Trademark Dispute Over Cigarette Brand “SIGNATURE”

In a decision dated September 12, 2019, the Japan IP High Court affirmed the Japan Patent Office’s (JPO) determination to refuse registration for the STATE EXPRESS 555 “SIGNATURE” cigarette package design due to a conflict with senior Trademark Registration No. 4658792 for word mark “SIGNATURE”.
[Court case no. Heisei31(Gyo-ke)10020]

STATE EXPRESS 555 “SIGNATURE” cigarette package design

CTBAT International Company Limited, a joint investment of subsidiaries of China National Tobacco Corporation and British American Tobacco and incorporated in Hong Kong, filed a trademark application for device mark representing tobacco package design (see below) by designating cigarette, tobacco, electronic cigarette in class 34 on November 28, 2016 (TM application No. 2016-134074).

It the center, “No. 555 STATE EXPRESS” is written in three ines inside a circle. “SIGNATURE” is written independently on the upperside of the design.

Senior trademark “SIGNATURE”

The JPO examiner refused registration by citing a senior Trademark Registration No. 4658792 for word mark “SIGNATURE” in standard character overt the goods of cigarette in class 34 owned by PT Gudang Garam TBK, one of Indonesia’s leading cigarette manufacturers, best known for its kretek clove cigarettes, headquartered in Kediri, Indonesia, which was acquired by Philip Morris in 2005.

PT Gudang Garam TBK has used the registered mark as a cigarette brand of Gudang Garam.

CTBAT filed an appeal against the JPO examiner’s refusal and argued dissimilarity between the marks, but in vain. [Appeal case no. 2018-002007]
Subsequently, CTBAT appealed to the IP High Court and demanded cancellation of the administrative decition to refuse refisgration for plaintiff’s mark.

Qualitative use of SIGNATURE

CTBAT argued the term ‘SIGNATURE’ lacks distinctiveness in relation to cigarette because several cigarette manufacturers, e.g. Dunhill, Camel, Davidoff, W.O.Larsen, has been using it as a qualitative term to indicate the cigarette has a specific feature of symbolic brand.

Besides, plaintiff’s mark contains distinctive terms, “No. 555 STATE EXPRESS”. Given a certain degree of popularity of the cigarette brand through substantial use for more than 100 years, it is unlikely that relevnat consumers and traders would conceive the term “SIGNATURE” as an source indicator independent from “No. 555 STATE EXPRESS”.

IP High Court Ruling

The court dismissed the allegation entirely, by stating that:

  1. From overall appearance of plaintiff’s mark, the term “SIGNATURE” shall not be conceived to combine with other figurative and literal elements.
  2. From the produced evidences, it is unclear if “No. 555 STATE EXPRESS” and “555” has acquired a certain degree of popularity because the cigarette brand has never been distributed in Japan so far.
  3. It is questionable that relevant Japanese consumers fully understand the term “SIGNATURE” has a qualitative meaning in connection with cigarette.
  4. It is often seen that a sub-brand is indicated on cigarette package independent from its main brand.
  5. The court finds the cited mark is used as a source indicator on cigarette package as well.
  6. Given the term “SIGNATURE” does not inseparably combine with other elements of plaintiff’s mark, it shall be permissible to cut out the portion and assess similarity of both marks based on the portion as long as it does meet with trade practice.

Based on the foregoing, the IP High Court sided with the JPO and upheld the refusal decision.

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