Teresa Scassa - Blog

The BBC has reported that the U.S. Olympic Committee is taking a hard line against companies that use the twitter hashtag #Rio2016 in their tweets and who are not official sponsors of the Games. The USOC holds a registered trademark in the US for Rio2016. According to the BBC story, while the USOC is prepared to tolerate the non-commercial use of the hashtag in tweets by individuals, it draws the line at corporate use.

The move is hardly surprising – for decades now Olympic organizers have been trying to crack down on ambush marketing. Ambush marketing relies upon the creation of mental associations between a major event (in this case, the Olympics) and the products or services of non-sponsor companies. They can do so through trademark law, which protects the registered trademarks of the event, as well as through special laws prohibiting ambush marketing. These special laws have proven controversial because they ban the creation of “associations”, and such associations can be generated by using ordinary words that are descriptive of the event, its location or the year in which it is held.

 

Sponsors pay top dollars for sponsorship rights and insist upon a high degree of protection for this investment, and event organizers will insist that these revenues are necessary in order to make the games a success. Without the sponsorship money, the story goes, there would be no games. Thus everyone wins if sponsors’ rights are protected. The story is, however, a bit more complicated than that. There are many companies that invest, in one way or another, in amateur sporting associations and in athletes. A company that sponsored a promising young athlete for years, allowing her eventually to train and compete at the national level would find that when that athlete finally made it to the Olympics, they might run afoul of ambush marketing laws by publicly celebrating her achievement. “XYZ Corporation celebrates Jane Doe in her quest for Olympic Gold!” would, for example, most likely attract cease and desist letter.

The Twitter hashtag issue is both interesting and controversial. According to Twitter, hashtags are a device created on Twitter to allow for the indexing of key words or topics. In other words, hashtags facilitate conversations on a vast social network and allow people both to follow and to participate in those conversations. Thus, while Rio 2016 may be registered trademark of the USOC, #Rio2016 is an indexing term that allows people interested in the summer games to follow Twitter conversations on that subject. For the USOC to assert that non-sponsor companies cannot use the hashtag is to tell them that they cannot participate in those conversations. As such, their position likely goes too far. At least one U.S. court would seem to agree. In 2015 the U.S. federal district court in Eksouzian v. Albanese ruled that it was not trademark infringement to use a trademarked term in a hashtag “because hashtags are merely descriptive devices, not trademarks, unitary or otherwise, in and of themselves.

Ironically, the push to crack down on so-called ambush-marketing may have its greatest impact on small businesses that do not have the resources to fight back when sent a cease-and-desist letter. As my co-authors and I noted in a 2011 article on ambush marketing, the real competitors of Olympic sponsors are generally large corporations with teams of lawyers that can help them design marketing campaigns that stay just on the right side of any anti-ambush marketing legislation.

Coverage of this issue can also be found in the article in Le Devoir by Boris Proulx “Ne sera pas Rio qui veut”.

Published in Trademarks

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.

 

Published in Trademarks

Citizen science is the name given to a kind of crowd-sourced public participatory scientific research in which professional researchers benefit from the distributed input of members of the public. Citizen science projects may include community-based research (such as testing air or water quality over a period of time), or may involve the public in identifying objects from satellite images or videos, observing and recording data, or even transcribing hand written notes or records from previous centuries. Some well-known citizen science projects include eBird, Eyewire, FoldIt, Notes from Nature, and Galaxy Zoo. Zooniverse offers a portal to a vast array of different citizen science projects. The range and quantity of citizen science experiences that are now available to interested members of the public are a testament both to the curiosity and engagement of volunteers as well as to the technologies that now enable this massive and distributed engagement.

Scientific research of all kinds – whether conventional or involving public participation – leads inevitably to the generation of intellectual property (IP). This may be in the form of patentable inventions, confidential information or copyright protected works. Intellectual property rights are relevant to the commercialization, exploitation, publication and sharing of research. They are important to the researchers, their employers, their funders, and to the research community. To a growing extent, they are of interest to the broader public – particularly where that public has been engaged in the research through citizen science.

