Can shape of musical instruments play a role of trademark?

In a dispute of registrability to a unique three-dimensional shape of electric violins, the Appeal Board admitted protection of the mark based on distinctiveness acquired by means of substantial publicity of the violins [Appeal case no. 2016-1859].

YAMAHA Corporation applied for 3D shape of electric violin promoted under the name of “SILENT Violin” by designating electric violins of class 15 on September 24, 2014 [TM application no. 2014-80685].


Initial examination

Examiner rejected the applied mark by stating that;

“Unsymmetrical appearance of the applied mark can still be perceived as a three-dimensional shape of electric or electronic violins in its entirety.According to information retrieved from the websites, unsymmetrical violins have been distributed with an attempt to aesthetic appearance or weight saving.Admittedly, the applied 3D shape contributes to enhance function or aesthetic appeal of electric violins, however, the shape is deemed equivalent to a mark solely consisting of the shape of goods in a common manner to the extent that relevant traders and/or consumers are unlikely to recognize the shape as a source indicator. Hence, the mark is subject to Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law.”

Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law

Any trademark to be used in connection with goods or services pertaining to the business of an applicant may be registered, unless the trademark:

(iii) consists solely of a mark indicating, in a common manner, in the case of goods, the place of origin, place of sale, quality, raw materials, efficacy, intended purpose, quantity, shape (including shape of packages), price, the method or time of production or use, or, in the case of services, the location of provision, quality, articles to be used in such provision, efficacy, intended purpose, quantity, modes, price or method or time of provision;

Appeal Trial

In this regard, the Appeal Board also sustained examiner’s decision and dismissed applicant argument of inherent distinctiveness of the applied 3D shape.

In the meantime, the Board granted protection of the 3D shape due to acquired distinctiveness based on Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law.

Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law

Notwithstanding the preceding paragraph, a trademark that falls under any of items (iii) to (v) of the preceding paragraph may be registered if, as a result of the use of the trademark, consumers are able to recognize the goods or services as those pertaining to a business of a particular person.

Acquired distinctiveness

YAMAHA Corporation has distributed electric violins “SILENT Violin” with a configuration of applied mark since 1997.
The 3D shape has been continuously promoted in musical instruments magazines, a website and catalogues of applicant, and newspapers in a manner that readers can be attracted by its unique design. Winning various design awards and appearing in school textbooks as an example of industrial designs bolster remarkable reputation to the shape as well. Annual sale of “SILENT Violin” exceeding 100 million yen nationwide for last fifteen years is extremely higher than competitors.

Based on the foregoing, the Board stated;

It should be concluded that as a result of continuous and substantive use of the applied 3D mark since 1997, relevant consumers casting a glance at the mark are likely to conceive it as a source indicator of applicant business when used on electric violins.
Thus, the applied mark is eligible for registration in connection with electric violins of class 15 based on Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law.

Masaki MIKAMI, Attorney at IP Law



Chemical Equation can function as a trademark?

The Appeal Board of JPO dismissed examiner’s rejection and admitted registration of a below mark appearing to be a chemical equation in association with the goods of alcoholic beverages, namely, distilled rice spirits, fruit wines, sake substitute, Japanese white liquor, Sake, Chinese liquors, Japanese Shochu-based beverages, Naoshi [Japanese liquor], Flavored tonic liquors, Japanese sweet rice-based mixed liquor, and western liquors in class 33. [Appeal case no. 2016-17500]

[Mark in question]

Initial examination

At an initial examination, the JPO examiner refused the mark [TM application no. 2015-111054] based on Article 3(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law by concluding that the mark, representing a chemical equation to generate ethyl alcohol(C2H5OH) and carbon dioxide(CO2) from glucose(C6H12O6) as a whole, can be perceived as a mere indication to appeal the goods produced by alcoholic fermentation in the mind of consumers with an ordinary care when used on alcoholic beverages in class 33.

Article 3(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law

Article 3(1)(vi) is a comprehensive provision aiming to prohibit any mark lacking inherent distinctiveness from being registered.

Any trademark to be used in connection with goods or services pertaining to the business of an applicant may be registered, unless the trademark:
(vi) is in addition to those listed in each of the preceding items, a trademark by which consumers are not able to recognize the goods or services as those pertaining to a business of a particular person.

Baord decision

In the meantime, the Appeal Board stated that ordinary consumers were unlikely to perceive the mark as chemical equation to represent alcoholic fermentation generated from glucose. Besides, there find no circumstance to show the chemical equation has been used frequently as a result of ex officio investigation. Thus, it is groundless to conclude the chemical equation lacks inherent distinctiveness in association with goods of class 33. Provided that the mark does not fall under Article 3(1)(vi), the initial examination loses its ground to refuse and should be dismissed accordingly.

Apparently, the Board paid an excessive attention to circumstance whether chemical equation or chemical formula are commonly used on alcoholic beverages. Even if ordinary consumers are not accustomed to such chemical expressions, I suppose, the JPO should refrain from admitting inherent distinctiveness of the expressions since nobody will consider it as a source indicator in fact.


