The Advocate General of the European Court G. HOGAN has issued his opinion in case C‑432/18 Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena v BALEMA GmbH. The case concerns the following:
BALEMA GmbH produces vinegar-based products and markets them in the Baden region (Germany). For at least 25 years, it has been selling products under the designations ‘Balsamico’ and ‘Deutscher Balsamico’. The labels on its products bear the legend ‘Theo der Essigbrauer, Holzfassreifung, Deutscher Balsamico traditionell, naturtrüb aus badischen Weinen’ [Theo the vinegar brewer, matured in wooden barrels, German balsamic vinegar, traditional, naturally cloudy, made from Baden wine] or ‘1. Deutsches Essig-Brauhaus, Premium, 1868, Balsamico, Rezeptur No 3’ [first German vinegar brewery, premium, 1868, balsamic, recipe No 3].
It is agreed that BALEMA’s products designated as ‘Balsamico’ are not covered by the registration ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena (PGI)’ pursuant to Article 1 of and Annex I to Regulation No 583/2009 because they do not fulfill the product specifications contained in Annex II of that regulation.
Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena (‘the Consorzio’) is a consortium of producers of the products designated by the name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’. It considers that BALEMA’s use of the designation ‘Balsamico’ infringes the protected geographical indication ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’. The Consorzio thus served a warning notice on BALEMA. BALEMA, in turn, brought an action in the German courts against the Consorzio seeking a negative declaration to the effect that there had been no trade mark infringement. That action was unsuccessful.
In the appeal on the merits, BALEMA sought a declaration that it is not obliged to refrain from using the designation ‘Balsamico’ for vinegar-based products produced in Germany. The appeal on the merits was upheld as the court considered that the use of the name ‘Balsamico’ in respect of vinegar did not infringe Article 13(1)(b) of Regulation No 1151/2012. According to that court, the protection for the name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ granted by Regulation No 583/2009 was conferred only on the entire name and not on the non-geographical components of the term as a whole, even if used jointly.
The case was appealed to the referring court.
The referring court considers that the appeal on a point of law will succeed if the names ‘Balsamico’ and ‘Deutscher Balsamico’ used by BALEMA infringe Article 13(1)(a) or (b) of Regulation No 1151/2012. According to that court such a finding would require that the protection of the entire name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ granted by Article 1 of Regulation No 583/2009 also covers the use of the individual non-geographical components of the term as a whole (‘Aceto’, ‘Balsamico’, ‘Aceto Balsamico’).
The Federal Court of Justice notes that it is clear from the second subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Regulation No 1151/2012 and the case-law of the Court that, pursuant to Article 13(1)(a) or (b) of that regulation, a protected geographical indication that consists of several terms can be protected against not only the use of the entire indication, but also against the use of individual terms of that indication. The second subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Regulation No 1151/2012 governs the specific case in which a protected geographical indication contains within it the name of a product which is considered to be generic. That provision stipulates that the use of that generic name is not to be considered to be contrary to Article 13(1)(a) or (b) of that regulation. The Federal Court of Justice also refers to the fact that the Commission regulation registering the name may restrict the scope of the protection of a protected geographical indication that consists of several terms so that it does not cover the use of individual terms of that indication. In that regard, the fact that an applicant may state that it does not seek protection for all elements of a name shows that the protection granted by its registration can be restricted.
The Federal Court of Justice considers that recitals 3, 5 and 10 of Regulation No 583/2009 militate in favor of a restriction of the scope of protection to the name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ as a whole, to the exclusion of individual non-geographical components. It also considers that, contrary to the view taken in the appeal on a point of law, the assumption that protection is granted to the name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ as a whole did not give rise to an inconsistency with the registration of the protected designations of origin ‘Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena’ and ‘Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia’. Contrary to Regulation No 583/2009, the references to a restricted scope of protection in Regulation No 813/2000, which may be attributable to the fact that there was no opposition by Member States pursuant to Article 7 of Council Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92 (now Articles 51 and 52 of Regulation No 1151/2012) in the preceding registration procedure, does not preclude a restriction of the protective effect of the name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ as a whole.
In those circumstances, the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice) decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following question to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:
‘Does the protection of the entire name “Aceto Balsamico di Modena” extend to the use of the individual non-geographical components of the term as a whole (“Aceto”, “Balsamico”, “Aceto Balsamico”)?’
The Advocate’s position is:
The protection of the entire name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ under Commission Regulation (EC) No 583/2009 of 3 July 2009 does not extend to the use of the individual common words or non-geographical components, namely, ‘Aceto’, ‘Balsamico’ and ‘Aceto Balsamico’.