For the half-year to 31 December 2014, the IPKat's regular team is supplemented by contributions from guest bloggers Rebecca Gulbul, Lucas Michels and Marie-Andrée Weiss.

Regular round-ups of the previous week's blogposts are kindly compiled by Alberto Bellan.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Seeing very red....? CJEU decides in Oberbank colour trade mark dispute

HSK 13 in all its glory
(registered as a pure colour mark
-- without any word or device elements)
The CJEU has today handed down its decision in cases C-217/13 & C-218/13 OBERBANK AND OTHERS (trade marks), references by the German Federal Patent Court relating to colour marks (here: red) and the necessary degree of consumer recognition.

After staring at the the Cura website for ages yesterday, when the Oberbank decision was originally meant to be published, this Kat is delighted to finally be able to see it this morning.   The related Santander decision has not yet been published but this Kat assumes that the court's answers to the questions posed by the German Federal Patent Court should be the same.

Unfortunately, the Oberbank case is not yet -- at the time of writing this post -- published in English. Let's hope it will be in due course since this is an interesting case. 

What had happened? 
 
The background of both cases is explained in the Bundespatentgericht's press release of 8 March 2013 relating to this CJEU referral here.
German Sparkassen bank has been using a particular shade of the colour red (more precisely HKS 13) as its corporate colour in Germany since the 1960s/70s and had it registered as a trade mark since 2007. According to its court submissions Sparkassen has regularly taken action against several other banks that also used the colour red.
Two competing banks, namely Austrian bank Oberbank and Spanish bank Santander, requested the German Patent and Trademark Office to invalidate Sparkassen’s colour trade mark registration. Both banks have also used the colour red for a considerable time as their respective corporate colour.  
Also using red
However, unlike Sparkassen, both banks are new to the German market. They rely on their freedom of movement and regard the trade mark registration as an unreasonable restriction to their access to the German market. Sparkassen on the other hand refer to their “legitimate protection of trust” (Vertrauensschutz) based on the trade mark registration. The German Patent and Trademark Office rejected a cancellation. On appeal, the Bundespatentgericht (Federal Patent Court) decided to refer several questions to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling, including the necessary degree of consumer recognition required for a particular colourin order to remain protected as a trade mark.

The German judges referred the following questions to the CJEU:

1. Does Article 3(1) and (3) of the directive preclude an interpretation of national law according to which, for an abstract colour mark (in this case: red HKS 13) which is claimed for services in the financial affairs sector, a consumer survey must indicate an adjusted degree of association of at least 70% in order to form a basis for the assumption that the trade mark has acquired a distinctive character following the use which has been made of it?
Using red
2. Is the first sentence of Article 3(3) of the directive to be interpreted to the effect that the time at which the application for the trade mark was filed - and not the time at which it was registered - is also relevant in the case where the trade mark proprietor claims, in his defence against an application for a declaration invalidating the trade mark, that the trade mark acquired a distinctive character, following the use made of it, in any event more than three years after the application, but prior to registration?

3. In the event that, under the abovementioned conditions, the time at which the application was filed is also relevant:

Is the trade mark to be declared invalid if it is not clarified, and can no longer be clarified, whether it had acquired a distinctive character, following the use made of it, at the time when the application was filed? Or does the declaration of invalidity require the applicant seeking that declaration to prove that the trade mark had not acquired a distinctive character, following the use made of it, at the time when the application was filed?

The CJEU has answered these questions as follows:

In German (the language of the proceedings)

1. Art. 3 Abs. 1 und 3 der Richtlinie 2008/95/EG des Europäischen Parlaments und des Rates vom 22. Oktober 2008 zur Angleichung der Rechtsvorschriften der Mitgliedstaaten über die Marken ist dahin auszulegen, dass er einer Auslegung des nationalen Rechts entgegensteht, wonach es in Verfahren, in denen fraglich ist, ob eine konturlose Farbmarke infolge ihrer Benutzung Unterscheidungskraft erworben hat, stets erforderlich ist, dass eine Verbraucherbefragung einen Zuordnungsgrad dieser Marke von mindestens 70 % ergibt.
 
