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.

No Summary Expungement of Trademark if Sublicensing Properly Documented

In Tucumcari Aero, Inc. v. Cassels, Brock & Blackwell LLP, a section 45 summary expungement action, the Registrar was satisfied that Tucumcari Aero, Inc., the owner of the trademark MOTO MIRROR & Design, had established use of the mark in association with truck and commercial vehicle mirrors. However, the Registrar also concluded that the evidence regarding the licences in place and Tucumcari’s control over the character and quality of the wares was ambiguous.

On appeal to the Federal Court the central issue was whether Tucumcari had filed sufficient additional evidence regarding its licensing arrangements, which involved a licensee and sublicensee, so as to establish that it had control over the character and quality of the wares. The Respondent agreed that sublicensing was permitted under section 50(1) of the Trade-marks Act, but argued that the indirect control contemplated by the Act required an express condition in the sublicensing agreement requiring the registrant to determine whether the character and quality of the wares are maintained. The Court disagreed, holding that the  registrant’s control of its contractual rights through the intermediary was sufficient and express language was not required.

The Court was also satisfied that an express provision authorizing sublicensing was not required and, even if Tucumcari had not specifically agreed to the sublicensing, there was evidence it had acquiesced. Moreover, a provision that allowed the sublicensee to ultimately buy the trade-mark did not mean Tucumcari was not using the mark in the interim, since it retained ownership and had an interest in preserving the goodwill until such time as it ultimately assigned its interests.

Evidentiary Omissions Lead to Trademark Appeal

The recent Federal Court case of Sanders v. Smart & Biggar Intellectual Property and Technology Law is a good example of the difference that well prepared evidence can make.  The Trademarks Opposition Board expunged the applicant’s trade-mark, “UGGLY BOOTS” pursuant to section 45 of the Trade-marks Act because the applicant had not demonstrated use of the trademark in Canada.  The Board found that the applicant’s evidence was “rampant with ambiguities” and omissions. 

The applicant appealed to the Federal Court pursuant to section 56 of the Act.  The applicant was allowed to present new evidence and the appeal was treated as a new hearing.  The applicant’s new evidence consisted of the affidavits of five clients, which all showed the transfer of wares with the trademark.  The affidavits also attached invoices proving the transfers took place.  The Court found that this new evidence went beyond mere allegations of use, noting that the applicant was only required to produce “evidence of a single sale, whether wholesale or retail, in the normal course of trade” so long as the sale was not deliberately manufactured or contrived to protect the registration of the trademark.  In applying the principle of use “in the normal course of trade”, the Court also noted that good faith is presumed when there is no evidence challenging the affiant’s credibility.  Thus, the Court found in the applicant’s favour, something the Board might have done if better evidence had been presented at first instance.

Proposed Practice Notices: Professional Designations and Abbreviations, Acronyms and Initials

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office has initiated two short consultations (January 29 to February 28, 2010) for proposed Practice Notices regarding section 12(1)(b) of the Trade-marks Act.  Section 12(1)(b) provides that “a trademark is registrable if it is not, whether depicted, written or sounded, either clearly descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive in the English or French language of the character or quality of the wares or services in association with which it is used or proposed to be used or of the conditions of or the persons employed in their production or of their place of origin”. The two proposed Practice Notices address the application of 12(1)(b) to professional designations and to abbreviations, acronyms and initials.

If research discloses that an applied for trademark consists of a professional designation, the examiner will apply a first impression test to determine whether a consumer would assume the goods and services are produced by a professional with a designation similar to the applied-for trademark and if so, the trademark will be unregistrable, being clearly descriptive of the persons employed in the production of the wares and services.  The addition of an abbreviation, acronym or initial to the professional designation will not make the trademark registrable.

A trademark that consists of or contains an abbreviation, acronym or initial will be considered unregistrable if considered as a whole and if as a matter of first impression the abbreviation, acronym or initial is clearly descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive of the wares and services.  Moreover, the addition of an abbreviation, acronym or initial to a clearly descriptive word or phrase will not render it registrable as a trademark.

The changes arise in light of a recent Federal Court decision, College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of British Columbia v. Council of Nature Medicine College of Canada, that considered some 39 trademark applications and registrations containing abbreviations, acronyms and initials and allegedly confusing with certain professional designations. Read more

Consultation by CIPO on Madrid and Singapore Treaties

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) recently launched a new consultation on possible Canadian accession to the Protocol Relating to the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks (the Madrid Protocol) and the Singapore Treaty on the Law of Trademarks (the Singapore Treaty).

This is not the first time CIPO has looked at the issue of Canada acceding to the Madrid Protocol.  Five years ago a similar consultation took place.   In response to a request for input, CIPO received feedback  from the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada and from the International Trademark Association, though no further action was taken by CIPO at that time.

According to CIPO’s backgrounder to the current consultation, the intervening five years have seen important trading partners such as the United States join both the Madrid Protocol and the Singapore Treaty.  As a result, according to CIPO, Canada is increasingly seen as isolated in its trademark laws and practices. Read more

No Trademark Expungement Although Language Describing Wares Outdated

Loro Piana S.P.A. v. Canadian Council of Professional Engineers is a further example of the importance of providing proper evidence in response to a Registrar’s notice requiring evidence of use within the previous three years pursuant to the summary expungement provisions in section 45 of the Trade-marks Act. The Applicant had, in 1989, registered the trademark ING. LORO PIANA & C. for use in association with “textile fabrics, bed covers, blankets, scarves, mufflers, shawls and gloves”. On the basis of the affidavit submitted by the Applicant, the Hearing Officer concluded that use of the mark in association with “textile fabrics” had been shown, but not use in association with the remaining wares.

On appeal to the Federal Court, Trial Division, the Applicant filed further evidence and the Court, applying a standard of correctness, concluded that use of the mark in association with each of the listed wares had been shown. In doing so, the Court was also satisfied that the sale of “stoles” constituted the sales of “mufflers” and that the sale of “bed covers” or “blankets” constituted the sale of “throws”. The Applicant provided evidence explaining its use of the terms.

The Court referred to the 2006 decision of Levi Strauss & Co. v. Canada (Registrar of Trade-marks) which held that a section 45 proceeding is intended to be a simple, expeditious procedure to get rid of “deadwood” and is not intended to be a meticulous verbal analysis and stated, “where the language used to describe a ware has changed with common usage, but the use of the trade-mark has continued, the use of the outmoded word will be allowed to remain”.

The Court was also satisfied that while the use of the trademark deviated slightly from the trademark as registered, the differences were unimportant and would not mislead an unaware purchaser.