Who shall be a legitimate owner of smiley face mark?

In a lawsuit disputing adequacy of decision by the JPO Appeal Board (Appeal case no. 2016-15097) to refuse the applied mark composed of a name of the earliest known designer of the smiley, “Harvey Ball”, and the Smiley Face (TM2015-74154, class 25) due to a conflict with cited senior registrations no.1 to 3, the IP High Court sustained the decision being appealed.[Case no. Heisei 29 (Gyo-ke) 10034, Court decision date: August 8, 2017]

The applicant, a Japanese legal entity authorized to manage intellectual property of The Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, argued dissimilarity of the smiley design and alleged that the design becomes less distinctive as a source indicator, but just a stylized representation of a smiling humanoid face on the grounds that similar designs have been used for many years and 7,000 marks containing the design are/were registered.
Besides, taking account of a high degree of popularity as the earliest known designer, the word element of “Harvey Ball” shall function dominantly as a source indicator in applied mark. If so, applied mark shall be dissimilar to cited registrations.

But the Court denied them entirely based on following reasons.

  • Court found the smiley design representing a smiling human face in a simple and symbolic manner is sufficiently distinctive. No adverse evidence is produced.
  • Given the word element of “Harvey Ball” depicted slightly over the Smiley Face is written in a common font design and a small font size, most impressive portion of the applied mark shall be the Smiley Face from appearance.
  • In view of visual impression, both the Smiley Face of applied mark and cited registrations can be easily seen to depict a smiling human face in a simple and symbolic manner. Accordingly, both marks are deemed similar.
  • Even if cited registrations happened to be associated with the Smiley Face created by Harvey Ball, it would not affect the decision. Likewise, the word element of “Harvey Ball” in applied mark has less influence to the decision as well.

The Court decision gives us a lesson that high popularity of the Smiley Face designer will not guarantee the position of a trademark owner to the design if it becomes a generic symbol as a result of widespread, common use in the marketplace.

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

Famous hotel brand “RITZ” successful in invalidating “RITZ MARCHE”

Invalidation trial

The Japan Trademark Law contains provision for invalidation of trademark registration by means of inter partes trial in Article 46 as a remedy to questionable ex-officio examination of the Japan Patent Office (JPO).
Statistically, approximately 100 invalidation petitions were filed to the JPO in each of the past five years. Nearly 40 percentages of them ended successfully in an invalidation of registered mark in question on average.

[Trademark invalidation trial]

Year Number of cases Disposition of trial
Invalidation Dismissal Withdrawal
2015 100 37 58 19
2014 115 38 32 15
2013 96 37 53 10
2012 118 44 76 16
2011 112 38 57 9

RITZ v. RITZMARCHE

Ritz Hotel Ltd., a world famous hotel management company, petitioned for invalidation of trademark registration no. 5594878 for a word mark “RITZMARCHE” (written in Katakana letter) covering “retail services or wholesale services for foods and beverages” in class 35 pursuant to Article 46 of the Trademark Law on the following grounds.

  1. Consumers are likely to confuse or associate the mark in dispute with Ritz Hotel due to remarkable reputation bestowed on famous hotel brand, “RITZ”.
  2. “RITZMARCHE” is deemed confusingly similar to senior trademark registrations owned by Ritz Hotel Ltd.

[Marks in dispute]

Ground 1 corresponds to on Article 4(1)(xv) of the Trademark Law to prohibit any mark likely to cause confusion with a business of another entity from being registered.

Ground 2 rests on Article 4(1)(xi) to bar registration of a junior mark which conflicts with any senior trademark registration due to similarity of both marks and goods/services.

It becomes a common practice to raise several grounds in an invalidation petition. Combination of Article 4(1)(xv) and 4(1)(xi) is a standard tactic in trademark dispute involving a famous brand. Theoretically, Article 4(1)(xv) can’t be applied unless Article 4(1)(x) is inapplicable to the case. Article 4(1)(xi) is useful to the extent the marks as well as goods/services in question are identical or similar. In the meantime, Article 4(1)(xv)   targets a wider territory where consumers are likely to confuse the source of origin between marks. In other words, Article 4(1)(xv) becomes helpful only where both marks are dissimilar, or goods/services in question are deemed dissimilar. Due to a wider protection to Article 4(1)(xv), a petitioner who claims the article is required to prove high recognition and substantial use of an opposing mark accordingly.

It is of no matter that JPO renders an invalidation decision simply based on Article 4(1)(xi) without reference to Article 4(1)(xv).

On the Ritz case, the JPO Trial Board held to invalidate registered mark “RITZMARCHE” on the grounds of Article 4(1)(xi).


Board decision

In the assessment of similarity, the Board considered a term “MARCHE” is less distinctive or inherently descriptive in connection with “retail services or wholesale services for foods and beverages” of class 35 since the term itself means “market” in French. Besides it can be seen often as a sign to indicate a place where merchants provide foods or beverages directly to consumers in Japan. Meanwhile, average consumers with an ordinary care are unlikely to perceive any descriptive meaning from the term of “RITZ”. Therefore, in the configuration of disputed mark “RITZMARCHE”, it should be allowed to extract the term “RITZ” as a prominent part of the mark.

In comparing the Katakana letter of “Ritz” with alphabetical term “RITZ” of cited marks, both have same sound. Their meaning is incomparable since both don’t give rise to specific meaning. Both terms are different in appearance, however, it becomes commercially routine to write alphabetical names in Katakana letters for purpose of representing pronunciation of the terms in fact. Based on the foregoing, the Board concluded that “RITZMARCHE” and Ritz Hotel registered marks containing a term of “RITZ” are confusingly similar as a whole, by taking into consideration of relevant factors in commerce relevant to disputed goods/services. The Board also held that “retail services or wholesale services for foods and beverages” in class 35 is considered similar to food products in class 30 designated under the citations.
[Invalidation case no. 2016-890033]

The Board didn’t refer to Article 4(1)(xv) although Ritz Hotel argued famousness of cited mark “RITZ” with enormous amount of evidential materials as mentioned reason.
If Ritz Hotel has filed the invalidation action solely based on Article 4(1)(xv), the JPO must have admitted famousness of the mark “RITZ” and invalidated “RITZMARCHE” likewise.


NEW TRADEMARK EXAMINATION GUIDELINE

In April 2017, the JPO announced new trademark examination guideline [Revision 13].
The guideline aims to reflect recent judicial decisions and non-traditional trademarks. Inter alia, Article 4(1)(xi) is hot topic due to its significance as a key provision pertinent to assessment of mark similarity. From now on, it is more likely that the JPO admits an argument of prominent part of trademark than before, even if the mark consists of other words or figurative elements.
I suppose, the RITZ case is timely ruled in line with New Guideline.

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

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.
http://usa.yamaha.com/products/musical-instruments/strings/silentviolins/
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
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