Off-colour Trademark Decision Leaves Glaxo Purple With Frustration

In reasons issued late last year, the Federal Court of Appeal has upheld a decision to expunge a trademark registration obtained by Glaxo Group Limited (“Glaxo”) for two-tones of the colour purple as applied to the visible surface of an asthma inhaler. The decision raises interesting questions both about primary and secondary marks, and about the amount of evidence necessary to support a finding that a mark is distinctive.

Inhaler - Front ViewBy way of background, Glaxo registered its mark (depicted right, below) in May of 2007. A collection of generic drug manufacturers brought a Federal Court application to expunge the mark about 6 months later, alleging that the mark was not distinctive.

In its decision, the Federal Court concluded that for the mark to be distinctive the constituency of consumers for the inhaler (including physicians, pharmacists and patients) must relate the trade-mark to a single source, and thereby use the mark to make their prescribing, dispensingInhlaler - Top/Side View and purchasing choices. In market sectors where purchasing decisions are made by or on the advice of professionals, commercial distinctiveness of such marks will be inherently more difficult to establish: such persons will make purchasing or prescription decisions based on the specific properties of the product, and not on the packaging or marks associated with those products. Read more

Ontario Teachers Get A Lesson In Trademarks

The Federal Court of Canada has upheld a decision of the Registrar of Trademarks to refuse registration of the mark TEACHERS’ in association with services described as “administration of a pension plan, management and investment of a pension for teachers in Ontario”.  The application to register this mark was filed by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board.

The Registrar had refused registration of this mark on the basis that it was clearly descriptive of the character of the claimed services, contrary to S. 12(1)(b) of the Trade-marks Act.   On appeal, the Federal Court agreed, finding that the word TEACHERS’ in its plural and possessive form, is a distinguishing feature, and therefore the character, of this pension plan because it is a pension plan for teachers.  It clearly describes a prominent characteristic of the wares or services provided.  According to the Court, providing the applicant with a monopoly on the use of this word would prevent other pension or financial services targeted to or belonging to teachers within Ontario or in other provinces and territories from using the term.

Certification Mark Under the Trade-marks Act Refused: Evidence of Use by Others

In Ministry of Commerce and Industry of the Republic of Cyprus v.  Les Producteurs Laitiers du Canada et al. the Federal Court set aside two decisions of the Registrar of Trade-marks, but allowed a third to stand in part, which was sufficient to prevent registration of the Applicant’s certification mark, HALLOUMI, in association with cheese.

The Registrar concluded that contrary to sections 38(2)(a) and 30(a) of the Trade-marks Act, the Applicant had not discharged its initial burden of proving that it was in fact the authority that issued licences authorizing the use of the Mark in association with cheese.  Section 23(2) of the Act provides that only the owner of a certification mark may authorize others to use the mark in association with wares that meet the defined standard.  Relying on the Applicant’s own affidavit material the Registrar concluded that it was the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with the Department of Veterinary Services of the Ministry of Agriculture, National Resources and the Environment, that issued licences.  On appeal by the Applicant, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, filed additional evidence explaining the internal operations of the Cypriot government in terms of the responsibility for monitoring the use of the Mark.  The Court accepted this evidence, applied a correctness standard of review given the new evidence, and concluded that the Applicant was the authority with the power to authorize use of the Mark.

The Applicant also appealed on the basis that the Registrar incorrectly concluded that the Mark had become recognized in Canada by ordinary and bona fide commercial usage as designating a type of cheese, contrary to sections 38(2)(b), 10 and 12(1)(e) of the Act.  No new evidence was filed on this point and the standard of review was therefore reasonableness.  The Court agreed that one of the Opponents, the Cheese Council, had filed evidence before the Registrar, including packaging from cheese purchased in Ottawa and various cities in Quebec, establishing that marks resembling the Mark and likely to be mistaken for it had been used in Canada to designate a type of cheese.

The other two opponents could not rely on the evidence filed by the Cheese Council and therefore, given the Court’s finding on the other issue, their oppositions failed with the appropriate cost consequences.  Nevertheless, success by the Cheese Council meant the certification mark could not be registered, with costs to the Cheese Council on its opposition.

Expungement: A Poisoned Trademark – for Both Parties

In JAG Flocomponents N.A.  Inc. v. Archmetal Industries the Plaintiffs sought expungement of the Canadian trademark FUSION, as well as a declaration that the Defendants had breached section 7(a) of the Trade-marks Act.  The trademark was registered for  use in association with ball valves for industrial use and use was claimed since as least as early as September, 2002.

One of the Defendant companies had been a 30%  owner  of one of the Plaintiff companies and a Letter of Intent had been executed setting out the basic relationship whereby the Plaintiff s were to distribute valves manufactured by the Defendants in China.  The parties had also executed a Consignment Agreement which the Court found to be a critical document since clause 12 specified that the intellectual property arising by virtue of the Agreement was deemed to be equally owned by the parties. 

For marketing purposes, the Plainitffs adopted the trademark FUSION and proceeded to market wares manufactured by the Defendants, as well as wares sourced from a different manufacturer, using the trademark.  However, following the breakdown of the relationship, one of the Defendants registered the trademark.  The disputes arising between the parties were eventually settled under an Alberta Queen’s Bench action, which left only the intellectual property issues unresolved. The Plaintiffs had also applied to register the trademark, but the Defendants successfully opposed the application on the basis of alleged prior use.  Read more

Beer, Trademarks and the Jurisdiction of the Opposition Board

Molson Canada 2005 v. Anheuser-Busch, Incorporated, a decision of the Federal Court and another case in an ongoing “beer war”, provides an interesting analysis of the jurisdiction of the Opposition Board. The Opponent before the Opposition Board, Molson, through a predecessor in title, held the registered trademark for the label for Standard Lager:

Standard Lager Mark

(“the Standard Lager Mark”) a beer continuously sold in Canada since 1926, but almost exclusively in the province of Manitoba. Anheuser-Busch, the Applicant before the Opposition Board, had two labels that were registered as trade-marks:

Registered Anheuser-Busch Marks

(“the Registered Anheuser-Busch Marks”). The opposition arose when Anheuser-Busch sought to register an “updated” version of its two previously registered marks (“the Proposed Anheuser-Busch Marks”).

