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Wednesday, 23 December 2015 09:06
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.
Tuesday, 15 December 2015 08:53
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,
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.
Monday, 05 October 2015 07:45
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.
Tuesday, 29 September 2015 13:50
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.
Monday, 21 September 2015 07:48
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.
Wednesday, 01 October 2014 11:50
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.
Friday, 20 June 2014 06:14
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.
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 14:45
After years of neglect, trademark law reform is now all the rage in Canada. Presently, two government bills propose major amendments to the Trade-marks Act – those in the Budget Implementation Act have proven highly controversial; those in Bill C-8 would introduce major changes, although these are less controversial. Yesterday, Liberal MP Geoff Regan introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-611, which has as its goal the overhaul of official marks under the Trade-marks Act.
Interestingly enough, neither of the government’s trademark law reform bills tackles official marks, notwithstanding that the Report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in March 2013 on the Intellectual Property Regime in Canada recommended that something be done about these marks. Specifically, the report stated:
The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada introduce legislation which amends parts of the Trade-marks Act dealing with official marks to restrict the scope of official marks to important national government symbols and to narrow the definition of public authorities to avoid stifling innovation and distorting markets.
Official marks are a rather unique Canadian creation. Essentially, they allow “public authorities” to bypass the normal procedures (including all of the checks and balances present in the Act) for obtaining a trademark. Instead of applying for a trademark – which is then examined and opened for opposition to insure that it is indeed registrable and does not trample on the trademark rights of others – a “public authority” need only ask the Registrar of Trademarks to give public notice of its adoption and use of an official mark. There are no limits to official marks – they can be identical to or confusing with existing marks, and they can be generic, descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive. Further, unlike regular trademarks which can expire if the registration is not renewed, or which can be lost for non-use, official marks are potentially perpetual.
One of the reasons for the creation of the category of official marks, was perhaps, to save governments from the costs of registering and maintaining trademarks in relation to their various programs and services. While this might be an acceptable rationale for government programs and services in the strict sense, it makes less sense for government entities engaged in the marketing of alcohol and gaming to be exempt from the traditional rules (and checks and balances) of the trademark system.
In addition, until the Federal Court began its attempts to reign in official marks in the early 2000’s, the concept of a “public authority” was rather vague, leading to a flood of bogus official marks. And once public notice is declared, there is no mechanism in place to permit an easy removal of the mark – judicial review must be sought in the Federal Court of the Registrar’s decision to give public notice. This places a costly onus on businesses or other entities that run up against rogue official marks. For example, the Canadian Jewish Congress was obliged to go to court to reverse the decision to allow a U.S.-based evangelical church with a mission to convert Jews to Christianity to hold an official mark for the menorah. In 2005 I wrote an article about a battle between a private company, the Bluenose Heritage Preservation Trust Society and a Nova Scotia business over licensing fees that the Society sought to charge for the use of the name and image of the iconic Nova Scotia schooner. The Society had obtained official marks related to the Bluenose, notwithstanding that it was difficult to see how it qualified as a public authority. The litigation came to an end when the Province of Nova Scotia intervened. The Province subsequently sought to have notice given for its own Bluenose official marks. It is an illustration of the multiple defects of this regime that if you search the trademarks register you will find listed identical official marks held both by the Society and by the Province of Nova Scotia.
It would be easy to go on and on about the problems of official marks and about the problematic exercise of rights in such marks – there are many examples that can be drawn upon. (Do you remember a not too distant news story about a young Nova Scotia musician pursued by the Mint because his album cover featured Canadian pennies (which are official marks of the Mint)? Do you remember Canadian pennies?) But the point here is to discuss the new bill introduced to reform the official marks regime. I should state from the outset that I was consulted on the drafting of this Bill (along with my colleague Andrea Slane). The goal of the exercise was to reform the official marks regime. I note that a good argument could still be made for its wholesale abolition.
The main goal of the proposed reforms is to address some of the regimes key deficiencies. First, the scope of official marks is limited – both in terms of who can get them, and for what purposes. “Public authority” is defined – even more narrowly than in the definition adopted by the Federal Court of Appeal to limit access to official marks. The objective is to limit official marks only to those public authorities with the strongest links to government. Official marks are also available only to public authorities for their names, emblems or logos, or in relation to their programs or services. Access to official marks by universities is limited only to Canadian universities (under the current law, universities in any country of the world can (and do) obtain official marks.)
A second feature of the bill is that it provides for a process by which objection can be made to the public notice given by the Registrar of the official mark. This is meant to be a more expeditious and cheaper procedure than seeking judicial review of a mark. It also introduces other grounds for objection to the official mark, including that it might have a serious adverse effect on the owner of an existing trademark, that it is a generic term, or that it is otherwise not in the public interest.
A third feature sets a term of 10 years of protection for official marks. This protection can be renewed by the public authority – but if it is not, then the mark is no longer protected.
The bill aims to do something that has long needed to be done – it seeks to curtail access to official marks, to place some limits on the marks themselves so as to lessen their impact on other trademark holders, and to provide a mechanism whereby official mark deadwood can be removed. These are certainly important objectives. It is to be hoped that the bill will at least serve to put an option on the table for public debate, with a view to achieving much-needed reform in this area.
Monday, 31 March 2014 08:59
The federal government’s recently introduced Budget Implementation Bill (Bill C-31) is accompanied once again by hundreds of pages of unrelated amendments to various federal laws. Almost lost among all of this legislative noise are 36 pages of amendments to the Trade-marks Act (which, once these amendments are passed and not a moment too soon, will be renamed the Trademarks Act). These amendments are all ones considered to be necessary in order for Canada to implement the Madrid Protocol and the Singapore Treaty – two of the international treaties tabled in Parliament earlier this year.
