What's in a name? General Court rules conceptual comparison of names normally not possible

As we eagerly await the Advocate General's opinion in Sky and others [Merpel wonders what could have happened that the announced publication date was missed?], the General Court (GC) has rendered an interesting decision on conceptual comparisons in trade mark cases where both signs are names [here].

The case concerns an opposition against the sign LUCIANO SANDRONE on the basis of the word mark DON LUCIANO, both registered for 'Alcoholic beverages (except beer)'. The Opposition Division found no likelihood of confusion and rejected the opposition [here], but the Board of Appeal (BoA) reversed and allowed the opposition [here]. The GC reversed again and held that there is no likelihood of confusion between the signs. 

The General Court's decision 

The GC started by rejecting the applicant's argument that the earlier mark was not put to normal use: the trade mark holder had submitted 53 invoices showing the sale of thousands of bottles of wine under the mark [paras 26-42]. It then examined the argument that, as far as wines are concerned, there is not necessarily a similarity of goods because wines vary significantly with respect to terroir, grape variety, label and price. 

Even if consumers take into account designations of origin when purchasing wines, that is not a point of such systemic importance that wines of different origins can constitute separate categories of goods [para 56 and the case-law cited there]. Moreover, the registration at issue was not limited to a particular type of wine, so the applicant could not rely on any argument based on alleged differences between wines [para 57]. 

Next, the GC turned to the comparison of signs. It noted that, whereas the BoA had correctly considered 'Luciano' to be the distinctive element in DON LUCIANO, it had erred when assessing the distinctive element in LUCIANO SANDRONE [para 76]. The BoA had found that in Germany and Finland, both the first name 'Luciano' and the last name 'Sandrone' are rare, so that each element is equally distinctive. 

The GC, however, cited case-law showing that as a general rule a surname is more distinctive than a first name [para 71]. It held that 'Luciano' is a common first name in Spain, Italy, Portugal and France. It then found that, "in view of the numerous exchanges within the European Union and of current means of electronic communication", this meant it could not be considered a 'rare' name in other Member States, such as Germany or Finland, even if it is not common there. Consequently, the distinctive elements of the signs were LUCIANO and SANDRONE, respectively, for the earlier sign and the trade mark applied for. 

The GC then found that there is at least a low degree of visual and phonetic similarity between the signs [paras 78 & 80] and proceeded to clarify the case-law on the conceptual comparison of names, noting that it was unsettled on this point [paras 82 & 83]. 

It considered that the conceptual comparison seeks to compare the semantic content of signs and that names of celebrities or names with a clear semantic content might, consequently, be subject to a conceptual comparison [para 86]. But names which do not convey a 'general and abstract idea' – i.e. 'ordinary' names such as those in dispute – are devoid or semantic content and lack any 'concept' which makes a conceptual comparison impossible, according to the GC [para 85]. Thus, in this case, a conceptual comparison should not have been carried out. 

Lastly, the GC performed the global assessment of the likelihood of confusion. At least a low degree of visual and phonetic similarity, an average degree of conceptual similarity and partial identity of the goods had led the BoA to find a likelihood of confusion. But the GC held that the BoA had applied the interdependence test between similarity of signs and goods "mechanically" and found four errors in its approach. 

First, it wrongly held that the element LUCIANO is distinctive in both signs and found an average degree of conceptual similarity. Second, it failed to take into account the specific characteristics of the goods. Third, it did not take into account the prevalence of Spanish or French names in the wine market, which means that the mere fact that both products contain such names do not necessarily mean consumers will perceive them as emanating from the same undertaking. Fourth, it failed to take into consideration that the shared element 'Luciano' has a low degree of distinctiveness. 

The GC held that "names carry great weight" in the wine-growing world [para 99], and concluded that it is "implausible" that the average consumer might perceive an economic link between undertakings just because two bottles of wine feature the name Luciano [para 101]. Specifically for wines, these types of names are common in product names and will not be used to identify them: rather, it will be the more distinctive last name 'Sandrone'. Consequently, there was no likelihood of confusion between the signs, and the appeal was upheld.

Señor Pepe is devoid of semantic content (Meme Credit: Cheezburger.com)

The decision is a useful reminder that the goods matter more than is often thought when assessing likelihood of confusion. Evidence of branding practices specifically in the wine sector nuance (i) the distinctive character of the element LUCIANO and (ii) the manner in which consumers will perceive it. At first glance, DON LUCIANO and LUCIANO SANDRONE might be considered confusingly similar, because Luciano is a name and therefore prima facie distinctive. But this might be different for particular goods, such as wines, and the fact that the appellant could establish this tilted the case in its favour before the GC. The GC's approach also reminds us that trade mark applicants might further influence the average consumer's perception by specifying a particular type of goods, such as 'Italian wines', instead of just wines.

When it comes to the GC's clarification of the law on conceptual comparison of name signs, however, I have some doubts. In my view, names do not just refer to individual persons: they can also be suggestive of regions, class and tradition. The GC itself cites with approval the BoA's finding that 'Don' will be understood as "a Spanish honorific title indicating Sir/Mister" [para 66]. That means the sign DON LUCIANO might invoke the idea of a Mediterranean gentleman, and the trade mark holder surely considered it desirable to connect this image to its wines.

Signs like JOHNNY WALKER, LORD NELSON or TRADER JOE, all of which also ostensibly refer to a person, invoke different imagery, and that difference should be part of the conceptual comparison. Particularly the addition 'Don', which suggests a certain nobility, sets this case apart from the cases referred to by the GC in par. 87, which concerned mere names such as McKENZIE or PEDRO. Thus, I would not rule out that some conceptual content might be ascribed to signs like these, which are apparently meant to invoke the flair of southern European gentry.

Another point worth noting is the GC's finding that within the EU there are "numerous exchanges", facilitated by "current means of electronic communication". According to the GC, this means that the commonplace use of certain names in some Member States might mean they have a lower distinctive character also in other Member States, where they are not common. It is fair to assume consumers all over the EU have at least some familiarity with the name Luciano, as the GC does, but it is rather surprising that it finds so explicitly that the weakened distinctive character spills over to other Member States.

This finding points at a tension that underlies European trade mark law, which is harmonized across the EU while national and regional differences still influence the content of the rights granted. That is visible perhaps most clearly when it comes to distinctive character, which can differ starkly across various Member States. The more we acknowledge that in actual fact, there is ample exchange between consumers across the EU, the more our fiction of the "average consumer" in European trade mark law will approach reality.
What's in a name? General Court rules conceptual comparison of names normally not possible What's in a name? General Court rules conceptual comparison of names normally not possible Reviewed by Léon Dijkman on Tuesday, September 10, 2019 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. The AG's opinion in Sky/Skykick has been delayed until 16 October


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