What IP rights may arise in citizen science, how they do so, and in what circumstances, are all issues dealt with by myself and co-author Haewon Chung in a paper released in December 2015 by the Commons Lab of the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. Titled Best Practices for Managing Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science, this paper is a guide for both citizen science researchers and participants. It covers topics such as the reasons why IP rights should be taken into account in citizen science, the types of rights that are relevant, how they might arise, and how they can be managed. We provide an explanation of licensing, giving specific examples and even parse license terms. The paper concludes with a discussion of best practices for researchers and a checklist for citizen science participants.

Our goal in preparing this report was to raise awareness of IP issues, and to help researchers think through IP issues in the design of their projects so that they can achieve their objectives without unpleasant surprises down the road. These unpleasant surprises might include realizing too late that the necessary rights to publish photographs or other materials contributed by participants have not been obtained; that commitments to project funders preclude the anticipated sharing of research results with participants; or that the name chosen for a highly successful project infringes the trademark rights of others. We also raise issues from participant perspectives: What is the difference between a transfer of IP rights in contributed photos or video and a non-exclusive license with respect to the same material? Should participants expect that research data and related publications will be made available under open licenses in exchange for their participation? When and how are participant contributions to be acknowledged in any research outputs of the project?

In addition to these issues, we consider the diverse IP interests that may be at play in citizen science projects, including those of researchers, their institutions, funders, participants, third party platform hosts, and the broader public. As citizen science grows in popularity, and as the scope, type and variety of projects also expands, so too will the IP issues. We hope that our research will contribute to a greater understanding of these issues and to the complex array of relationships in which they arise.

Note: This research paper was funded by the Commons Lab of the Wilson Center and builds upon our earlier shorter paper: Typology of Citizen Science Projects from an Intellectual Property Perspective: Invention and Authorship Between Researchers and Participants. Both papers are published under a Creative Commons Licence.

 

Published in Copyright Law

Mellos, an iconic diner in Ottawa’s Byward Market, was forced to close its doors this week after the restaurant’s landlord refused to renew their lease. The diner, which had been in that location for over 70 years had the down-at-heel feel of a real diner yet boasted a quirky menu of terrific food. Its next door neighbor, a much more upscale restaurant will be taking over Mellos’ space – just a coincidence and not a conquest or so the story goes.

The owners of Mellos have had to leave their long-time location, but they do have plans to find another space within the Byward Market area and to reopen as soon as possible. The fact that they are down, but not out, has led to an interesting conflict between private property rights and intellectual property rights.

Mellos diner had a classic neon outdoor sign that hung over the Dalhousie sidewalk outside its door. Because it is located in a Heritage Conservation area, both the building and its sign are protected under the province’s Heritage Act. Any changes to the building, including the removal or relocation of the sign would have to be approved by a series of committees and City Council. At the same time, the sign itself is a fixture – a piece of once moveable property that by reason of its attachment to a building has become a part of the building. This means that the sign is the property of the landlord. And, to make it more interesting, the name on the sign – Mellos – is the intellectual property of the restaurant owners. It is an unregistered trademark – and given that its owners intend to reopen in the same general area – the goodwill in the trademark is certainly still in existence.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the sign was taken down late in the evening of December 21 – the day that Mellos finally closed its doors. The police have apparently been called – it is not clear by whom – and an investigation is underway.

The problem is a thorny one. The real piece of heritage – the diner itself – has been closed. The desire to preserve what is left – the iconic sign – is well-meaning. However, for the owners of the trademark it would clearly be unacceptable to have the sign hang over another restaurant if Mellos were to reopen in the same area. This would send one of at least 3 confusing messages to the public: that the restaurant that moved into the space is somehow linked to Mellos; that Mellos is closed and no longer exists; or that the newly opened Mellos at a fresh location is not the same as the original. From a trademark law point of view, the sign simply cannot stay where it is, fixture or not. The heritage laws would permit a relocation – but this would only happen after a long and bureaucratically taxing process – something that might also not be acceptable from a trademark law point of view – since in the meantime the sign would stay in place, conveying its potentially confusing message to the public. Finally, the building owner might insist upon its private property rights – placing these squarely in conflict with Mellos trademark rights. To insist upon maintaining a sign that is confusing to the public, and potentially in violation of trademark rights, would seem unreasonable, but this does not appear to have been an amicable parting of the ways in any event.

