In no mood for charity: Federal Court confirms that charities are not necessarily public authorities

The Federal Court of Canada recently confirmed in Starbucks (HK) Limited v. Trinity Television Inc., 2016 FC 790 (the “Decision”) that status as a charity is, in and of itself, insufficient to constitute an entity as a public authority for the purpose of obtaining an official mark.

(For a discussion about official marks and their interplay with regular trade-marks, please see this previous post on our blog.)

The facts leading up to the Decision are straightforward: in 2013, Starbucks (HK) Limited (“Starbucks”) filed an application to register the trade-mark NOW TV & Design.  During prosecution, an official mark for NOWTV, owned by Trinity Television Inc. (“Trinity”), was cited against the Starbucks application.  In response, Starbucks commenced a judicial review application against the Registrar’s decision – made in June 2001 – to give public notice of the adoption and use of NOWTV as an official mark.

In the result, the Court quashed the Registrar’s decision to grant NOWTV as an official mark to Trinity, clearing the path for Starbucks to move ahead with its application.  Of particular interest were the following points made by the Court:

- the law is now clear that status as a charity is, in and of itself, insufficient to constitute an entity as a public authority; and

- it would be patently unfair and completely contrary to the interest of justice if an entity that is not a public authority was permitted to enjoy the exceptional rights conferred on the holder of an official mark.

As a potential point of distinction when it comes to the precedential value of this case, it is noteworthy that Trinity did not participate in the judicial review application; indeed, the Court was advised by counsel for Starbucks that a former president and director of Trinity had advised that Trinity had sold its business to Rogers in 2005.  That being said, given how easily the Court arrived at the conclusion that charitable status does not necessarily equate to being a public authority, it seems unlikely that Trinity’s participation would have changed the result.

From a practical perspective, the Decision serves as a timely reminder to trade-mark applicants that, while robust, official marks can nevertheless be challenged and removed under the right circumstances.  Where an official mark has been cited during prosecution of a regular trade-mark application, it is important to carefully scrutinize the official mark, in order to ascertain any potential vulnerabilities that could lead to its removal.

On the other hand, the Decision is also a reminder to charities holding official marks that those official marks may potentially be at risk, if challenged via judicial review.  To mitigate that risk, those charities ought to consider filing regular applications to register their trade-marks.

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About the Blog

The authors of the Canadian Trademark Blog are all members of the Canadian law firm Clark Wilson LLP, based in Vancouver, Canada. Each author's practice focuses–either in whole or in substantial part–on Canadian intellectual property law. Together, they manage the trade-mark portfolios of local, national and international brand owners in nearly all industries and markets.

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