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State emblems as trade marks – an almost impossible transformation

In this case the European Court of Justice (ECJ) had to decide about the registration of a State emblem (the Canadian maple leave emblem) as a Community trade mark. The underlying question was what scope of protection provided by Art. 6ter of the Paris Convention to State emblems and whether this Article also applies to service marks.

The Belgian company “American Clothing Associates” had filed an application for a Community trade mark (Nice Classes 18, 25 and 40). The sign in question was representing a maple leaf with the letters “RW” beneath it. The application was rejected based on Article 7(1) of Council Regulation (EC) No 40/94 establishing an absolute ground for refusal in regards to registration of State emblems in conjunction with Article 6ter of the Paris Convention.

American Clothing Associates filed action with the Court of First Instance but wasn’t successful. Finally, American Clothing Associates filed an appeal with the ECJ on the grounds that the Court of First Instance didn’t apply Article 7(1)(h) of Regulation No 40/94 and Article 6ter(1)(a) of the Paris Convention properly mainly due to a misinterpretation of the relevance of the essential function of State emblems.

American Clothing Associates argued that the scope of protection of Article 6ter (1)(a) of the Paris Convention is only to protect State emblems from imitations in a heraldic sense. Not the symbol itself is protected but the specific graphic work. Thus emblems without heraldic characteristics are not covered by the scope of Article 6ter (1)(a) of the Paris Convention.

The ECJ dismissed the appeal brought by American Clothing Associates. This was mainly based on the finding that the scope of protection of Article 6ter of the Paris Convention is absolute and “… does not depend on whether the emblem imitated in a trade mark is perceived by the public as a distinctive element or an ornamental element …”. The court further reasons that the essential functions of trademarks and State emblems are different in that State emblems are meant to identify a State and represent its sovereignty whereas trademarks are a means to identify the origination of goods and services. Further on the protection of State emblems does not require a likelihood of confusion. State emblems cannot be declared invalid, their protection period is not limited and they are protected without the need for registration.

The court also concludes that Article 6ter of the Paris Convention may even be applicable in cases where the mark is not an exact reproduction of a State emblem  if a trade mark is perceived by the relevant public as an imitation of a State emblem.

Finally the court ruled that the Paris Convention does not require States to distinguish between trademarks for goods and services although States are free to do so. The court outlines that based on Article 29(1) of Regulation No 40/94 it is evident that the Community legislature did not intend to discriminate between marks for goods and marks for services.

(European Court of Justice, Cases C‑202/08 P and C‑208/08 P, 16 Jul 2009)

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