Now that the sign is down – and safely stored – the dispute can play itself out. The real loss to Ottawa’s heritage has been Mellos – the living, breathing restaurant – and the best outcome would be to see it re-established in the market – with its iconic sign hanging outside. Whether the tangle of property, intellectual property and heritage property laws – and the costs of resolving all of the issues they raise – will ultimately permit this remains to be seen.

Published in Trademarks

A small Canadian company seems poised to take on the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) over the issue of whether the trademark it seeks to register for its vodka, LUCKY BASTARD, is scandalous, obscene or immoral.

Similar to laws in other countries, Canada’s Trade-marks Act bars the registration of marks that would offend public mores. Or at least, that’s the theory. According to s. 9(1)(j) of the Act, no mark that is “scandalous, obscene or immoral” can be adopted as a trademark. Other provisions of the statute bar both the registration (s. 12(1)(e)) and the use (s. 11) of such marks.

The decision as to what is “scandalous, obscene or immoral” is in the hands of the Registrar of Trademarks. The only guidance provided by CIPO on this issue is found in the Trademarks Examination Manual. According to the Manual,

  • A scandalous word or design is one which is offensive to the public or individual sense of propriety or morality, or is a slur on nationality and is generally regarded as offensive. It is generally defined as causing general outrage or indignation.
  • A word is obscene if marked by violations of accepted language inhibitions or regarded as taboo in polite usage. This word is generally defined as something that is offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality or decency; or offensive to the senses.
  • A word or design is immoral when it is in conflict with generally or traditionally held moral principles, and generally defined as not conforming to accepted standard of morality.

Clearly, there is an element of subjectivity in making such assessments. In the case of the word “bastard”, it is fair to say that today it is generally considered to be a highly inappropriate term to use to refer to a child born to an unmarried mother. What is less clear is whether, used today in its more casual sense – as in the expression “lucky bastard” – it rises to the level of “causing general outrage or indignation”.

Canada has almost no case law on how to interpret and apply s. 9(1)(k). The experience in other jurisdictions has highlighted the often contentious and sometimes seemingly arbitrary approach to comparable provisions. In some cases, applicants for registration seek to use controversial words in a deliberately edgy way. In a case currently making its way through the courts in the U.S., an Asian-American dance rock band called The Slants is challenging the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office’s refusal to register their band name as a trademark. They argue that the denial or registration violates their freedom of expression. The band apparently seeks to ‘reclaim’ the otherwise derogatory term. When the trademark DYKES ON BIKES was initially denied registration in the U.S., its owners argued that the term DYKES, although derogatory in some contexts, was, when used self-referentially, had been re-appropriated and was a term of empowerment. These arguments were ultimately successful.

The arbitrariness of provisions barring the registration of trademarks on public order and morality grounds is not limited to the difficult issues around what terms are offensive and in what contexts. A quick search of the Canadian trademarks register reveals that the word “bastard” already appears in several registered trademarks, including FAT BASTARD BURRITO, DOUBLE BASTARD (for beer), PHAT BASTARD (for oysters) and FAT BASTARD (for wine). It is clear from the register that several other attempts to register marks containing the word “bastard” have been abandoned – possibly over objections to the propriety of the term.

In the U.S., challenges to the constitutionality of the equivalent U.S. provision on First Amendment (free speech) grounds have thus far failed. Courts have ruled that the provision only bars registration and not use of the mark, and therefore the right to expression oneself by using the term as an (albeit unregistered) trademark is not affected. The government remains entitled to refuse to grant a state sanctioned monopoly right to use a term that is immoral or disparaging. The constitutional issues will be under scrutiny again in the case involving The Slants, as well as in the infamous Redskins case both of which are making their way through the appellate courts in the U.S. Freedom of expression arguments in relation s. 9(1)(j) of Canada’s Trade-marks Act have yet to be tested in court. It is worth noting that in Canada it is not just registration that is denied to a “scandalous, obscene or immoral” trademark, but also adoption and use. Nevertheless, freedom of expression challenges to a similar provision in Europe have failed under the European Charter of Human Rights because of counter-balancing considerations similar to the Canadian Charter’s tolerance of “reasonable limits” placed on rights so long as they are “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