The Federal Court reviewed the litigation history arising in respect of the earlier registered marks, including a 1986 Federal Court of Appeal decision, Carling O’Keefe Breweries of Canada Ltd. v. Anheuser-Busch Inc., which concluded that the Standard Lager Mark and the Registered Anheuser-Busch Marks were confusing, that there was some sort of impropriety when the Standard Lager Mark was originally registered in 1929 since it was inspired by and designed with knowledge of the BUDWEISER label, but Carling (Molson’s predecessor in title) could rely on the equitable defence of laches and thus there was no basis for expunging either the Standard Lager Mark or the Registered Anheuser-Busch Marks.

The Opposition Board allowed the registration of the Proposed Anheuser-Busch Mark as it applied to clothing since Molson had not established that the ambit of protection accorded to the Standard Lager Mark included wares other than beer. With regards to use in association with beer the Opposition Board determined that it could limit the scope of protection afforded the Standard Lager Mark since the Court of Appeal had determined it was wrongfully obtained. Thus, Molson’s opposition with regards to use in association with beer was rejected.

The Federal Court disagreed and allowed the opposition with regards to use in association with beer. The Court was particularly concerned that the Opposition Board had exceeded its jurisdiction, since it is limited in an opposition proceeding to determining if a trademark is or is not registrable. Thus, for example, if there is a confusing mark on the register, the new mark cannot be registered. However, if the existing registration of an invalid trademark is interfering with the registration of a new trademark, it is up to the applicant for the new mark to take the necessary steps, usually an expungement application to the Federal Court, to get the register corrected. In an opposition proceeding, the validity of an opponent’s registered mark is not in issue.

The Federal Court was concerned that the Opposition Board could not limit the ambit of protection afforded the Standard Lager Mark on the basis that the Court of Appeal had questioned the lawfulness of the registration. Indeed, the Court of Appeal had not found the registration of the Standard Lager Mark was unlawful, but had instead found that the registration was not a nullity. Thus, Molson was relying on a valid registration and the question to be answered was whether the Proposed Anheuser-Busch Mark was confusing with the Standard Lager Mark. The Federal Court concluded they were confusing, applying the test in section 6(5) of the Trade-marks Act and giving particular weight to two surrounding circumstances: (1) that the Court of Appeal had found the Registered Anheuser-Busch Marks confusing; and (2) an acknowledgement in the Memorandums of Fact and Law filed by both the parties that the marks were confusing.

The beer wars continue and we may very well see an appeal.

Feud Over Family Name Spills Into Federal Court

In a recent decision of the Federal Court Trial Division, the registration of the mark STENNER was expunged on the basis that it was not distinctive. 

STENNER was registered as a trademark in the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (“CIPO”) in 2005.  The Application, filed in 2003, was objected to by the CIPO Examiner on the basis that the mark was primarily merely the surname of an individual.  That objection was overcome when the Applicant provided sufficient evidence of secondary distinctiveness – i.e. evidence that the mark was recognized as the source of the Applicant’s financial services and newsletters, as much or more than than it was recognized as a surname.  The Application was not opposed by anyone.

The Federal Court found that the evidence established that the registered owner had used the STENNER mark on and off over the years, commencing in the late 1980’s, though rarely, if ever, as a standalone mark and periods of use had been punctuated by lengthy periods of non-use.  In the early 2000’s, the principal of the registered owner had a bitter falling out with his two children who were also in the financial services industry and who also used the STENNER name in association with the performance of their services.  That falling out had been the subject of a separate lawsuit, however the Court in those proceedings specifically declined to rule on the validity of the trademark registration for STENNER.

The application to expunge the registration for STENNER was based on various grounds, but the argument that won the most favour with the Federal Court was that the mark was no longer distinctive (assuming it ever had been), due to extended periods of non-use, lack of use as a standalone mark and the results of expert evidence on the recognition of the mark as a source indicator for the registered owner’s services.   The expert evidence put forward showed that the mark was recognized by virtually no one outside of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and even within that region, the recognition factor was very low.  Also, the use of the same mark by the two children in the same industry and geographic area also pointed to a lack of distinctiveness.

In the end result, the Federal Court ordered the expungement of the registration for the STENNER mark.  There is no indication yet of whether an appeal will be filed, though the deadline for doing so is fast approaching.

When Prior Use is not Prior Use

In an update to an earlier post, the Supreme Court of Canada has recently granted leave to appeal in the case of Masterpiece Inc. v. Alavida Lifestyles Inc.    Both the Federal Court Trial Division and the Federal Court of Appeal held that, in a proceeding to expunge a Registration, the relevant date for determining whether there was confusion with a mark previously used in Canada is the date that the application was filed, and that likelihood of confusion at a point in the future is not a relevant consideration. 

In addition, both of the earlier decisions stated that in order for prior use of a mark in Canada to be grounds for successfully expunging a registration, such prior use must have occurred in the same geographic area where the applicant used its mark; otherwise there could have been no likelihood of confusion at the time the application was filed.   In coming to the latter conclusion, both Courts appear, at least with respect to an action for expungement of a registration, to have imported into the test for likelihood of confusion, the test for common law passing off.   Given this, the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada on this issue will be eagerly awaited by practitioners.