The General Court of the European Union has ruled in the case Case T‑443/21 YAplus DBA Yoga Alliance v Swami Vidyanand.
This dispute focuses our attention on the issue of trademarks with a weak distinctive character and how this reflects on the scope of their protection.
In 2018, Mr. Swami Vidyanand filed the following international trademark where the EU was designated party, for class 41 – Education; providing of training; entertainment; sporting and cultural activities:
Against this application, an opposition was filed by YAplus DBA Yoga Alliance on the grounds of the following earlier mark in classes 35, 41, 42:
On 2 April 2020, the Opposition Division upheld the opposition. It found, in essence, first, that the services at issue were identical or similar and that they were aimed both at the general public and at professionals with an average level of attention, second, that the comparison of the signs had to be made from the point of view of non-English-speaking Czech-, Greek-, Croatian-, Hungarian- and Polish-speaking consumers in the European Union and that the signs were visually similar to an average degree, highly similar phonetically and conceptually similar to a low degree. Third, it found that the distinctive character of the earlier mark was normal despite the presence within it of certain elements, at most weakly distinctive, such as their decorative elements or the common word element ‘yoga’. Lastly, it found that there was a likelihood of confusion on the basis of Article 8(1)(b) of Regulation 2017/1001.
An appeal followed where the Board of Appeal annulled the Opposition Division finding no likelihood of confusion between both signs.
The General Court upheld this finding. According to the Court:
It follows that excessive protection of marks consisting of elements which, as in the present case, have very weak distinctive character, if any, in relation to the services at issue could adversely affect the attainment of the objectives pursued by trademark law, if, in the context of the assessment of the likelihood of confusion, the mere presence of such elements in the signs at issue led to a finding of a likelihood of confusion without taking into account the remainder of the specific factors in the present case.
It should be remembered that the visual, phonetic, or conceptual aspects of the signs at issue do not always have the same weight and it is appropriate, in that global assessment, to take into account the nature of the services at issue and to examine the objective conditions under which the marks may appear on the market.
Thus, in accordance with the case-law, in the present case, it must be held that, in view of the fact that the phonetic and conceptual similarities are based exclusively on word elements which are devoid of distinctive character, the clear visual differences between them have a greater impact in the global assessment of the likelihood of confusion.
In that regard, it should be borne in mind that, where the earlier trademark and the sign whose registration is sought coincide in an element that is weakly distinctive with regard to the goods at issue, the global assessment of the likelihood of confusion within the meaning of Article 8(1)(b) of Regulation 2017/1001 does not often lead to a finding that such likelihood exists.
In those circumstances, it must be held that, in the context of a global assessment of the likelihood of confusion, having regard to the weak distinctive character of the common elements ‘yoga alliance’, the presence of figurative elements which are visually very different will enable the average consumer to make a clear distinction between the marks at issue, even for the part of the relevant public with an average level of attention, despite the identical or similar character of the services at issue. That is all the more true for the part of the relevant public with an above-average level of attention. Accordingly, it follows that the Board of Appeal’s error in relation to the level of attention of the relevant public in respect of the ‘educational’ services found in paragraph 50 above cannot have a decisive effect on the outcome of the global assessment of the likelihood of confusion.
This case reminds us what a trap can be if someone uses a weak distinctive element as a trademark. Although such an element can be registered in combination with graphics or other words, by its nature it is weak which means that monopolization of this element is not possible. This in turn means that competitors can use it too for their brands, and all of this means potential marketing and recognisability issues for the trademark owner.