There may well be reasons to deny registration to trademarks that clearly cross the line of what is acceptable. Our laws make it clear that discrimination and hate speech, for example, are not tolerated. Perhaps what is needed is a refocussing of the s. 9(1)(j) discretion to concentrate on trademarks that offend norms that are clearly supported by other legislation and the constitution.

The disallowance of LUCKY BASTARD should also be considered in the light of the recent controversy regarding the Edmonton football franchise’s ESKIMOS trademark. The later term is considered derogatory and disparaging of Canadian Inuit (and I note that there a great number of other trademarks on the Canadian register that contain the word “eskimo”). Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recently called for action to address the use of offensive and racist sports mascots and team names. The infamous Washington Redskins trademarks – under challenge in the U.S. – are also registered (and as yet unchallenged) trademarks in Canada. The arbitrary application of public morality clauses in trademarks law brings discredit to the system. It may also serve to highlight the extent to which some biases are so ingrained within the system that they become normalized.

If the owners of Lucky Bastard Vodka do eventually have to take their trademark fight to court it might mean that we finally get some judicial insight into the proper interpretation and application of s. 9(1)(j). This would surely be welcome.

 

Published in Trademarks

A recent (though not yet in force) amendment to Canada’s Trade-marks Act will permit an unprecedented purging of trademark records in Canada. This destruction of records should be understood within the disturbing context described in a recent Maclean’s article by Anne Kingston, titled “Vanishing Canada: Why We’re All Losers in Canada’s War on Data”.

The new section 29.1 is aptly titled “Destruction of Records”. It provides that, notwithstanding the Registrar’s duty to maintain trademark data and documentation for public view, the Registrar may still destroy a broad range of documents. These can include applications for trademarks that are refused or abandoned, documents relating to trademarks that have been expunged, documents relating to any request for public notice to be given of an official mark that has been abandoned, refused or invalidated, and documents relating to objections to geographical indications that are removed from the list of geographical indications. All of these documents may be destroyed 6 years after the final action on the file.

Since 1997, the Registrar has been maintaining an electronic register of trademarks. This register is publicly accessible and searchable. However, it does not provide electronic access to the underlying documentation relating to the registrations. This information has nonetheless been available for public consultation, and is also available through access to information requests. While it is now possible to file trademark applications online, thus replacing paper with digital documents, this option has not always been available and there is still a great deal of paper floating about. All this paper obviously takes up a significant amount of space. How should the problem be addressed? One option is to begin the process of digitization; paper records can be destroyed once digital copies are made. Digital copies would also allow for a vastly improved level of access. Another option is to just chuck it all out. It is this latter option, cheap and easy, that will be implemented by the new section 29.1 of the Trade-marks Act.

Of what use are the records at issue? Trademark lawyers have argued that information about past trademark applications – including those refused by the Registrar – is often used in trademark opposition proceedings and in litigation. The International Trademark Association (INTA) opposed section 29.1 in a written submission to the Parliamentary Committee that studied the Bill that introduced this provision. INTA stated that “the downside risk of losing public access to these documents outweighs the hardships to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office associated with maintaining those records.” INTA also noted that the Canadian approach was out of line with that in the United States and in Europe. INTA argued that the destruction of paper records should only take place after electronic copies have been made. The United States, for example, has created a searchable online resource to provide access to all of its records relating to all trademark applications, registered trademarks, Madrid Protocol applications and international registrations.

In addition to the relevance of this information to trademark practitioners, the soon to be destroyed information has research value as well. Canadian trademark law is a relatively under-researched area of Canadian intellectual property law. It would be a great shame if large volumes of data disappear just as research in this area begins to mature and expand.

