IP and IT Law Bytes: Trade marks: likelihood of confusion

31 July 2014

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has held that there was a likelihood of confusion between BIMBO DOUGHNUTS, applied for as a Community trade mark (CTM), and the earlier Spanish word mark DOGHNUTS.

Background

A trade mark will not be registered if, among other things, because of its identity with or similarity to an earlier trade mark, and the identity or similarity of the goods or services covered by the trade marks, there exists a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public in the territory in which an earlier trade mark is protected (Article 8(1)(b), CTM Regulation (207/2009/EC)) (Article 8(1)(b)).

In Medion AG v Thomson Multimedia Sales Germany & Austrial GmbH, the ECJ held that, where goods or services are identical, confusion may be likely if the offending sign consists of a company name in combination with a third party's registered mark of normal distinctiveness that has an independent and distinctive role in the sign, without necessarily constituting the dominant element (www.practicallaw.com/0-201-4769). In such cases, the public might be led to believe that the goods or services derived from companies that were, at the very least, linked economically, which would be sufficient to establish a likelihood of confusion.

Facts

B applied to register BIMBO DOUGHNUTS as a CTM for "pastry and bakery products, specifically doughnuts" in class 30. P opposed the application based on its earlier Spanish word mark DOGHNUTS, registered for "pastry products and preparations" and "round-shaped dough biscuits" in class 30, relying on Article 8(1)(b).

The Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market (OHIM) Opposition Division and the OHIM Board of Appeal upheld the opposition. The OHIM Board of Appeal concluded that, for the average non-English-speaking Spanish consumer, the word “doughnut” did not describe the goods nor their qualities, but would be perceived as a foreign or fantasy term.  On appeal, the EU General Court also upheld the opposition, concluding that there was a likelihood of confusion.  B appealed to the ECJ.   

Decision

The ECJ dismissed the appeal. The likelihood of confusion on the part of the public must be assessed globally, based on the overall impression given by the marks, taking account, in particular, of their distinctive and dominant components.  The assessment of the similarity between two marks had to be made by examining each of the marks in question as a whole, not taking just one component of a composite trade mark and comparing it with another mark.

The overall impression conveyed to the relevant public by a composite trade mark could, in certain circumstances, be dominated by one or more of its components.  However, it was only if all the other components of the mark were negligible that the assessment of the similarity could be carried out solely on the basis of the dominant element.

A composite sign that included the name of a company might retain an independent distinctive role in the composite sign, so that the public attributes the origin of the goods or services covered by the composite sign to the owner of that mark.  However, a component of a composite sign did not retain “an independent distinctive role” if, together with the other component or components, that component formed a unit having a different meaning as compared with the meaning of those components taken separately.

ECJ case law after Medion had confirmed that there was no derogation in that judgment from the general principles governing the assessment of the likelihood of confusion.

The ECJ rejected B’s argument that the General Court had automatically inferred a likelihood of confusion from the fact that the "doughnuts" element had “an independent distinctive role”, without taking into account other factors, such as the fact that BIMBO was a trade mark with a wide reputation in Spain for the relevant goods.  Its reasoning showed that it had carried out a global assessment of the likelihood of confusion and that it took into account the factors specific to the case.

B argued that the strength of a widely known trade mark, which formed the first element of a composite mark, normally served to prevent the overall impression produced by the composite mark from being perceived by the relevant public as attributing the origin of the goods to the owner of the earlier mark or to economically linked undertakings. The ECJ rejected this argument, saying that it was based on a misinterpretation of the case law.

The ECJ also rejected B’s argument that, in assessing the likelihood of confusion, the General Court did not properly take account of the fact that (in contrast to common practice in the commercial sector concerned in Medion) it would be very unusual, in the bakery sector, to enter into commercial agreements or associations for the purposes of offering goods.

Comment

The decision puts the concept of an "independent distinctive role" in composite marks in perspective, making clear that the purpose of examining whether components in a sign have such a role is to assess how they will be perceived by the relevant public, in order to determine which components contribute to the overall impression made by the sign on that public. This exercise is undertaken before the global assessment of confusion of the signs, which is based on the overall impression the signs produce, and therefore does not involve an exception to the general rule that a consumer normally perceives a mark as a whole.

A finding that Spanish consumers will be likely to confuse BIMBO DOUGHNUTS with DOGHNUTS may be surprising to English speakers. Under proposals to reform EU trade mark law, signs that are descriptive in an EU Member State will not be registrable in any member state (www.practicallaw.com/3-526-6192). Under the new rules, therefore, a descriptive term such as MATRATZEN (German for mattress) would not be registrable in Spain (or any other member state) for mattresses.     

Case: Bimbo SA v OHIM C-591/12 P.

First published in the July 2014 issue of PLC Magazine and reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers.  Subscription enquiries 020 7202 1200.

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