The Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec has succeeded in its opposition to a Quebec entrepreneur’s attempt to register its symbol of protest, the carré rouge (which means “red square”), as a trademark for use in association with T-shirts, posters, cups, wristbands, and other paraphernalia. While this decision offers some protection from the appropriation and commercialization of a protest symbol, it also reveals the limits of such protection.
The carré rouge – essentially a small square of red fabric attached to clothing by a gold safety pin – was adopted by the Fédération in January of 2011 as a symbol of a massive strike that was about to be launched to protest proposed tuition fee hikes in Quebec. Members of the Fédération – which included over 65,000 students – were encouraged to wear the symbol on their clothing and to participate in the series of organized rallies and protests across the province. The student demonstrations received a great deal of media attention and the carré rouge quickly became a public symbol associated with the student unrest.
Very shortly after the last of the major demonstrations in 2012, Raymond Drapeau sought to register as a trademark a design consisting of a red square with a gold pin. The Fédération opposed this registration. While they had clearly been the first to adopt and use the carré rouge as a symbol, they had not used it as a trademark – in other words, they had not used it to distinguish their goods or services from those of others. Absent a prior commercial use, they could not rely on grounds of opposition based upon their greater entitlement to the registration of the mark. This was confirmed by the Trade-marks Opposition Board (TMOB) in its December decision.
The Fédération was, however, successful with its argument that the carré rouge could not be distinctive of Drapeau’s goods because the public would associate the symbol with the Fédération and its protests, and not with Drapeau. The quintessential characteristic of a trademark is its capacity to distinguish its owner as the source of the goods or services in association with which it is used. This quality is referred to as distinctiveness. The TMOB found that the size of the student protests and the degree of media coverage was such that the symbol would be associated with the Fédération’s protest movement. It was therefore not capable of distinguishing Drapeau as a trade source. The application for trademark registration was therefore refused.
The Fédération’s victory is an important one, but it is not one that should allow activist or protest groups to feel complacent. It is important because the TMOB was prepared to recognize the link between a protest group and its symbol as being of a kind that can make the symbol difficult for others to appropriate for commercial purposes. However, the decision of the TMOB merely denies registration of the mark. It does not prevent Drapeau (or others) from using the symbol as an unregistered trademark. Use in this way might actually lead to acquired distinctiveness; which could, in turn, be a basis for eventual trademark registration. Indeed, the TMOB observed that “substantial evidence of use of the Mark by the Applicant might possibly have supported an argument that the Mark had become distinctive as of the relevant date.” (at para 40). It also noted that “a symbol can be a trade-mark if it can serve to identify the source of the goods and services associated with it.” (at para 43)
A protest movement that wishes to acquire the kind of goodwill in its mark or symbol that will give rise to its own trademark rights will need to use the mark in association with goods or services. This type of commercial use might well go against the movement’s ideology – and might, in any event, be too complicated within the context of a spontaneous movement; particularly one that gathers more momentum than initially anticipated at the outset. Copyright law offers a possible source of protection: an original design can be protected by copyright law – and it is possible to oppose the registration of a trademark that would infringe the copyright of another. But the carré rouge as used by the students is not a “work” in which copyright subsisted. In this case, the simplicity of the symbol, while contributing to its uptake and use, undermined its capacity to be “owned” by the Fédération and in turn controlled by it. Of course, the whole concept of private ownership of public symbols runs against the spirit of the protests, and the Fédération maintained throughout that the carré rouge was in the public domain and thus not capable of private ownership. They were successful on the facts as they stood, but the TMOB decision reminds us that even symbols in the so-called public domain may be appropriated in certain circumstances.