What might a researcher distill from these records? Here’s one example. Official marks have long been criticized for giving “public authorities” an almost unlimited power to carve out trademark space for themselves without any of the usual checks and balances put in place to manage trademark monopolies in the public interest. Many official marks for which public notice has been given by the Registrar have later been invalidated by the courts either on the basis that the “public authority” seeking public notice was not really a public authority or on the basis that they had not actually adopted or used the mark in question. Once s. 29.1 takes effect, the paper records relating to official marks that have been invalidated will disappear after 6 years. The Registrar has become more rigorous in her examination of requests for official marks (within the limits of a law totally lacking in rigour in this respect). Because there is no application process for official marks, all that appears in the register of trademark is the actual public notice in successful cases. Records relating to failed requests for public notice will soon be subject to destruction after 6 years. This means that this information will disappear entirely and without a trace. What public authorities have sought official marks that have been refused? What was the basis for the refusal to give public notice? What entities claiming to be public authorities have attempted to get trademark protection through this avenue? What might the answers to these questions tell us about a regime that is badly in need of reform? The answers to these questions will become unknowable once s. 29.1 takes effect and the wholesale destruction of records begins.

Digitization of records is expensive, time-consuming and labour intensive. But if paper records are destroyed before digitization takes place there is simply no way to recreate the information. It is lost forever. I have given only a few examples of the potential relevance of the information that is set to be destroyed once s. 29.1 comes into force. Let’s hope it never does. The concepts of open government and open data are only meaningful if there is something left to see once the doors are opened.

Published in Trademarks

It’s not easy to write about an area of law that is in a significant state of flux, but that is what I have tried to do in the second edition of my book titled Canadian Trademark Law, which has just rolled off the presses at Lexis Nexis Canada.

This book expands and updates the first edition, which provided a comprehensive account of trademark law in Canada. In the second edition, I take into account the recent significant changes brought about by the Combating Counterfeit Products Act and the Economic Action Plan 2014 Act, and discusses the impact yet to come as key (and in some cases controversial) provisions of these bills take effect in the not too distant future. These will include an expanded definition of what can constitute a trademark; significant changes to registration requirements; and a new, shorter term of protection. Many of the changes still to come are those necessary to implement the Singapore Treaty and the Madrid Protocol. Once the requisite regulations are in place and the new provisions take effect, Canada’s law will be substantially more harmonized with the laws of other countries, and international trademark registrations will be available to Canadian companies.

In addition to its coverage of core trademark law principles and jurisprudence, Canadian Trademark Law (2d ed.) has specific chapters dedicated to contemporary issues. These include parallel importation and counterfeiting, trademark infringement on the internet, and trademarks and freedom of expression.

In the book I have tried to navigate a turbulent period in Canadian trademark law by discussing not only the law as it stands today, but the law as it will likely be once pending amendments take effect. Each chapter ends with a series of point-form highlights of the key legislative changes that will affect the specific area of the law discussed in that chapter. The book also contains a lengthy appendix which attempts to show in tabular form what amendments are now in effect, which ones are likely eventually to take effect, and which ones will most likely be superseded by other amendments.

 

Published in Trademarks

It is rare that a trademark law dispute becomes the subject matter of a documentary film – rarer still when it is a Canadian case that is the focus of attention. Yet some trademark disputes transcend the legal issues that give rise to them. This is so with the case that inspired Heidi Lasi’s recent documentary titled The Oasis Affair. This short film explores the dispute between Les Industries Lassonde, Inc. (a major Quebec company that produces, among other things, OASIS brand juices) and Olivia’s Oasis, a small Quebec business producing soaps and skin care products made with olive oil.

The conflict between the two companies arose from a trademark infringement lawsuit brought by Les Industries Lassonde against Olivia’s Oasis. Lassonde argued that the Olivia’s Oasis trademark for skin care products created consumer confusion with their well-known mark OASIS for fruit juice. Not only did the defendant rebut the trademark claims, it also argued that the lawsuit against it was abusive litigation under relatively new provisions of the Quebec Code of Civil Procedure. These “anti-SLAPP” provisions are intended to discourage parties with deep pockets from using the threat of litigation either to pressure small parties to comply with their demands or to face financial ruin through costly litigation. At trial, Justice Zerbisias of Quebec’s Superior Court found not only that there was no merit to the trademark infringement suit brought by Les Industries Lassonde, Inc., she also agreed with the defendants that the suit fell within the ambit of the anti-SLAPP provisions. She awarded Olivia’s Oasis $125,000 in extra-judicial costs and punitive damages.

