Is there bad faith in the case of new registration of former trademarks?

Is it possible for an old former trademark that is not protected anymore to be registered by a new owner and whether this can be a bad faith practice? This is the question to which the General Court of the European Union has answered recently in the case T‑250/21 Ladislav Zdút v EUIPO: The case has the following background:

On 6 May 2013,  Ladislav Zdút filed an application for registration of an EU trademark with EUIPO for the following sign:

The goods for which registration was sought were:

–  Class 18: ‘Leather and imitations of leather, and goods made of these materials and not included in other classes; Animal skins, hides; Trunks and travelling bags; Umbrellas and parasols; Walking sticks’;

–  Class 24: ‘Bed covers; Table covers’;

–  Class 25: ‘Clothing, footwear, headgear’.

The mark was registered on 31 October 2014 under number 11794112.

On 17 June 2019, the interveners, Ms Isabel Nehera, Mr Jean-Henri Nehera and Ms Natacha Sehnal, filed an application for a declaration of invalidity against that mark (‘the contested mark’), in accordance with the provisions of Article 59(1)(b) of Regulation 2017/1001, in respect of all the goods covered by that mark. They claimed that the applicant was acting in bad faith when he filed the application for registration of the contested mark. They stated, inter alia, that in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, their grandfather, Mr Jan Nehera, had established a business marketing clothing and accessories and had filed and used a national mark identical to the contested mark (‘the former Czechoslovak trademark’).

By decision of 22 April 2020, the Cancellation Division of EUIPO dismissed the application for a declaration of invalidity, on the ground that the applicant’s bad faith when he filed the contested mark had not been established.

On 15 June 2020, the applicants filed a notice of appeal with EUIPO, pursuant to Articles 66 to 71 of Regulation 2017/1001, against the decision of the Cancellation Division.

By the contested decision, the Second Board of Appeal of EUIPO upheld the interveners’ appeal, annulled the decision of the Cancellation Division, and declared the contested mark invalid.

In essence, the Board of Appeal found that the former Czechoslovak trademark was a well-known mark and had been put to genuine use in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. It held that the applicant was aware of the existence and celebrity both of Mr Jan Nehera and of the former Czechoslovak trademark, which retained a certain surviving reputation. The Board of Appeal also stated that the applicant had attempted to create an association between himself and that former Czechoslovak trademark. In those circumstances, the Board of Appeal considered that the applicant’s intention was to take unfair advantage of the reputation of Mr Jan Nehera and of the former Czechoslovak trademark. It found that the applicant was acting in bad faith when he filed the application for registration of the contested mark.

The decision was appealed.

According to the Court, the fact that one mark was been protected in the past, being reputable amongst consumers, does not mean automatically that every new application for the same mark will be deemed as made in bad faith. It is necessary for the reputation of the old mark still to exist and the bad faith actions to be proved.

According to the Court:

However, it should be borne in mind that, according to the case-law, the existence on the part of the relevant public of a link between a later trademark and a former sign or name cannot be sufficient, on its own, to support a finding that unfair advantage was taken of the reputation of the sign or of the former name.

In addition, it should be noted that the concept of unfair advantage being taken of the reputation of a sign or a name covers a situation in which a third party rides on the coat-tails of a formerly renowned sign or name in order to benefit from its power of attraction, its reputation and its prestige and, without any financial compensation and without having to make any efforts of its own in that regard, to exploit the commercial effort expended by the proprietor or user of that sign or of that name in order to create and maintain the image of that sign or of that name.

However, in the present case, the applicant claims, unchallenged either by EUIPO or by the interveners, that in 2013, the former Czechoslovak trademark and the name of Mr Jan Nehera were completely forgotten by the relevant public, and that he himself devoted considerable effort, time and money to revive the Nehera mark and to make known the history of Mr Jan Nehera and of his business. It follows that, far from merely having exploited in a parasitic way the past reputation of the former Czechoslovak trademark and the name of Mr Jan Nehera, the applicant made his own commercial efforts in order to revive the image of the former Czechoslovak trademark and thus, at his own expense, to restore that reputation. In those circumstances, the mere fact of having referred, for the purposes of promoting the contested mark, to the historic image of Mr Jan Nehera and of the former Czechoslovak trademark does not appear to be contrary to honest practices in industrial or commercial matters.

Secondly, and in any event, the former Czechoslovak trademark and Mr Jan Nehera’s name no longer benefited from any legal protection in favour of a third party at the date on which the application for registration of the contested mark was filed (see paragraphs 42 and 43 above). It follows that Mr Jan Nehera’s descendants and heirs did not hold any right that might be susceptible to fraud or to being usurped by the applicant. Therefore it does not appear that, in applying for registration of the contested mark, the applicant intended to defraud the descendants and heirs of Mr Jan Nehera or to usurp their alleged rights.

In the fifth and last place, EUIPO claims, as the Board of Appeal stated in paragraph 36 of the contested decision, that the concept of bad faith does not necessarily imply any degree of moral turpitude.

In that regard, it is sufficient to note that, according to the case-law cited in paragraph 23 above, the concept of bad faith presupposes the presence of a dishonest state of mind or intention. In the present case, EUIPO and the interveners have not established that the applicant was driven by a dishonest state of mind or intention when he filed the application for registration of the contested mark.

It follows from all of the foregoing that the Board of Appeal erred in finding that the applicant intended to take unfair advantage of the reputation of Mr Jan Nehera and of the former Czechoslovak trademark and in finding that he was acting in bad faith when filing the application for registration of the contested mark.

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