This Kat's quick and rough translation/summary [which she may revise if our readers scream that it is incorrect and where all emphasis has been added by her]: yes.   Article 3(1) and (3) Directive has to be interpreted in such way that it precludes an interpretation of national law according to which ... for an abstract colour mark a consumer survey must always indicate an adjusted degree of association of at least 70% in order to form a basis for the assumption that that mark has acquired a distinctive character.
 
Merpel notes that the CJEU has said "always", so asking for 70% may sometimes be okay after all?  This seems to be restricted to abstract colour trade marks only, so that this guidance potentially has a limited scope of application.
 
2. Art. 3 Abs. 3 Satz 1 der Richtlinie 2008/95 ist, wenn ein Mitgliedstaat von der in Satz 2 dieser Bestimmung vorgesehenen Befugnis keinen Gebrauch gemacht hat, dahin auszulegen, dass im Rahmen eines Verfahrens zur Ungültigerklärung einer nicht originär unterscheidungskräftigen Marke bei der Beurteilung, ob diese Marke infolge Benutzung Unterscheidungskraft erworben hat, zu prüfen ist, ob die Unterscheidungskraft vor der Anmeldung der Marke erworben wurde. Unerheblich ist insoweit, dass der Inhaber der streitigen Marke geltend macht, sie habe jedenfalls nach der Anmeldung, aber noch vor ihrer Eintragung, infolge ihrer Benutzung Unterscheidungskraft erlangt.
 
This Kat's quick and rough translation/summary:  the relevant time is before the trade mark application was filed, i.e.the time at which the application for the trade mark was filed.  It is irrelevant that the trade mark owner alleges that they mark had acquired a distinctive character following the use made of it after the application was filed but still prior to registration.
 
This Kat and Merpel agree that this gives us legal certainty - whether it is always fair is another question.  She needs to mull over it and read the case and court's reasoning in much more detail.
 
3. Art. 3 Abs. 3 Satz 1 der Richtlinie 2008/95 ist, wenn ein Mitgliedstaat von der in Satz 2 dieser Bestimmung vorgesehenen Befugnis keinen Gebrauch gemacht hat, dahin auszulegen, dass er es nicht verbietet, die streitige Marke im Rahmen eines Löschungsverfahrens für ungültig zu erklären, sofern sie nicht originär unterscheidungskräftig ist und ihr Inhaber nicht den Nachweis erbringen kann, dass die Marke vor der Anmeldung infolge ihrer Benutzung Unterscheidungskraft erlangt hatte.
 
This Kat's quick and rough translation/summary:  Article 3(1) and (3) Directive, where the member state has not availed itself of the option in Sentence 2, has to be interpreted in such a way that it does not prohibit to declare the trade mark in question invalid where that mark is not inherently distinctive and where its proprietor cannot show that the trade mark had acquired distinctiveness prior to its application following the use made of it
 
This Kat is not sure whether this really answers the question that was asked but has tried very hard to translate this properly.  Is she missing something? Hopefully reading the case in more detail will help. 
 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"This Kat's quick and rough translation/summary (which she may revise if our readers scream that it is incorrect" - really ? Does this Kat not know if it is correct ?

Tbh, it's all very difficult to follow as it is all "quick and rough" translations, especially point number 3.

Hope the decision will be published in English.

Anonymous said...

English translation now available - http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf;jsessionid=9ea7d0f130deb3ccbea3293e405799a78a7afce41590.e34KaxiLc3eQc40LaxqMbN4OaNuRe0?text=&docid=153812&pageIndex=0&doclang=EN&mode=lst&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=232578).

What I consider to be the interesting question is number 3, on burden of proof. The question as referred is very specific (also apart from the dependence on the other questions), as the first sentence assumes that the question of distinctive character on filing can no longer be clarified. The Court's statements, however, appear to be much broader, relating to burden of proof in general.

My concern relates to how this could be interpreted in relation to trademarks which have acquired distinctiveness through use, and which have been registered for several years when they become subjec to invalidity proceedings. Generally, it would be up to a claimant to prove its action; in the case of a trademark's validity however, it now appears as if the burden would be on owner of the trademark. Is that reasonable, especially considering the fact that a trademark can be registered indefinitely?

In theory, a trademark proprietor could in the future be expected to prove the existence of acquired distinctiveness at a point in time which lies several hundred years in the past.

Subscribe to the IPKat's posts by email here

Just pop your email address into the box and click 'Subscribe':