While accepting the trademark law outcome, Les Industries Lassonde appealed the award of damages to the Quebec Court of Appeal. [Spoiler alert: stop reading here if you want to learn how it all ends from watching the video.] This Court found that Lassonde’s motives in commencing litigation were not improper. After all, they opined, a trademark that loses its distinctiveness can no longer function as a trademark; a trademark owner must therefore take the necessary steps to preserve the distinctive character of its marks. It nullified the award of damages to the defendant.

Not only does The Oasis Affair provide an account of the litigation, it tells the remarkable story of the social media outcry that followed the Court of Appeal’s decision. In a very short space of time, Les Industries Lassonde faced an unprecedented public backlash – one that ultimately led them to compensate Olivia’s Oasis for the legal fees that had left the small company teetering on the edge of failure.

Heidi Lasi’s documentary is a crisp, engaging account of this case and its aftermath. The film leaves the viewer with an appreciation of the power of social media to create a “court of public opinion”; and suggests that the Olivia’s Oasis affair heralds an important change in how trademark holders must approach the protection of their trademarks and brands.

 

Published in Trademarks

Yet another decision regarding official marks highlights the need for reform of this privileged category of marks protected under the Trade-marks Act. In Terrace (City) v. Urban Distilleries Inc., two concurrent owners of the same official mark -- SPIRIT BEAR -- challenged the use by the defendant company of a mark that they claimed infringed their rights in the official mark.

The City of Terrace had requested that the Registrar of Trade-marks give public notice of its adoption and use of the SPIRIT BEAR mark on January 21, 2004. Almost 3 years later, the Kitsaoo Band Council had the Registrar of Trade-marks give public notice of its own adoption and use of the identical mark. This happened because there is simply no mechanism under the Trade-marks Act to evaluate official marks on their merits, or to limit them in cases where they would cause confusion with already existing official marks (or registered trademarks). An initial dispute between the City and the Band Council over their competing marks was resolved by an agreement entered into by the two under which they agreed to share the mark and to jointly licence its use.

The defendant company, Urban Distilleries, manufactures different alcoholic beverages. In 2010 it applied to register the trademark SPIRIT BEAR VODKA, but the City and the Band Council both opposed the application. Urban Distilleries abandoned the application, apparently because it lacked the funds to defend the opposition. Since January 2011, it has sold vodka and gin using the unregistered trademark SPIRIT BEAR.

In August 2013, the City and the Band sought an injunction against Urban Distilleries’ use of the SPIRIT BEAR mark. As part of the remedy they sought an order that Urban Distilleries destroy existing inventory and surrender its profits from the sale of products under the offending mark. Urban Distilleries responded by challenging the validity of the official marks. In particular, it argued that the marks had not been adopted and used prior to official notice being given, and it argued that neither the City nor the Band Council were public authorities within the meaning of subparagraph 9(1)(n)(iii) of the Trade-marks Act. They also argued that their use of the marks was not likely to mislead the public, and therefore was not infringing.

Justice Martineau disposed of the case by considering only the issue of adoption and use of the official marks. He noted that the law requires that such marks be adopted and used prior to the Registrar’s giving of public notice. There is a very low threshold for a finding of adoption. The threshold for “use” is similarly not high: “all that is required for use is that the public authority demonstrate that the official mark was made available for public display prior to publication.” (at para 11) However, he found that in this case, neither the City nor the Band Council could be found to have used the mark SPIRIT BEAR prior to public notice having been given.

In the case of the City, there was evidence that the words “spirit bear” were used on the City’s website. However, he noted that nothing on the site mentioned that these words were a mark associated with goods or services. Internal correspondence from that time regarding the use of “SPIRIT BEAR” was not considered to be sufficiently public. Further, the court found that it was not clear that the words were being used in this correspondence as a mark.

