An earlier blog reported that the organizers of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games have threatened legal action against pranksters who mock the Olympic brand through the use of spoofs or parodies on the Internet.
We do not propose to comment on trademark law in China. However, a review of the Canadian law indicates that in the Canadian trademark context, legal actions against pranksters poking fun, even with malice, are not likely to be successful. The Canadian Trade-marks Act is of little assistance if the pranksters do not use the marks for a commercial purpose or if the marks have been humourously altered to the extent that it is apparent to the average person that the parodiesÂ are not the work of the trademark owners.
In bringing an action the trademark owner must prove that there has been, pursuant to section 22 of the Trade-marks Act (the “Act”), a depreciation of the goodwill attaching to the owner’s registered trademark. Given the wording of section 22, there must also be commercial use of the mark.
In the leading case of Cie Générale des Éstablissements Michelin-Michelin & Cie v. C.A.W. – Canada (1996), 71 C.P.R. (3d) 348 (F.C.T.D.) (“the Michelin case”), the defendant attempted to unionize the workers of Michelin North America (Canada) and handed out pamphlets to employees parodying the Michelin corporate logo, namely the Michelin Tire Man, a beaming marshmallow-like rotund figure composed of tires. The pamphlets depicted a broadly smiling Michelin Tire Man with arms crossed, his foot raised, seemingly ready to crush underfoot an unsuspecting Michelin worker together with the caption, “Bob, you better move before he squashes you”.
The Court held that handing out pamphlets to recruit members into a trade union did not qualify as a commercial activity (i.e. use in association with wares or services) under section 4 of the Act. Moreover, the use of the trademark as a parody could not be said to depreciate the goodwill of the registered mark under section 22 because the menacing depiction was not likely to confuse the average customer that the altered mark originated with the registered owner. It is worth noting, however, that the plaintiffs were successful with their claim of copyright infringement in respect of which the Court ruled that parody was not a form of criticism, a defense to copyright infringement under what is now Section 29 of the Copyright Act.
The Michelin case was followed in British Columbia Automobile Assn. v. Office and Professional Employees’ International Union Local 378 2001, BCSC 156. This was another labour relations situation where the Court ruled that the use by the defendant of the plaintiff’s trademark for the non-commercial provision of information on the Internet did not constitute depreciation of the goodwill of the registered trademark even though one of the purposes of the website was to discourage members of the public from doing business with the plaintiff. The defendant was entitled to express its position and speak freely provided it did not violate section 22 of the Act and that “to accept the plaintiff’s argument, that the reference to an employer’s trade-mark to identify a Union site depreciates goodwill associated with that trade-mark would be a result that goes far beyond what Parliament intended by s. 22”.
An earlier case provides an illustration of a true commercial use. In Source Perrier (Société Anonyme) v. Fira-Less Marketing Co. Limited , 2 F.C. 18 (T.D.), the defendant sold bottled water for $1.00 under the name “Pierre Eh”, a humourous reference to the Canadian Prime Minister at the time. The bottles were designed to resemble those used by the plaintiff, but included a disclaimer that the bottles were not to be confused with those of the plaintiff. The Court found that this use led to depreciation of the plaintiff’s goodwill because the defendant’s commercial spoof of the plaintiff’s marks and image tended “to dilute the quality of the plaintiff’s trade-marks, to impair its business integrity established over the years, and to cause injury to its goodwill”.
Thus, trademark owners, before pursuing pranksters, will want to determine whether there is commercial use of a registered trademark, or, possibly, an infringement of copyright. Otherwise, the trademark owner may be forced to see (and live with) the humourous side of a prankster’s efforts.