JPO refused to register 3D shape of Mitsubishi Electric’s spiral escalator

The Appeal Board of Japan Patent Office (JPO) disallowed registration of 3D shape of Mitsubishi Electric’s spiral escalator due to lack of inherent distinctiveness and secondary meaning in relation to escalators, class 7. [Appeal case no. 2017-6855]

Spiral escalator

Mitsubishi Electric Corporation first developed the spiral escalator in 1985, and has been the world’s first and sole manufacturer of spiral escalators. Spiral escalator is a special design type of escalator in the form of a spiral/helical with curved steps.
On May 3, 2016, Mitsubishi Electric filed a trademark application for 3D shape of spiral escalator (see below) by designating escalators in class 7 to the JPO [TM application no. 2016-23374].

The JPO examiner totally refused the application based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law stating that the applied mark can be easily seen as a 3D shape of escalator and the shape does solely consist of a common configuration to achieve the basic function of escalator. If so, the applied mark lacks distinctiveness as a source indicator.

To dispute the refusal, Mitsubishi Electric filed an appeal on May 12, 2017.

Appeal Board’s decision

The Appeal Board, however, upheld the examiner’s decision on the ground and dismissed Mitsubishi’s allegation by stating that relevant consumers and traders shall conceive of an escalator designed to enhance its function or sensuousness at the sight of applied mark.

Acquired distinctiveness

Mitsubishi Electric also argued that even if the applied mark is deemed descriptive in relation to escalators, it shall be registrable based on Article 3(2) due to acquired distinctiveness of the mark because Mitsubishi Electric Spiral Escalators has achieved 100 % market share in the world and continuously used the 3D shape on escalators for more than three decades.

Article 3(2) is a provision to allow registration of applied mark if, as a result of substantial use of the mark in fact, consumers are able to connect the mark with a source indicator of designated goods or services.

Under the totality of the circumstances, the Appeal Board dismissed the allegation as well.

The Board found that regardless of 100 % market share in the category of spiral escalators, Mitsubishi Electric’s domestic supply record of 24 units in the last thirty years shall be a trivial quantity in comparison with total number of escalators in operation. Besides, questionnaire result rather shows a source of the applied mark is unknown to more than 60% of the questionee.

Based on the foregoing, the Board questioned whether applied mark has acquired distinctiveness through actual use in relation to escalators and consequently refused to register the mark based on Article 3(1)(iii) and 3(2) of the Trademark Law.


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

Trademark registration for Kikkoman’s Soy sauce 3D Bottle

In October 11, 2016, Kikkoman Corporation, the world’s leading producer of soy sauce, filed an application for trademark registration at the Japan Patent Office (JPO) for the following three-dimensional colored mark for soy sauce in class 30.

Red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser

Iconic red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser was introduced in 1961 and has been in continuous production ever since. It was developed by Kenji Ekuan, a Japanese Navy sailor former naval academy student who dedicated his life to design when he left the service. Its unique shape took three years and over a hundred prototypes to perfect, but the teardrop design and dripless spout have become a staple of restaurant condiments all around the world. The bottle’s design hasn’t changed over the past 50 years.

JPO Examination/Acquired distinctiveness

The JPO examiner initially notified her refusal due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness in relation to say sauce.

In a response to the office action, Kikkoman argued acquired distinctiveness of the 3D bottle arising from uniqueness of its shape and substantial use for over five decades.

According to news release from Kikkoman, over 500 million of the bottles have been sold since the design was first introduced and distributed in approximately a hundred countries worldwide. Red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser has already been registered as 3D mark in US, EU, Ukraine, Norway, Russia, Australia.

In March 30, 2018, the JPO granted trademark registration based on Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law by finding acquired distinctiveness of the 3D color mark as a source indicator of Kikkoman.
[TM Registration No. 6031041]

It is just a 3D shape of electronic baccarat shoe, or trademark?