One could argue that since the amendments do not go further than the implementation of these treaties, then there is little harm in pushing them through in the rather bloated charade of democracy that budget implementation bills have become. Unfortunately, what Canadians are really being denied is an opportunity to hear debate on whether the implementation of these treaties is actually in the country’s best interests. Although there are arguments to support the implementation of treaties that harmonize certain procedures around the registration of trademarks and that permit Canadian companies to take advantage of a simplified international filing procedure where trademark registration is sought in multiple jurisdictions, there are also arguments for the status quo. The changes to Canada’s trademark system – particularly the abandonment of a requirement that a trademark be used before it is registered – could very well lead to a flood of trademark registrations in Canada by foreign companies that will clutter the register with unused trademarks and that will ultimately make it more difficult for Canadian companies to adopt, use and register the marks of their choice.
The amendments to the Trade-marks Act introduced in Bill C-31are likely to leapfrog over the amendments proposed in Bill C-8, which has been making its sluggish way through the more usual democratic channels (you know – where there is debate on the merits of the amendments, committee hearings, and sometimes even changes made to improve the bill). In fact, a good part of the trademark-related content in the Budget Implementation Bill consists of sorting out when different provisions will come into effect relative to C-8, particularly where they depend upon certain changes being implemented by C-8. This promises a confusing tangle of changes to the law; trademark lawyers will have to be consoled by the fact that they bill by the hour.
Tuesday, 18 February 2014 14:52
With the winter Olympics now getting massive media attention, it is perhaps worth pausing to think about that other, non-official Olympic activity – ambush marketing. Indeed a recent threat of litigation by the Canadian Olympic Committee against North Face for ambush marketing is an indicator that the Olympic marketing games are also in full swing.
Like many other major sporting events, the Olympics have become heavily dependent on funding raised through sponsorship programs. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in fact, has a carefully structured sponsorship program called TOP, which manages Olympic marketing opportunities. Sponsors pay substantial sums of money for the rights to use certain Olympic symbols in tightly controlled ways. What a sponsor is paying for is the right to associate their own brand with the brand values of the Olympics.
The Olympic logos and symbols, used by the Olympic organizers and licensed for use to sponsors, are protected by trademark or Olympic-related legislation. Any company that uses these marks without permission infringes upon these trademark rights. Ambush marketing is a term used to describe marketing practices which attempt to create an association with a major event without the ambushing company having paid for sponsorship rights. However, what distinguishes it from simple trademark infringement is the fact that ambush marketers generally do not use the trademarks of the event organizers. Instead, ambush marketers create associations through more oblique references to the event itself.
The huge amounts of money involved in the organization of major events, and in paying for sponsorships, have led organizations like the IOC to push for legislation to protect specifically against ambush marketing. In fact, it is now no longer possible to succeed in a bid to host the Olympics without a promise to enact anti-ambush marketing legislation. Canada did so for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. Section 4 of the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act specifically created a “right of association” and two Schedules to the legislation set out lists of common words that might be considered to trigger an illegal association. These words included: gold, silver, bronze, winter, 2010, twenty-ten, Whistler, Vancouver, and Games.
Anti-ambush marketing legislation is controversial. Some of this controversy is discussed by Benoit Séguin and me in a recent article on the subject. (The article is published in a new book titled Intellectual Property for the 21st Century: Interdisciplinary Approaches). It is not clear, for example, that ambush marketing legislation is truly necessary – beyond serving as a ‘comfort blanket’ for event sponsors. Concerns have also been raised that by attempting to outlaw “associations”, such legislation is unduly broad and vague. It also goes far beyond preventing major competitors of event sponsors from launching ambush marketing campaigns leading up to and during the event. For example, such legislation generally applies equally to all businesses, large or small, even if no one would expect a small local business to be a major event sponsor. Such laws limit the ability of small businesses to make even indirect reference to a major event taking place within their own community. This would seem to be a significant – and rather disproportionate -- limitation on freedom of expression. Further, such legislation privileges event organizers over all other stakeholders. Many athletes or national sporting organizations have their own commercial sponsors – indeed, athletes might be unable to train or compete without such sponsors, and national sporting organizations would not be in a position to develop young talent without commercial sponsorship. Yet when an athlete competes in the Olympics, their own commercial sponsors are limited in the extent to which they can celebrate their sponsored athlete’s achievement without running afoul of anti-ambush marketing laws. In another article, my co-authors and I also raise the issue of whether anti-ambush-marketing legislation might actually allow large corporations to put their legal teams to work to exploit loopholes in the legislation, with the result that major competitors of event sponsors are able to launch challenge-proof ambushes, while ‘associations’ created by small and medium businesses lacking the same resources are suppressed by the law.
Part of the problem with anti-ambush marketing laws is that there is a very broad range of conduct that can fall within the ambit of an “association” with an event. Some activity is clearly more problematic than others. In the case of North Face, it would appear that the company launched a new line of red and white, maple leaf flag-emblazoned sportswear in the lead up to the Sochi Games. Although no Olympic logos were used on the clothing, some items apparently featured dates linked to the Games and some promotional materials may have made direct reference to Sochi. The collection was initially called “village wear” and is now referred to as the “international collection”. The characters RU14 also appeared on some items. NorthFace is not, of course, an Olympic sponsor. The matter may never head to court – if it did, it might provide an opportunity for the courts to explore some of the challenging legal questions around the limits of legal protection against ambush marketing.
Published in Ambush Marketing
Canadian Trademark Law
Published in 2015 by Lexis Nexis
Electronic Commerce and Internet Law in Canada, 2nd Edition
Published in 2012 by CCH Canadian Ltd.
Intellectual Property for the 21st Century
Intellectual Property Law for the 21st Century: