Using a trademark as a decorative element is not the best option for its protection in the EU

The General Court of the European Union has ruled in the case T‑323/21 Castel Frères v Shanghai Panati Co., which reminds us how essential is one registered mark to be used correctly in order for its protection to be viable.

The case has the following background:

On 29 May 2018, Shanghai Panati Co filed an application with EUIPO for revocation of the EU trademark that had been registered further to an application filed on 17 March 2008 for the following figurative sign:

The goods covered by the contested mark, in respect of which a declaration of invalidity was sought, were inter alia in Class 33 of the Nice Agreement: ‘Still wines’.

The ground relied on in support of the application for revocation was the lack of genuine use of the contested mark within a continuous period of five years.

Evidence was submitted by Castel Frères that the mark was used for wine labels in the following way:

On 3 April 2020, the Cancellation Division rejected the application for revocation.

On 24 April 2020, Shanghai Panati Co. filed a notice of appeal with EUIPO against the decision of the Cancellation Division.

By the contested decision, the Board of Appeal upheld the appeal and revoked the contested mark. The Board of Appeal found, in essence, that the differences between the contested mark and the mark as used were such as to alter the distinctive character of the contested mark.

The Court upheld this decision.

According to the Court, it must be borne in mind that the contested mark in its registered form is a figurative mark consisting of three characters from the Chinese alphabet. As the Board of Appeal correctly notes the relevant public will not be able to verbalise or to memorise those Chinese characters, which will rather be perceived as meaningless, abstract signs or as decorative elements referring to China or to Asia. It is appropriate, therefore, to find that, with regard to the goods at issue, the Chinese characters forming the contested mark have a lower-than-average degree of distinctive character.

In that regard, it must be emphasised that on the product packaging or in the advertisements, the contested mark, which appears in a very small size, is almost systematically accompanied by the word elements ‘dragon de chine’ and by the representation of a dragon, which appear together and are very close to one another. Moreover, in so far as the contested mark is composed of three characters from the Chinese alphabet, in a very small size, the added elements are always clearly visible and dominate the overall impression.

The Board of Appeal was therefore right to find that the contested mark as used, that is to say, in an ancillary position and in a much smaller size than the distinctive and dominant word elements ‘dragon de chine’ and the representation of a dragon, would be perceived by the relevant public as a decorative element and not as an indication of origin of the goods.

That finding cannot be called into question by the argument that, in essence, it is common in the wine sector for two or more trademarks to be used jointly and autonomously on labels, with or without the name of the manufacturer’s company, as is the case here with the mark Dragon de Chine. It must be stated that the word elements ‘dragon de chine’ are always clearly visible in that they occupy a dominant position in the overall impression created by the mark as used. In any event, even if it were established that those elements are a trademark, the fact remains that that is not capable of weakening the alteration by those terms of the distinctive character of the contested mark, since the relevant public no longer perceives those three characters from the Chinese alphabet as an indication of the origin of the goods in question, in accordance with the case-law.

Having regard to the above examination of the distinctive and dominant character of the added elements, based on the intrinsic qualities of each of those elements and on the relative position of the various elements, it must be held that the variations in use demonstrated alter the distinctive character of the contested mark as registered, as the Board of Appeal rightly found.

This decision comes to remind us that one trademark should always be used as an indication of trade origin and not as a complimentary or decorative element. In a similar case, Apple lost a dispute regarding its trademark Think Differently because of the way the mark was used on the package of the product.

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