How can a combination of descriptive words become a source indicator?

In a recent decision, the Appeal Board of Japan Patent Office (JPO) granted to protect a word mark “TOUGH CARRY” in relation to carts and trolleys of class 12.
[Appeal case no. 2017-7976]

“TOUGH CARRY”

As a result of substantive examination, the JPO examiner refused trademark application no. 2016-28871 for a mark “TOUGH CARRY” composed of descriptive words combination in relation to carts, trolleys, sleighs and sleds[vehicles], rickshaws, horse drawn carriages, bicycle trailers [Riyakah], and casting carriages of class 12 on the ground that the mark lacks distinctiveness under Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law. Examiner raised her objection based on the facts that a word of “TOUGH” means “strong and durable; not easily broken or cut”. “CARRY” means “to take or support from one place to another; convey; transport”. Besides, it is obvious that relevant consumers are familiar with both words. If so, consumers with an ordinary care will surely conceive the meaning of “being able to transport items with strong and durable capability” at the sight of trademark “TOUGH CARRY” when used on designated goods.

Appeal Board decision

In the meantime, the Appeal Board cancelled the examiner’s rejection and admitted registration of “TOUGH CARRY”.

The Board decided that, even if respective word, highly known among consumers, inherently lacks distinctiveness in relation to goods of class 12 and the entire mark gives rise to the meaning as examiner asserted, it does not mean the mark as a whole is just a direct and clear qualitative indication of specific goods.

On the case, the Board found, as a result of ex officio examination, no evidence to demonstrate the descriptive words combination of “TOUGH CARRY” is ordinarily used in transaction of carts and trolleys. Besides, there exists no circumstance to use the combination as a qualitative indication in relation to any other goods.

Consequently, it is groundless to reject the trademark “TOUGH CARRY” based on Article 3(1)(iii) since it does not give rise to any descriptive meaning in relation to the goods in question.


Occasionally, a trademark composed of descriptive words combination becomes controversial. Such disputes mostly focus on distinctiveness of the entire mark. In case the JPO found that combination of respective word is unique and remains suggestive in relation to disputed goods/service by taking account of transactional circumstance, the mark is eligible for registration regardless of descriptive meaning of each word.
In other words, it depends on competitor’s behavior and perception of relevant consumers whether a combination of descriptive words can be protected as a source indicator.

Masaki MIKAMI, Attorney at IP law – Founder of MARKS IP LAW FIRM

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