In a lawsuit disputing adequacy of decision by the JPO Appeal Board (Appeal case no. 2015-907) to refuse the applied 3D mark (TM2014-5943, class 28), consisting of a three-dimensional shape of electronic baccarat shoe with the program enabling to reduce the chance of foreign cards and eliminate dealer mistakes, due to lack of  distinctiveness and secondary meaning, the IP High Court sustained the decision being appealed.
[Case no. Heisei28(Gyo-ke)10266,  Decision date: September 27, 2017]

Inherent distinctiveness of the 3D shape

Plaintiff, a Japanese manufacturer and distributor of the ANGEL EYE electronic baccarat shoe, asserted that the 3D shape of ANGEL EYE, being the first products in the industry, is not an essential shape to make it free for public use since no competitors have dealt with same type of product other than plaintiff so far. Besides, a fact that the 3D shape has been registered in the legal gambling countries, e.g. US, EU, AU, RU, Malaysia and NZ, will rather bolster necessity to allow exclusive right on the shape.

However, the Court opposed to plaintiff. “It is inadequate to allow plaintiff to use the 3D shape exclusively. Applied 3D mark can be perceived objectively as a general shape of electronic baccarat shoe aimed to fulfill its original function and produce aesthetic image. If so, it may disorder a fair marketplace to allow exclusive use to plaintiff just because of a first-to-file. A mere fact of trademark registrations in countries where the ANGEL EYE has been distributed is insufficient to admit trademark registration in our nation since the goods is yet to be distributed in Japan.” Accordingly, the Court refused Applied 3D mark based on Article 3(1)(iii).

 

Secondary meaning of Applied 3D mark

Plaintiff argued Applied 3D mark has already served to function as a source indicator by means of substantial use of the mark sine 2005. Plaintiff exported 11,481 units (sale proceeds: 2.7 billion yen) over the lase decade and has achieved 90 % market share in Macau, the world’s largest casino gambling hub.

In this respect, the Court ruled in favor of the JPO. As plaintiff admits, the shoe has not been manufactured for domestic use. Any evidence suggesting a high degree of recognition to Applied 3D mark in foreign countries is neither relevant nor persuasive. Unless plaintiff demonstrates that domestic consumers have become aware of such recognition, it is groundless to find Applied 3D mark would satisfy requisite of secondary meaning based on Article 3(2) of the Japan Trademark Law.


The case raises a question: What is a role of the Trademark Law where applied mark, being registered in foreign nations,  confronts with an insuperable refusal attributable to legal restrictions on domestic use of the mark?
Unsuccessful domestic registration prevents domestic company from utilizing the Madrid Protocol and protecting his/her vital brands on the global market in an effective and economical manner.  

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

3D shape of Zippo lighters registrable when a lighter lid open, but unregistrable when closed

In an appeal to the refusal decision against trademark application no. 2014-8964 for a three dimensional shape of box-type lighter in connection with lighters of class 34 filed by ZIPPO Manufacturing Company (US), the Appeal Board of Japan Patent Office (JPO), after stating the application impermissibly contains two 3D marks, namely Shape A with a lighter lid closed and Shape B with a lighter lid open, ruled as follows.

Shape A
Shape A can be easily perceived as a shape of box-type lighter with the lid closed in connection with the goods in dispute. Besides, as a matter of fact, similar lighters are commercially produced and distributed in general. If so, relevant traders and consumers at the sight of Shape A  are likely to conceive the shape as a mere indication of the lighter.  Thus, Shape A is objectionable based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law since the shape solely consists of a shape commonly used on lighters.

Even if Shape A corresponds to the 3D shape of “ZIPPO Brushed Chrome 200” substantially produced and promoted by applicant, it is questioned whether Shape A serves to function as a source indicator since presumably traders and consumers distinguish applicant’s lighters by the “ZIPPO” letter marked at the bottom of the lighter where the lid remains closed. Accordingly, Shape A is unregistrable based on Article 3(2) as well.

Shape B
Three dimensional shapes cited for refusal during initial examination are all related to box-type lighters with a lid closed. As long as there shows no reference to lighters with a lid open in the refusal decision, it should be construed that the initial examination just questioned Shape A, not B.

Since applicant amended to delete Shape A from the application, the initial decision lacks legal ground to refusal the applied mark of Shape B based on Article 3(1)(iii) accordingly.

As a conclusion, the Board admits to register the applied 3D mark consisting of Shape B in connection with lighters.
[Appeal case no. 2016-2368]


It is worthy to note that in an attempt to register 3D shape of goods, a hidden shape is considered an independent mark from the shape perceivable from appearance of the goods.
Besides, the JPO allowed to delete one of 3D marks depicted in the application document without detrimental effect to the applicant despite that the Trademark Law prohibits amendment of mark amounting to change its gist.

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 

 

 

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