final round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs is about to kick off here in Vancouver, with the hometown Canucks facing off for the first time ever in the playoffs against the storied Boston Bruins.   Perhaps not surprisingly, local businesses in Vancouver are looking to capitalize on this historic event in different ways.

For example, the Vancouver Province is reporting that the Boston Pizza chain has temporarily (and wisely) rebranded itself as Vancouver Pizza, for the duration of the series. 

Earlier in the playoffs, a local automobile dealership that was using the phrase “Go Canucks Go” and the team’s logo on the window of the dealership premises, received a cease and desist letter from the offices of the National Hockey League, demanding that the references to the CANUCKS word mark and logo be removed from their window.

No doubt as the series cranks up, other local businesses will find equally creative ways to get in on the action.

Restaurant Trademarks: Worth their Salt?

The Globe and Mail is reporting on a dispute that has arisen between Vancouver’s Salt Tasting Room, which opened in 2006, and Toronto’s Salt Wine Bar, which opened in the summer of 2010.  The owner of the Vancouver Tasting Room apparently appealed to the Toronto Wine Bar owners to change their name, but without success. 

This dispute highlights the need for businesses, restaurant and otherwise, to register their trademarks in Canada and to register them sooner rather than later, since once a registration issues, it grants the registered owner the exclusive right to use that mark or one that is confusingly similar, throughout Canada in association with the claimed goods and services, even if that owner has only used its mark in one city or region of Canada.

In this case, the Vancouver owner waited until May of 2009 to file applications to register its SALT TASTING ROOM  and SALT marks, even though it claims in both applications to have used those marks since July of 2006.   Because of the timing of the start up of the Toronto restaurant and the current status of those applications, the position of the parties is murkier than it might otherwise be.  What further muddies the waters are several prior registrations for marks in Canada that include the word “Salt” that are registered to other entities.

As another recent article notes, the restaurant industry is no stranger to trademark issues, including the lawsuit recently launched by the Wild Wing restaurant chain in Aurora, Ontario against Buffalo Wild Wings, a United States franchise operator that is expanding into Canada.

The fact that the Salt story involves restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto is also of interest, given that we are waiting to hear how the Supreme Court of Canada will rule in Masterpiece Inc. v. Alavida Lifestyles Inc. where one of the issues is the likelihood of confusion between similar marks used in two geographically distinct areas; in that case, in the context of the ability of an earlier user’s ability to block a later user’s application for registration.

Survey On Preparation For New gTLDs

A survey is now being conducted by World Trademark Review (WTR), seeking input from marketing and trademark professionals as to their views on how industry is preparing for the impact of the new generic top level domains (gTLD) that ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) appears to be pushing forward with.    The survey is supported by a number of domain name and brand protection service providers, trademark owner associations and professional marketing associations.

As previously reported on this blog, ICANN proposes to expand beyond the current gTLDs, of which there are 21, including .com, .org and .net.  Under the proposed expansion, any company will be permitted to set up its own domain registry under any term –  for example .cars, .honda, .mapleleafs, .canucks and pretty much anything else will be possible.  This development obviously has huge implications for all brand owners.

WTR’s survey is intended to provide a sense of how well prepared brand owners are for this coming change.

Non-Use of a Trademark – Evidence of Special Circumstances Required

Jose Cuervo S.A. de C.V. v. Bacardi & Company Ltd. and the Registrar of Trade-marks was the second time that Bacardi had sought summary expungement, pursuant to section 45 of the Trade-marks Act, of the trade-mark CASTILLO for use in association with rum. This time, the Federal Court Trial Division agreed with the Registrar and expunged the mark for non-use. At issue before the Federal Court was the standard of review and whether special circumstances justified the non-use.

In the course of the earlier expungement action, the Appellant’s predecessor in title to the trademark had, on appeal, produced evidence of a sale of 41 cases of CASTILLO rum on November 21, 1994 to the Ontario Liquor Control Board. Thus, in Quarry Corp. v. Bacardi & Co (1996) 124 F.T.R. 264, the Court concluded the transaction was in the normal course of trade and set aside the Registrar’s decision to expunge. On further appeal, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the Trial Division’s decision, but commented that a “single sale divorced from all context” would not normally be sufficient use. In other words, a single sale contrived to protect a trademark was not sufficient.

On October 26, 2005, at Bacardi’s request, the Registrar again issued a section 45 notice requiring evidence of use within the previous three years. The manager of Jose Cuervo’s legal department provided an affidavit dated June 23, 2006 attaching the invoice of November 21, 1994 evidencing the sale to the Ontario Liquor Control Board and an invoice of November 24, 1999 evidencing 100 cases sold to the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission (neither sale being within the 3-year limit). The manager also deposed that the Appellant had undertaken a new marketing strategy in 2002 to incorporate a secondary trademark, COHIBA, into the label (owned by a related company), but the co-branding strategy had triggered a worldwide dispute, including threatened litigation that was not yet resolved.

The Registrar concluded there was no use within the requisite 3-year period and, while threatened litigation might be a reasonable excuse for a short period, six years was not reasonable. Relying on the reasoning in Scott Paper Ltd. v. Smart & Biggar (previously discussed) the Registrar concluded that there were no special circumstances.

On appeal, Jose Cuervo provided an affidavit stating that it had resumed use of CASTILLO on August 4, 2008 and attached an invoice for a consignment to the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission. The Court noted that the standard of review should be resonableness. The new evidence was not such that it would have affected the Registrar’s decision (being evidence of use well after the 3-year limit) and therefore the standard of review was not correctness.

The Court affirmed the Registrar’s decision, noting that Jose Cuervo produced no evidence as to why the co-branding could not be suspended, stating that it ws “illogical to suspend the use of a valid Canadian trade-mark because of a threat of impending trade-mark litigation with respect to a secondary trade-mark”. The decision to suspend use of CASTILLO in Canada was voluntary and a trade-mark dispute over a secondary mark did not constitute exceptional circumstances.

VANOC Unravels Cowichan Sweater Trade-mark Tangle

Members of the Cowichan Tribes had the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) tied up in knots recently when it accused VANOC of stealing the Cowichan’s traditional sweater design, popularly known as the “Cowichan Sweater”. VANOC had initially asked the Cowichan Tribes to bid on the contract to supply the sweater (which is part of the Team Canada uniform) but chose instead to give the contract to an outside supplier over concerns regarding the Cowichan’s ability to deliver sufficient quantities in the required timeframe.

The Cowichan decried the move, which they saw as an infringement of their well known design. Olympic torch-relay protests were planned, but tensions quickly unravelled when VANOC and the Bay offered the Cowichan a license deal for their sweaters. As a result of these negotiations, Cowichan-made sweaters will now be available at the Bay. Cowichan knitters will be licensed suppliers to the Olympics and will be entitled to display the Olympic logos alongside Cowichan trade-marks.

The Cowichan Band Council owns several trade-marks relating to the Cowichan brand, including both Official Marks and Certification Marks. Read more