In the case of the Band Council, the court found there was no evidence of public use of the mark by the Band Council as a trademark. There was some evidence of a tourism company that used SPIRIT BEAR in one of its publications and in relation to several tours. However, as there was no evidence of any connection between the tourism company and the Band Council, the court found that this did not support an argument that the mark had been adopted and used by the Band Council at the time that public notice was given. Further, the court was not convinced that the words were used on their own as a trademark (as opposed to as a part of longer mark such as SPIRIT BEAR TOUR).

Because there was no evidence of adoption and use of the mark by either the City or the Band Council prior to public notice being given, the court found that both of the marks were unenforceable, and the suit for infringement must necessarily fail. Justice Martineau observed that the City and the Band Council, armed with appropriate evidence, could ask once again for new public notice to be given of the mark. However, any rights flowing from such a request would only be from the time that the public notice was given. Under the Trade-marks Act, marks that are identical to or confusing with official marks may continue to be used after official notice is given, so long as their use predates the public notice. This is the case for Urban Distilleries – it would be able to continue using its unregistered SPIRIT BEAR marks. However, if a new official mark were to be successfully sought by the City and/or the Band Council, this would freeze Urban Distilleries’ rights to what they were at the time of public notice. This means that Urban Distilleries would not be able to expand its line of offerings under the mark, nor would it be entitled to register its unregistered mark.

The co-existence of identical official marks, the improper granting of public notice, and the arbitrary effects on, in this case, a small business owner, all serve as indicators that the official marks regime is very much in need of reform. (For an earlier posting about another problematic official marks case see here). Private Members’ Bill C-611 is currently before Parliament (the bill is discussed here) and it offers concrete proposals for reform in this area. Let us hope it gets due consideration.

Published in Trademarks

The U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) has finally ruled on a dispute involving the legitimacy of the Washington Redskins ‘Redskins’ trademarks. In a 2-1 decision in Blackhorse v. ProFootball, Inc.,, the Board ruled that at the time of its registration in the 1960s, the term “redskins” was disparaging to Native Americans. Since U.S. trademark legislation bars the registration of trademarks that are scandalous, immoral or disparaging, the decision that this term was disparaging at the time of its registration means that the registrations of 6 marks featuring the term “Redskins” are invalid. The result is that these trademarks will be struck from the trademarks register (pending the inevitable appeals). The team’s logo was not part of the challenge and remains a registered trademark.

There has long been controversy over the football team’s name – a previous challenge to the trademarks’ validity was unsuccessful due to procedural defects. There have also been repeated calls for the team to change its name voluntarily. More recently, President Obama suggested that it was time for the Redskins to choose a new name. The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has so far resisted calls for change, and he has indicated that the organization will appeal the TTAB decision.

It should be noted that even if the TTAB decision is upheld, the team will not be forced to change its name. The loss of the trademark registration is not a ban on using the name. It does mean, however, that the Redskins organization will lose the (substantial and significant) benefits of holding a registered trademark. They will lose national protection for the mark, making it much more difficult for them to protect the name against use by others.

As I noted in an earlier post regarding controversy in Canada around the adoption of the same name for a youth amateur football club, the Washington Redskins currently hold registered trademarks in Canada for both their team name and logo. These marks were registered in the 1980s. Although Canada’s Trade-marks Act does not specifically bar marks that are “disparaging”, it does have a clause that renders unregistrable those marks that are “scandalous, obscene or immoral”. Since a mark that falls into this category is not registrable, it is possible to challenge the validity of the trademark on the basis that it was not registrable at the time of registration. No one has yet brought such a challenge to the Redskins’ marks in Canada. There is very little case law in Canada on the scope or interpretation of “scandalous, obscene or immoral”, and, particularly in light of the TTAB decision in the U.S., it would be interesting to see what the outcome of such a proceeding might be.

(If you are interested in reading more about scandalous, obscene and immoral trademarks, have a look at my recent article titled Antisocial Trademarks, which is published in the Trademark Reporter.)

Published in Trademarks
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