Masaki MIKAMI, Attorney at IP Law, Founder of MARKS IP LAW FIRM

Converse unsuccessful in obtaining 3D trademark protection of Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers

The Appeal Board of Japan Patent Office (JPO) decided to reject protection of a three-dimensional shape of Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers in connection with “sneakers” in class 25 (TM application no. 2014-79258) based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law by stating that the applied 3D mark, solely consisting of a shape commonly used on High Top Sneakers, is expectedly perceived as shape aiming to enhance aesthetic appeal in the mind of consumers and deemed inherently descriptive accordingly.
[Appeal case no. 2015-14749, January 18, 2017]

The Board admitted Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker as well as its name have become well-known as a source indicator of classic High Top Sneaker based on the facts that (i) Converse, a US merchant, has consecutively promoted the sneaker since 1917 without material change of the design, (ii) 5.2 million pairs of the sneaker were purchased in Japan since April 2008 at least, and (iii) it was continuously featured on newspapers and magazines.
However, the Board concluded it remained unclear whether the applied 3D shape has become well-known in itself and consumers are unlikely to recognize the shape as a source indicator on the following grounds.

  • Shape of goods essentially results from functional or aesthetic appeal. Unlike in the case of trademark depicted in the flat such as letter, figurative element, or symbols, consumers are neither accustomed nor likely to recognize 3D shape of goods as a role to indicate its source in general.
  • Similar sneakers have been distributed by many suppliers, e.g. GU, LEVIS, ADIDAS, RALPH LAUREN, PUMA, NIKE, MOONSTAR. As long as the shape already becomes a standard design of High Top Sneakers among competitors, granting exclusive protection to the applied 3D mark may disorder the status quo undesirably. Even if similar sneaks turn out to be imitations or counterfeits of Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker as applicant argued, unless applicant takes remedial actions to cease the products, the argument is less persuasive and inadmissible.
  • According to market survey conducted at Tokyo, Aichi and Osaka involving 1,500 interviewees, more than half of them could not perceive the applied 3D mark as Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker. 60% perception among primary consumers from age 10 to 49 is still insufficient.

It is undeniable that applicant neglected similar sneakers by numerous competitors for years and the circumstance adversely affected to the decision as market survey did in contradiction to its expected role.
Timing is of the essence to protect 3D shape of goods successfully.  

MASAKI MIKAMI, Attorney at IP Law – Founder of MARKS IP LAW FIRM

The IP High Court ruled a trademark “TOMATO SYSTEM” is deemed similar to “TOMATO” in connection with the service of computer programming

On March 23, 2017, in a lawsuit disputing registrability of an applied word mark “TOMATO SYSTEM” in standard character designating goods of electronic machines, apparatus and parts thereof (Class 9), and services of computer software design, computer programing, or maintenance of computer software; technological advice relating to computers, automobiles and industrial machines; testing or research on machines, apparatus and instruments; providing computer programs on data networks (Class 42), the IP High Court upheld the original refusal decision rendered by the JPO Appeal Board and dismissed the lawsuit filed by applicant, Ishiguro Medical System Co., Ltd. [Case No. Heisei 28 (Gyo-Ke) 10208].



JPO decision

Initially, JPO examiner rejected to register the applied mark “TOMATO SYSTEM” due to conflict with senior registration no. 4394923 for word mark “TOMATO” in standard character designating services of technological advice relating to computers; computer software design in Class 42 (Citation 1) and no. 5238348 for “tomato” with a device mark designating retail/wholesale services for electrical machinery and apparatus in Class 35 (Citation 2). Applicant sought to file an appeal against the rejection by arguing dissimilarity of both marks, however, the Appeal Board decided to refuse the applied mark on the basis of Article 4 (1) (xi) of the Trademark Law in a decision dated July 28, 2016 [Appeal Case No. 2016-2278].

In the decision, the Board concluded “TOMATO”, an English term meaning red edible fruit, does not imply any descriptive meaning in association with the designated goods and services. In the meantime, a term “SYSTEM” easily reminds consumers of meanings to suggest organized, purposeful structure that consists of interrelated and interdependent elements when used on machines, apparatus and computer software. Unless we find conceptual connection between two terms, it is allowed to segregate the applied mark into each element in the assessment of mark comparison. If so, relevant consumers at an ordinary care are likely to consider the term “TOMATO” as a predominant portion of the applied mark. Based on the foregoing, the Board judged the applied mark is deemed similar to Citation 1 and 2.

IP High Court 

In the lawsuit, plaintiff claimed the Board decision was defectively inappropriate since it is not allowed to segregate each term composing the applied mark in light of tight combination of both terms and ambiguous meaning of the term “SYSTEM” in relating to designated goods and services.

The Court upheld the Board decision by declaring “SYSTEM” is less distinctive in connection with goods or services relating to information processing. Therefore, it is permissible to segregate the applied mark into each element and to judge similarity of mark based on a predominant element of the mark in dispute.

MASAKI MIKAMI, Attorney at IP Law – Founder of MARKS IP LAW FIRM